Rise of robots in the travel industry: How AI and robotics are transforming business travel

The increasing presence of robots in the travel industry is transforming the tourism and hospitality sector.

- Artificial intelligence and robots are reshaping and transforming the travel industry.

- 85% of business travellers rely on smartphones. Globally, 42% of people have booked a hotel on mobile, and 60% of travel searches start on a mobile device.

- AI is here to stay in business travel. Companies are already using AI to interact with travellers before, during and after their trip.

- 81% of travellers in fact, believe that robots would be better than humans at handling data, with the chief advantage being better memory and untiring energy.

Mobile was the last ‘big thing’ in business travel. Statistics show that 60% of travel searches start on a mobile device and that the smartphone is the number one travel accessory for 76% of all travellers.

However, a new phenomenon has permeated into the travel sector. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is driving the journey onwards from mobile to chatbots, as epitomised by Marvin the Robot from The Hitchhiker’s Guide and Sam, FCM’s chat bot.

AI and Robots in the Travel Industry: The Future is Now

Mobile technology has been the cradle of innovation in the last decade. It has given rise to wearable technology, apps and predictions that online transactions will reach 32% of travel sales by 2020.

According to the latest figures from eMarketer, 63% of digital travel advertising expenditure already goes to mobile and that share is climbing rapidly. No longer is there a need for travel bookings to be made at a desktop. All you need is to pull out a smartphone in order to make a booking there and then.

However, the growth of mobile is slowing. According to GSMA, an estimated 4.7 billion people globally are subscribers and this figure is expected to reach 5.6 billion people by 2020 – accounting for over 70% of the world’s population. Smartphones represent 80% of all mobiles now sold.

Today, mobile is an integral part of most corporate travel programmes, with 63% of digital travel ad expenditure attributed to mobile. The more time business travellers spend on the road, the greater their reliance on mobile booking tools. 85% of business travellers rely on smartphones and 89% use their tablets to complete purchases.

Engaging business travellers with AI

Business travellers conduct more research before booking flights or hotels than leisure travellers.

Globally, 42% of people have booked a hotel on mobile, with this number rising to 53% for those under 30. 42% of people go online using their mobile devices to perform tasks that they would not ordinarily do on their desktops – including tracking their travel spending.

The volume of data held by travel providers including travel management companies (TMC) – traveller profiles, transaction history and personal preference – make travel and AI ideal bedfellows.

Many providers are already using AI to interact with travellers before, during and after their trips. By 2020, 80% of travellers expect robots to play a part in many aspects of life.

According to India-based Tata Consultancy Services, 85% of travel and hospitality professionals already use AI in their IT functions, with 46% using it to process bookings and credit card transactions.

Within four years, 60% of sector companies plan to use AI as a marketing tool. A 2017 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of consumer and business attitudes towards AI found that 56% would be willing to embrace an artificial travel agent within the next five years.

Arguably, the pace of technological progress is mitigating any resistance to the introduction of AI, causing less of a stir than mobile did in the noughties. The attention span of Generation Z is estimated to be around eight seconds – an all-time low, meaning that speed is of essence for the 21st century business traveller.

Content is engaged and assessed in a flash. Generation Z demands instant results and reactions, as illustrated by the growth of Snapchat – an app built upon memes and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it video content.

A survey found that two thirds of respondents would be comfortable with robots being used in the travel industry. Another, by US-based Oversight Systems’, found that Artificial Intelligence can improve travel and expense compliance by 70%.

There is already a hotel in Japan staffed entirely by robots, with menial tasks such as check-in and room service powered by AI, allowing human staff to offer more personalised customer services.

By contrast, United Airlines could have avoided unwanted media attention when a passenger was hauled off a flight to accommodate crew and no volunteers came forward. AI could have warned the carrier of a potential problem, giving them enough time to solve the issue.

The advantages of robots in the travel industry

The advantages of robots in the travel industry relate to process efficiency, data retention and recall.

81% of travellers believe that robots would be better than humans at handling data; 76% believe that robots have better memories whilst 81% pinpoint their untiring energy as an advantage.

At the highest level, AI has the capability to improve customer service, allowing service to be more personalised and hence, improving travel planning.

FCM’s Sam chatbot is already a feature of the traveller experience

When a traveller lands at the airport, Sam will message the user his/her carousel number for baggage collection, followed by asking if the user would need to arrange for transport from the airport to their hotel.

The more a traveller uses Sam, the more intelligent the chatbot becomes, allowing information that is delivered to the user to become even more personalised.

Sam does not replace the human touch entirely and cannot do so because business travel is about people. Although some predict that AI-powered technology will make TMCs redundant, we think that it is unlikely as AI enables agents to add value to the advisory that TMCs provide.

Our approach is about blending the latest technology with personal service. Users of Sam can call or message their consultant at any time for live assistance on the go.

This personal travel assistant handles everything from booking flights, hotels and ground transport, to updating travellers on the weather at their destination so that they know what to pack. It also advises on the exact departure gate, flight time changes, baggage collection, restaurants to visit, and traffic delay alerts.

There is no doubt that AI is here to stay in business travel. It is the key to solving challenges brought about by big data analytics. By combining AI tools with travel data, it enables suppliers to transform the traveller experience.

However, in the short, and even medium-term, the challenge for bots is to be able to guide travellers to make decisions that are right for the business and themselves, within the context of travel policy.

The Next Wave of Robots in the Travel Industry: What lies Ahead

The next wave of travel bots is likely to be increasingly self-sufficient, drawing on advanced AI to build traveller profiles, predict travellers’ booking requirements, assist with disruption avoidance and increase the uptake of loyalty programmes.

This should result in a super-fast booking process and travel arrangements that are hassle free for the employee. Thus, it delivers tangible cost savings for the business and increases employee satisfaction.

Where leisure travel goes, business travel often follows – although it usually takes a little longer. With issues surrounding data privacy, users could be wary about using chatbots and virtual assistants (e.g. Amazon Echo and Facebook Messenger) to make their travel bookings.

However, as these services start becoming more commonplace, there would be an upward trajectory in consumer adoption when it comes to business travel. As chatbots and Natural Language Processing (NLP) evolve, the level of trip and programme complexity to which they can be deployed will grow too.

If an AI bot can help travel managers to review and adjust corporate travel policies through travel behaviour analytics and enable travellers to access their programmes by asking their home-based Google Echo a question, why would corporates not permit access? We expect that question to be answered swiftly within the next five years.

This article first appeared on FCM Travel Solutions’ website in December 2018.


About the Author

FCM Travel Solutions

FCM Travel Solutions (a subsidiary of Flight Centre Travel Group) is a leading global corporate travel management company with networks in more than 95 countries, employing over 6,000 people.

With a team of empowered and accountable staff, FCM is transforming the business of travel by providing 24/7 service online and offline. The combination of staff expertise, supplier relations, unrivalled negotiating strength and innovative technology solutions has positioned FCM as a leading business travel partner for SMEs, large national, multinational and global corporations.