Bots on board: How tech and data science travel with and ahead of us

Travel disruptions. In the past months, we’ve all unfortunately experienced them in one way or another. This includes the customer service representatives that have received an enormous number of messages from travelers impacted by flight delays or hotel cancellations.

However, chatbot technology has evolved over the years to handle these types of traveler queries. Has it advanced enough to replace human agents all together?

For travel managers, how important is technology for them to make the right decisions about travel policies and trip planning in the first place? Let’s explore.


The travel manager’s trust in tech

One thing we can all agree on: when it matters most, it’s crucial that business travel planning works. However, here the travel managers’ trust needs a boost.

For many, the key to greater confidence is having access to better knowledge at every step of the journey, especially if plans change unexpectedly.

Has business travel recovery helped to gain these insights already?

Not really. Businesses are still cautious of picking up from where they left off just a few years ago. In fact, according to SAP, most finance managers (84%) say their company is less than entirely prepared to handle an increase in business travel. Furthermore, on the resource side, many travel teams are now much smaller than prior to the pandemic.[1]

Luckily, technology is coming to the rescue for travel arrangers, managers, and travelers.


The revolution in data-driven business travel

It’s the rise of data science, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), that’s leading to a revolution in data-driven, digitalized business travel and travel policy configuration.

Travel managers can use AI to create travel policy recommendations based on a combination of their business size, needs and projected annual spend. They can also use it to see what similar companies are doing, without having to carefully research it, or design entire policies from scratch. This approach can save huge amounts of time and resources, particularly for small teams.

When it comes to intelligent business travel planning, algorithms play a crucial role in the process. Advanced AI helps to build more frictionless travel experiences from beginning to end while enabling travel managers to make smart business decisions, for example by considering ‘what if’ scenarios as well as dynamic pricing applied by the travel service providers.

That said, algorithms can only ever be as reliable as the data behind them.

Back to the initial question about trust: to what extent do, and even should, travel managers trust algorithms to provide them with consistent information that they can confidently use to make smart business decisions?

Ultimately, it’s down to the ‘chicken and the egg’ situation: tech companies need to build confidence in these algorithms and the AI-fueled tech they power to encourage travel managers to fully adopt them over time.

Travel management platform providers already act on this and invest in solutions that maximize vast global datasets on everything from price fluctuations and demand to local weather events and traveler behavior across all segments of the industry.


Chatbots joining the human conversation

With the travel planning taken care of and with us travelers on our way, technology is traveling with us and empowering us to make better decisions and take elements of our journey into our own hands. Whether it’s via more personalized schedule information, more accurate hotel recommendations, access to 24/7 AI-powered support, or real-time travel updates sent directly to our phones.

Speaking of AI support, it’s very likely that on our route we will meet with virtual agents or chatbots.

Chatbots are very good at sending out flight updates and answering certain routine questions, such as around COVID-19 requirements, industry leaders say.[2] Furthermore, they can handle multiple conversations at the same time and prioritize requests based on our travel history as they know which flight we should be on. And that’s not all. By asking questions, they can gather even more data from us and transfer us to the right human agent.

At the end of the day, virtual agents are useful and vastly reduce the number of messages that human agents get. Another advantage of bots worth mentioning: They don’t sleep. The chatbot still has room for improvement in responding to travel disruptions though, and there are certain things a human agent just does better. In the following examples it becomes clear how virtual and human agents complement each other.


How virtual support works in reality

With a new virtual assistant handling a travel disruption in its mobile app, American Express Global Business Travel (Amex GBT) shows how this works in practice. The travel management company (TMC) launched it in late June for travelers in need of immediate information on how to proceed at a travel disruption when every second matters.

The bot boosts efficiency and with that reduces wait times for travelers. When a traveler indicates in the app to be having a ‘really stressful time’, the bot saves the traveler’s answers to questions and forwards the information to the human agent. For example, if we say ‘I need to change my flight’ or ‘My flight was canceled‘, we will be connected to a human travel counselor.

