Travel sector is turning to AI: Interview 

Travel sector is turning to AI: Interview 

Noreen Henry is CEO of artificial intelligence driven travel agent WayBlazer. Prior to this she was the Senior Vice President at Travelocity. Speaking with Digital Journal, Noreen Henry provides an insider perspective on how artificial intelligence is driving the future of the travel experience.

Digital Journal: What’s the state of the global travel industry today?Noreen Henry: Today the global travel industry is ripe for disruption across business functions. One of the most prominent changes we’re seeing is the evolution of the customer experience. Whereas before the travel search and discovery experience was impersonal and cumbersome, we’re seeing technology used in a way that makes this experience much more convenient and relevant for the modern travel consumer.

But the way travel consumers interact with brands is also becoming more fragmented. With the proliferation of mobile, social networks, digital assistants, voice search and more, consumers have a variety of channels available for researching packages and booking trips, and travel brands must be vigilant about aligning these channels to deliver the no-hassle, streamlined experiences consumers have come to expect.

DJ: To what extent has the travel sector undergone digital transformation?

Henry: We’ve seen a lot travel brands embrace digital transformation, especially in the face of competition from online travel aggregators.

Sites like Travelocity and Priceline were some of the earliest adopters in innovating the customer experience, but today we’re seeing technology integrated across the entire customer journey. For example, there are now smartphone apps to research vacation deals and check reviews, wearable devices for managing payments and room keys, Bluetooth beacons that guide travelers through airports and virtual reality that enables users to ‘tour’ locations without leaving their home.

While there are plenty of technologies slated to disrupt the travel industry in exciting ways, what it all boils down to is making the traveler journey as seamless and interactive as possible.

DJ: What about artificial intelligence specifically?

Henry: Travel brands are beginning to use AI technologies like machine learning and natural language processing throughout the entire customer journey, particularly to enhance the customer experience. By leveraging AI-powered analytics and natural language processing, travel brands can mine their customer data to identify customer intent and predict behavior. This allows brands to hyper-personalize the travel experience for their customers.

Additionally, virtual assistants are increasingly being integrated into mobile devices and messaging apps, providing consumers an on-demand, on-the-go experience. AMEX’s recent acquisition of Mezi illustrates this trend.

AI is no longer a novelty, and its use in travel is becoming more mainstream. It’s a win-win situation really. Consumers are benefitting by having more personalized and convenient shopping experiences, and brands are benefitting through the ability to act on data in real time to engage with consumers on a deeper level and drive conversions.

DJ: How has the recent news that Google is now predicting flight delays affected the travel industry?

Henry: The Google Flights update is another example of how AI is driving the future of the travel industry.

These advancements mean more contextual and appropriate recommendations and an unprecedented level of insight for travelers, from the weather to flight delays to waiting times at the restaurant next to their hotel. And everything from check-in to renting a car will be automated, meaning travelers will barely need to lift a finger. That means they can spend more time enjoying those vacations.

As AI is integrated more into the travel experience and shows value to consumers, consumers will come to expect a more authentic and relevant travel search experiences that require less planning and research on their part.

DJ: Are all customers receptive to artificial intelligence?

Henry: With any new technology comes hesitations and misconceptions. Consumers will always set the threshold for what’s acceptable, and brands must take care to toe the line between personalizing experiences to consumers that are helpful without being overly invasive.

Travel brands can bridge this gap by making sure their use of AI delivers real value to the consumer and by including human interaction where needed — whether for a more personal booking experience or for checking into their hotel. If consumers understand the value in these technologies, through 24-hour customer service or reduced wait times, they’ll become more comfortable interacting with them.

Transparency is key; consumers don’t want to feel deceived. For example, if a brand is using a chatbot to interact with consumers, it’s important to make it clear which interactions are human-to-human and which are machine-to-human. This helps establish a baseline trust between consumer and brand.

DJ: How do you use artificial intelligence at WayBlazer?

Henry: WayBlazer enables travel brand to provide much more relevant and personalized recommendations to their customers through emerging chat and voice channels. We use natural language understanding as well as machine learning to make the travel search experience streamlined and personalized.

Whether it’s hotel brands, travel agencies, vacation packages or even vacation rentals, we help companies build solutions for their messaging apps, voice platforms, and even their website to drive a modern and engaging shopping experience.

To that end, we provide our partners with an intelligent recommendation engine and travel-centric chat bot. Users can seamlessly search and chat with our recommendation engine, which understanding user intent and context. Our recommendation engine is powered by a cognitive graph that analyzes data and refines itself to then make recommendations based on the user’s needs.

DJ: Where do you think artificial intelligence will develop next?

Henry: As these technologies become more sophisticated, we’re seeing the potential for applications across a range of channels — including ads and emerging voice interfaces like Alexa.

AI can help connect disparate channels and data to drive a more personalized, integrated search and discovery journey for today’s traveler across-channels.

What this looks like in practice is that brands will be able to gauge a shopper’s behavior and intent through each channel whether that be advertising, messaging, websites, email, in-app, etc. and act on this data to deliver highly personalized experiences. Each engagement on each touchpoint will be aggregated in one stream and target consumers with the right message and offers at the exact right time. This is the future of the travel journey.

DJ: What future services do you plan to offer through WayBlazer?

Henry: We are currently partnering with travel brands and drawing on our recommendation engine and AI-powered chatbots to engage customers in a way that has not previously been possible. Our goal is to create great recommendations for customers at every stage of the travel journey, and we’re focusing on the discovery and search stages now.