They talk about AI, big data and the role humans will play in the digital tourism world of the future. But when there is mention of robots they do not mean humanoids bringing towels or offering room service. They are referring to smart bots – self-teaching programs capable of evaluating an unbelievable amount of existing data and exploiting it for the tourism industry. They are thinking of automation.
“An estimated 90 per cent of all data we currently collect remains unused. We have interconnected rooms and technology such as natural language recognition, which we can also use to analyse unstructured data“, said Chris Silcock, executive vice president and chief commercial officer of Hilton, at the ITB Marketing & Distribution Day at ITB Berlin. “The question is how we can organise all this information so we can respond to visitor enquiries in real time in a way that genuinely contributes to offering visitors a unique experience.“ Up to now Hilton’s chat bots have been able to independently process around 20 per cent of the 25,000 enquiries made every week. The remainder are dealt with by humans. He would gladly like to see those figures increase so that his employees can concentrate more on actually interacting with guests.
“The tourism industry is different to online trading: we operate in a market with comparatively fixed boundaries, where it is easier to personalise services using algorithms and with probability calculations“, said Clinton Anderson, executive vice president of Sabre/Sabre Hospitality Solutions. He is not worried that customers may not take to AI very quickly: “If consumers see what they get in return for giving up their data – if they can be confident that it is secure and not used for a purpose other than originally intended, and really is used for something that will help them in a special way – then they will accept that.“ AI and big data is not something one deals with as a hobby.
“In the hotel industry personal contact will always be very important, and AI will not change that“, said Lutz Behrendt of Google Germany. There were many processes that could be simplified, he said: “People currently spend about 30 days researching before they actually make any bookings. That is no fun and few people have the time needed. For the travel industry there is much to be gained from automating that process. What would be decisive would be to not only protect data, but also make sure that people were in control of any personal information that was circulating – by ensuring transparency for example and allowing them to determine how much data they wished to release for the purposes in question.