Advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) are a hot topic in the travel industry at the moment and in particular the role that chatbots can play in the customer experience.

Although travellers can now perform many of the activities that travel agents traditionally provided, in particular research and booking, some online customers still prefer the personal service that a live help facility offers.  Chatbots provide this function, without the staff overheads.

Chatbot technology is not a new concept and most of us are now comfortable with digital assistants like Siri and Cortana but the new generation of sophisticated chatbots are designed to mimic human interaction. So for example, if a customer's flight gets cancelled, rather than just getting a text message, a chatbot would spring into action asking if they would like to be booked on the next flight.  So they act as a virtual guide, engaging in a virtual conversation similar to a Q&A session.

Chatbots can complement social media and apps, offering a new dimension and providing customers with another way to interact with brands, helping to streamline their experience. Chatbots can also work 24/7 and be programmed to interact in any language. At the moment chatbots are only capable of answering queries but in the future they'll be developed to respond to human emotions.

Messaging bots are proving popular.  Mark Zuckerberg recently launched the integration of chatbot technology into Facebook Messenger to allow customers to message a business in the same way that they can message a friend.  These bots perform the roll of a live agent, finding destinations, suggesting dates and directing users to websites or mobile apps to complete their booking.

For example, Expedia.com launched a bot on Facebook Messenger to help customers to search for and book hotels, entering their destination, travel dates and number of nights.  Five listings are provided from Expedia.com, all visible and bookable within Facebook Messenger. Skyscanner is also using a Facebook Messenger bot in the same way to search for flights.  Results are displayed within Messenger but travellers perform their booking on the Skyscanner site. Kayak is using Slack, a workspace messaging system to allow travellers to find flights and then book them on the main Kayak website or App.

Some organisations have also incorporated profiles on Facebook Messenger to provide live help and customer service.  Hyatt Hotels, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Booking.com allow users to ask general queries, check availability, check in for flights and confirm reservations.  On the night that the KLM Messenger channel opened, questions to the airline increased by 40%.

In the future we expect to see the roll of chatbots extended across the travel experience.  Airlines will be able to offer smarter in-flight entertainment, based on customers' preferences and accessible from their smartphones.  Hotels can enhance their customer experience by using concierge chatbots, using messaging to welcome or say goodbye to guests, provide room information, set room temperatures and offer room service.

However, building a chatbot isn't an easy task due to the number of variations which need to be taken into account when a customer makes a query and the results they expect to receive.  Chatbots still seem to be making gains in the travel industry though so it will be interesting to see how the technology evolves...

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