Tools such as Savi and Sam are using artificial intelligence (AI) to make corporate travel smoother than ever. But, it is the combination of people and technology that're really making the difference.
By Simon Webster
Chatbots – computer programs that converse with customers online – are everywhere. They commonly help people shop, or answer questions about the weather, and have also been extending into potentially trickier areas, such as dealing with super fund inquiries and even triaging health issues.
Having seen the benefits for both customer and company, the travel industry is enthusiastically embracing chatbot technology and is finding these virtual assistants to be particularly useful for managing business travel.
“Travellers who want to find their gate, understand their itinerary or get more information about their trip really see the benefits, because it’s a synchronous conversation, an easy process, and they get simple questions,” says Mikhail Dudarenok, FCM’s chief customer officer, technology.
At the same time, travel managers need to field fewer calls and emails and are freed from performing lots of simple but time-consuming tasks. Everyone’s a winner.
However, travel managers shouldn’t start making any plans for retirement just yet. While chatbots are getting more sophisticated – and are even learning to recognise human emotions and respond with empathy – they still all have one thing in common: they aren’t smart or creative enough to replace people.
Launched by FCM recently, Savi is the latest in AI-powered online booking technology. The product is a unique online booking product that features intelligent functionality such as persona-driven user modules and richer travel content.
The more a travel booker or a traveller uses Savi the better the product gets to know the behavioural patterns of each user. Savi’s AI-powered memory will prompt appropriate flight, hotel or ground transport options for the user in easy to understand language. This helps to dramatically reduce the time it takes to select travel options and make the booking.
Sam (Smart Assistant for Mobile) is the latest, cutting-edge embodiment of AI for mobile apps. Incorporating an AI-powered chatbot that is backed up by support from humans when issues get complex, it’s a pocket travel assistant offered by FCM, which gives business travellers access to all their itineraries in a single location, and notifies them about everything from weather forecasts to the carousel their bags are on.
Sam links with transport services such as Uber, tells you if there’s a traffic jam, which means you need to leave your meeting early, shares your location with family and colleagues, integrates with the likes of Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and allows you to enter expenses on the go, as well as incorporate any leisure components of your trip.
“It’s a one-stop shop,” Dudarenok says. “Sam is aimed at all corporate travellers. People who travel only once a year will get benefit from it because they may not know where else to get all of this information. People who travel a lot will find it gets better the more it gets to know you, as you would expect from any AI.”
Programs that learn from your previous behaviour and make appropriate suggestions can be found everywhere from Netflix to eBay. You provide data, and the software becomes better at servicing your needs.
It’s a proposition that is especially powerful for high-frequency business travellers, Dudarenok says.
“People are more willing to provide data if it improves the service they get. It’s an organic trade-off that’s becoming more profound in travel, and particularly corporate travel.
“In retail travel, if you went to Thailand, the likelihood of you going back to Thailand becomes smaller. In corporate travel, the likelihood of you going back to Thailand increases every time you go. The more predictable people are, the better AI will perform. And corporate travel is very predictable, particularly for high-frequency travellers.”
This is all incredibly useful when the issue is something like recommending a hotel near a train station because that’s the type of hotel the traveller has chosen in the past. But when it comes to trickier issues such as organising complex itineraries, machines still need to call for reinforcements.
“It’s fundamental that there’s a person behind the tech,” Dudarenok says. “An important part of the service design is knowing when to pass a particular problem to a human.
“As soon as a problem arises that the chatbot hasn’t been seen before, something that requires a creative solution, you need people to help. The human touch provides an all-encompassing experience, which is still a critical component for the travel industry.”