AI VERSUS THE HUMAN TOUCH
The travel industry has long relied on human touch, and human interaction has always been at the heart of travel. But as artificial intelligence (AI) infiltrates the travel space, some experts predict that real travel agents, concierges and even bartenders may become obsolete. Nearly 85 per cent of travel and hospitality professionals are using AI within their businesses, according to a recent survey by India-based Tata Consultancy Services. So far, the use is largely limited to their information-technology departments, with 46 per cent of companies saying they use it for functions such as processing bookings and credit-card transactions. But within four years, 60 per cent of companies surveyed said that AI would expand to their marketing efforts – persuading you to book their products.
Nearly 85 per cent of travel and hospitality professionals are using AI within their businesses
According to analyst firm Gartner, the use of chatbots – computer programmes designed to emulate human conversation and chat with people online – will triple through 2019 as enterprises seek to increase customer satisfaction and reduce operating costs. Skyscanner uses a bot to help consumers find flights in Facebook Messenger; users can also use it to request travel recommendations and random suggestions. Aeromexico’s new AI-based customer-service bot, billed as a “smart brain”, launched earlier this year on Facebook and learns as it goes by scanning and analysing previous customer service transcripts. Its developers said Aerobot can answer simple questions, such as “What is your pet fee?” and “I have to change a flight”, but is still learning more complicated requests.
Leah Smith, President and CEO of Denver, Colorado-based Tafari Travel believes AI is a threat to the physical act of booking hotels, flights, cars and other travel services. However, she cautions, bookings aren’t straightforward in the luxury space. “Typically, agents have numerous requests to fulfill”, she says. “The client needs a connecting room; a specific dietary requirement; hypoallergenic bedding. While AI technology can likely learn how to fulfill these requests, many times it is up to the advisor to determine the specific requests that the clients often forget or are not even aware of. It takes years of working with individual clients to learn their needs and typically our best clients are not just clients – we know them personally, or at least beyond just a client/advisor working relationship. In every interaction we are picking up on cues as to what this client needs.”
Smith also emphasises that it takes a lot of charm and relationship building to obtain VIP perks for clients. “When our favourite clients travel, we always request upgrades or special surprises in the room”, she says. “In almost all cases, we are granted these perks entirely due to our relationships with suppliers. I can’t imagine a robot being able to pull that off.” Jaclyn India of Sienna Charles is among the country’s most elite travel advisors; she says AI just isn’t a fit for her clientele. “As travel becomes automated, agents are more important than ever to the luxury market”, she says. “My clients are very busy. They don’t have time for bots. They want someone they can trust and rely on.”
By implementing AI concierges, hotels are eliminating that human touch that often makes guests feel welcome and keeps them coming back
Leah Smith – President and CEO of Tafari Travel
Last year, Hilton teamed up with IBM’s Watson to create Connie, a robot that provides help and information to hotel guests during their stay. Smith says the benefit of having an AI concierge is 24/7 availability – “I cannot tell you how many times I have tried to speak to the concierge and they are not available”, she says. “They are some of the busiest hotel staff, so they are hard to get a hold of for last minute requests such as, ‘Where should I go to dinner tonight?’ ” The drawback, Smith cautions, is that the concierge is a frequent touchpoint between hotel staff and guest. “The concierge provides an opportunity to build guest loyalty”, she says. “By implementing AI concierges, hotels are eliminating that human touch that often makes guests feel welcome and keeps them coming back.”
In Japan, where tourist numbers are surging and labour is in short supply, Henn na Hotel is using robots as front-desk staff, porters and cleaners. Guests are greeted in Japanese, Chinese, Korean or English by androids at the front desk, based on their passports, before checking in and being given room key cards at nearby kiosks. Royal Caribbean Cruises has also incorporated chatbots and even has concepts for its Quantum of the Seas ship, including robotic bartenders and virtual balconies.
Robotic bartenders may seem like something out of the Jetsons, but Smith believes there is an audience for this technology. “The queues for the bar on these larger ships can get quite long; therefore, I think guests will always appreciate ways to speed up this process so they can get back to their vacation”, she says. “The luxury cruise lines, however, cater to a much older demographic who probably require the human touch more than any other market; thus, I don’t see a market for this on the luxury lines. We have luxury clients who return to specific cruise ships for the sole purpose of catching up with the staff they met on previous cruises; the staff is also a reason guests choose one cruise line over another.”
Smith worries that as automation replaces human touch in the service sector, great, friendly service will be replaced by quick, efficient, heartless service. “I think life will get depressing if so much of our time is spent having soulless interactions with robots”, she says.
While AI can collect data about likes and dislikes, and algorithms can make helpful recommendations based on those data points, travel is still fundamentally about human experience and connection with the world. “Word of mouth from someone you trust is still the number one resource people utilise when travel-planning”, says Smith.
Marcela Sapone, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alfred, a tech and hospitality platform that combines real people with automation to manage people’s homes, agrees. “Travel is about seeking out recommendations from the people who know us best – who know we love to discover amazing, authentic places to eat; or that we can’t fully relax without a morning yoga class”, she says. “It’s that empathy and nuance that you can’t build into an algorithm.”
Sapone says she has yet to have an AI experience at a hotel or in the booking process that rivaled, if not surpassed, a human experience. That said, she does believe AI can work to make our lives easier. Hello Alfred is currently focused on the home, but Sapone says the platform could translate to a hotel concierge to provide a personalised, “at-home” experience for travellers. “We could make sure the minibar is stocked with snacks for your gluten-free diet, or put your favourite toiletries in the bathroom. We could make sure the bed is made with the same hypoallergenic sheets you use at home, or put an anniversary bottle of Prosecco on ice courtesy of one of our brand partners. Our platform and data could essentially power hotel hospitality the way it does for residential buildings”, she says.
AI was never meant to replace the human touch, insists Sapone. “AI should be seen as an enhancement that makes travel more accessible”, she says. “I think we conflate high-tech with luxury, but people and empathetic service are the true luxuries.”
[This article was published in Beyond: Human, LE Miami’s print magazine, in June 2018.]
Jen Murphy is a Colorado-based writer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Outside, Men’s Journal and Departures.