But the virtual assistant can gather context on that request before it ever reaches the human agent. The AI can save the travel agent time by asking questions such as, ‘Are you still trying to go to your destination? Are you still trying to get there today?’ This is to help the travel agency to move through more requests quicker and to keep them out of scenarios where long wait times occur.

Amex GBT reviews how bots answer questions and makes changes to its machine learning algorithm to improve its responses the next time. One area that the bot stands to improve is with ‘multi-intent questions’ – it may not know if to focus first on the hotel or the flight. The TMC can capture real conversations that are happening with the bot and make sure that the bot is learning and adjusting over time.

Another TMC, CWT, uses an ‘intentional blend’ of automated and human agents.

CWT bots communicate with passengers in two ways: one, by proactively sending out messages with flight updates and asking if the passenger needs to reschedule in the event of a delay; and two, by responding through the messaging channel.

In the event that we need to rebook a flight, we write this in the messaging channel and – as typical for this kind of query – the virtual agent brings us into contact with one of CWT’s human representatives.


Tech help in hospitality

With any disruption solved on our journey, we now have made it to our hotel – and so have the tech solutions. In fact, it’s likely we will also meet a virtual agent ready to assist us in the hotel of our choice.

Because in the area of hospitality technology, it’s hotel chatbot HiJiffy that launched the guest communications operating system Aplysia in late June, responding to the needs of 70% to 80% of the hotels that are independent and need a plug-and-play solution, not having the resources to teach a chatbot.

It can catch the sentiment behind a customer’s message to prioritize the request of someone who’s having a negative experience. However, the plan is not to automate 100% of communications. There is still the option to be transferred to a human agent and approximately 10 to 15% of customer queries may be transferred as such.

After all, at independently owned hotels, staff are not always available to respond to incoming chat messages in the middle of the night. Still, some hotels are opting for ‘continuous sound notification’, which is like a phone ringing at the hotel front desk and only stops when a staff member replies to the message.

HiJiffy is working on expanding its communication channels to include chat on a hotel’s website, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, and SMS. So far, the virtual agents are communicating in written text as it’s currently much easier to automate text than voice. But HiJiffy is not sitting still: By the end of the year, its lab plans to have built an all-in-one communication hub that includes voice automation as well.


Tour Operators teaching tech

Another bot that’s learning and evolving is TOMIS (Tour Operator Marketing Intelligence Software), a chat application for tour operators.

Certain triggers prompt TOMIS to transfer us travelers to a person, for instance, if we are going to miss an activity or event because of a flight delay. The bot can’t cancel the trip, but it can get us to a human quickly. It gives the customer multiple options for communicating with a person: text, chat, call or e-mail.

The next step is getting the bot to understand the intent of a customer’s inquiry through natural language processing. For example, when asking three different questions in a row, the bot asks which question to prioritize. The bot can be trained to do the first one, but it may not answer the second and third.

TOMIS’ quality assurance team, the tour operator and Google (whose platform they use) can all provide feedback to the AI to help it improve, for instance by clicking on a button in case the bot did not answer a specific question and then programming the answer for next time.


Technology with the human example

We can conclude that technology is becoming indispensable to offer 24/7 help on travel policies, travel planning as well as on-trip experiences.

AI and virtual agents as well as strong data are needed to help travel managers and travelers compensate human resource scarcity and reduce travel disruption impacts. After all, when the working hours of human agents have ended for the day, the disrupted travel time may have only just started and could perhaps be happening in a different time-zone too.

With some query types being more complex and only possible for human agents to handle, AI, ML and virtual agents can surely lift the human agents’ workload and with that, help us travelers and travel managers out with a first – very crucial – sense of certainty in uncertain situations.

The integration of technology in the travel planning process and trip itself is likely to happen gradually. In that process, technology and virtual agents – supported by human agents still around to teach how to do better next time – can let frictionless travel experience prevail over the disruption experience.

Hand in hand and with strong data to allow smart decisions, they can jointly guide us the way through and away from the toughest travel moments.

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Banner photo by Tara Winstead on  

[1]Should corporate travel managers trust algorithms? | PhocusWire

[2]Can a chatbot alone manage travel disruptions? | PhocusWire

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