Computers are becoming an ever-important part of our daily lives. I can’t imagine going somewhere without my iPhone nowadays and I imagine our kids will be even more attached than we are to such devices.
The traditional travel agent has fallen further into obscurity as sites like Expedia and Orbitz have made it easier to book your own vacations. But, artificial intelligence yield smarter computers that beg the question, “Will all of this be automated sometime soon”?
That’s what this New York Times article suggests:
Virtual travel assistant services — some from established companies like Facebook, IBM and Expedia, and others from new entrants like Pana and HelloGbye — are now popping up worldwide, just as major hotel chains like Starwood and Hilton are incorporating robots into their everyday operations.
Many of the virtual assistant services use artificial intelligence, a branch of computer science that simulates intelligent human behavior. Some respond to questions posed by travelers, either in live speech or digitally, while some, like Pana, rely on additional input by humans to provide answers.
Although many services are now in their infancy, they are expected to change the way travel is planned in the not-too-distant future.
Disclaimer, I have an investment in Pana. I spoke about them last year when the name was Native.
It’s also worth noting that I’m somewhat stuck between the old-fashioned days of travel and the new age. I book all of my own travel and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve used an OTA like Expedia. That being said, it’s a foregone conclusion that products such as these aren’t aimed at me.
In a world where the smartphone is king, is more interaction with computers something folks want? I’ve read the stories about a hotel here or there employing a robot at the front desk to help with questions. It sounds interesting but still seems a bit out of sorts to me. If I can’t find the answer in my room or online, I really would prefer to speak to a human being (again, something I’m potentially in the minority on).
But, what about booking travel? Can a computer find the best options for you without you needing to follow the form that’s generally required. For the most part, I think it can. And, I think it can do it for the majority of travelers. That’s because the majority of travelers actually travel infrequently. Scott Kirby, the President of American Airlines, is on record from a past earnings call that roughly 90% of the people they transport on an annual basis only fly with the airline once a year.
If you only have one trip to plan per year, I guess it stands to reason you could tolerate pretty much any booking channel. Navigating a site like Expedia a handful of times a year isn’t enough to make me want to jump off a bridge. Since services like Pana charge a monthly fee, it stands to reason they’re shooting for the “sometime traveler” or a true hardcore road warrior.
I definitely see the fit for the sometime traveler with a service like this. It reduces friction, assumedly at an agreeable price. Having your own travel concierge takes the guesswork out of finding a workable itinerary.
The only real concern I see is that the service you pick really does have access to all the best options. Airlines are complicated and their ticketing rules can be arcane. What one site shows as a valid itinerary may not actually be something you can purchase on the airline’s website, and vice versa. How sure are you that you’re getting the best price? For a control freak like me, I still like to check multiple sources.
Just as I was one of the final dinosaurs to ditch my Blackberry (gosh, did I love that physical keyboard) I suspect that the world is moving to a place where the travel agent interacts with us in a similar fashion to the travel agents of the past, through spoken word or the occasional text message. For most folks, I imagine that’s a very good thing.
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