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Hotels’ Time to Talk About Chatbots is Right Now

by Vera Lye, Contributing Editor, APAC |

As if hotel distribution weren’t complex enough, now the machines are coming. Technology giants like Microsoft and IBM say thousands of developers are using their chatbot tools, and experts elsewhere are predicting that chatbots and other artificial-intelligence bots could soon replace websites and mobile apps as consumers’ preferred way to interact with brands.

Chatbots largely exist within messaging apps, with messaging now seen as the platform of the future. In fact, messaging apps are now used more than any other interface, which means hotel brands or online travel agencies will need to account for these digital platforms in their marketing and distribution strategies.

The Economist quoted these statistics: “Together the 10 biggest messaging apps, which include KakaoTalk, Viber and WeChat, now boast more than 3 billion users. WhatsApp, the leader of the pack, alone has 700 million – a big reason why Facebook last year paid $22 billion for the firm, despite continuing to develop its own Messenger app.”

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Retailing can easily be snuck into a chatbot conversation. Take Poncho, Facebook’s chatbot that delivers weather reports, for instance. No sooner have you written three lines in a conversation thread with Poncho, then he will offer to tell you when the weather is good for a run.

That’s perfect, because the bot knows from your Facebook profile that you’re a runner. Along with telling you that today is a great day for a run, he will also push out running gear to you – where you can get what you need to look stylish while out on a run.

Hotels, OTAs and chatbots

One can quickly see how the travel industry can also insert itself (and its products and services) into such conversations. Chatbots are essentially conversations-powered interfaces. Bots load instantly and don’t need a separate download like apps do. And because bots use language as an interface, the learning curve is very gentle.

Scott Crawford of Brand Expedia has already acknowledged: “Chatbots will become commonplace, particularly in the travel industry. Machine learning will allow chatbots to become more and more sophisticated while customer expectations will rapidly evolve in tandem”.

This year, Expedia launched a Facebook chatbot, a new Expedia skill for Amazon Alexa and a chatbot for Skype. Elsewhere in the industry, bots for flight and hotel bookings are proliferating rapidly, as seen in this list from artificial-intelligence company 30SecondsToFly.

According to Adam Hirsch, global executive vice president at Edelman Digital, chatbots will likely focus on three key social consumer experiences: content consumption (for informational and entertainment), customer service and productivity (including shopping experiences).

Technology providers from Asia to North America are working to build chatbots that integrate with hotels, OTAs and distribution systems, like Singapore-based Zumata. The company, which is positioned as an AI-enabled online hotel director, entered a joint venture with DMI Company and developed a chatbot that helps users book their holiday destinations and look for accommodations.

“Our collaboration with DMI showcases a practical example of how our artificial intelligence-enhanced hotel offering can be easily integrated into Facebook Messenger or any other chat or messaging applications,” Josh Ziegler, CEO of Zumata, said last year in a statement.

Sure, chatbots and its technology still have a long way more to go to get it perfectly right. But it won’t be long, experts say.

“In the long run, bots won’t answer questions — they will anticipate them,” Erwin van Lun, CEO and founder of chatbots.org, told EyeforTravel. “They will query satisfaction levels, respond emotionally to emotions, and take part in video conferencing with customers. In 20 years, they will be just like humans.”

Twenty years is not a long time, especially given how quickly hotel technology changes. Like it or not, chatbots are here to stay. Hotels’ IT departments should formulate a plan now to prepare for their customers adopting chatbots widely.

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Vera Lye, Contributing Editor, APAC

Vera Lye, Contributing Editor, APAC

Contributing Editor, APAC at Duetto
Vera has been a travel trade journalist in Asia/Pacific for two decades, working in most of the major trade publications. She is now based in Sydney where she juggles her writing with managing her young son’s development as an aspiring tennis professional.
Vera Lye, Contributing Editor, APAC
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Vera Lye, Contributing Editor, APAC

Vera has been a travel trade journalist in Asia/Pacific for two decades, working in most of the major trade publications. She is now based in Sydney where she juggles her writing with managing her young son’s development as an aspiring tennis professional.