Features of technology, as practical and helpful as they can be, will not bring travel back to normal as long as restrictions due to threats of the coronavirus remain in effect. Yet, when consumers are allowed to travel more widely and freely again, advanced technologies may prove useful in permitting safer transportation, lodging and touristic activities, and in serving the influx of large groups of tourists expected in many destinations (e.g., major cities, countryside vacation resorts). Significant challenges may be particularly experienced in the hospitality sector. Travellers might find a new universe of tourism and hospitality when they resume their journeys. Innovative and advanced technologies, especially AI-based and robots, have been brewing in tourism and hospitality for at least five years, but the COVID-19 pandemic crisis may drive their progress and spread even faster (e.g., moving from experimentation to implementation, creating new applications).
Travellers for leisure or business may encounter and utilise technological services in the pre-travel stage (planning and booking), during the travel stage (arriving and departing, and while staying in a destination), and in the post-travel stage (reviews and recommendations to others). Many of the technologies are met online on Internet websites and on mobile applications, where travelleres are induced to carryout more activities in self-service mode using their own devices. Particularly in the pre-travel stage, consumers-tourists could engage in online research and exploration to choose travel destination(s), and then search and organise their travel arrangements for transportation (e.g., flights, trains) and ground services (e.g., hotels, tourist sites) by using a variety of websites and apps. But advanced services may moreover come handy while staying in a destination, for interacting with the hotel, exploring more recreation options, and ordering services or booking tickets in the moment. Before travel, tourists may get ideas and impressions from others on social media networks and platforms (e.g., Facebook, TripAdvisor), and after their travel, share their experiences on the same platforms (electronic Word of Mouth — eWOM).
Consumers increasingly become their own travel agents. This is not to say that travel agencies can no longer have a role; their guidance and skills can be helpful in certain situations and for some travel purposes, but the ways they provide their services have to change. The role of human agents may have to become more advisory and supportive (‘problem solving’) rather than leading, offered as supplement complementing the information and tools customers can obtain via an online platform. We may still identify three major customer journeys in the pre-travel stage: (1) book each service separately and directly from a relevant provider chosen (e.g., airline, hotel, car rental, theatre, museum) according to a plan the traveller constructs; (2) book as many services as possible on a single platform as a package or bundle (e.g., tourist online platforms such as Expedia.com / Hotels.com / Travelocity.com, or booking platforms of airlines); (3) book a guided tour package that includes almost everything in advance (e.g., a 7-day holiday package including flight, hotel, local transportation, guided tours, events etc.). As a travel planned is expected to be more complex, including more destinations, and for a longer period of time, travel agencies are likely to have more to contribute to travellers in professional guidance and assistance, but new models of service should be considered.
- Example: Instead of an introductory meeting in person with a travel agent, the journey may start with a conversation with a smart virtual travel instructor on an online platform of the travel agency — through the process the agency learns about the interests and preferences of the traveller and refers him or her to learn about potential destinations in the knowledgebase of the agency or in external online sources. A meeting in-person may follow when both parties are better prepared for forming the travel plan and making the relevant booking arrangements.
Hotel establishments may evolve into a primary scene for deploying a nice selection of applications of artificial intelligence (AI) in different areas of service, whether facing guests or in the background. From the moment a guest enters a hotel he or she may be invited to check-in with an AI-powered virtual assistant (VA) instead of a receptionist or concierge at the front desk. The guest could be introduced to the VA in a mobile app of the hotel on one’s mobile device or at a self-service kiosk in the lobby. In large hotels, performing check-in this way is expected to save much time for staff and guests with little hassle. Surely, this is not a full proof solution — what happens, for instance, if a registering guest is assigned a room not matching the offer (in location, size, rate)? The VA may furthermore facilitate and speed-up the check-out procedure (here, payment disputes may arise that a VA is unable to resolve). Hence, in any case the human staff at the front desk should always be ready to intervene and resolve any matters of disagreement or help with technical difficulties.
However, smart virtual assistants (chatbots) are intended to do more than executing check-in & check-out procedures. A VA presented by a hotel can help customers with enquiries for information about the hotel’s services or sites in the destination, making room service orders, making reservations for restaurants or purchasing tickets for events. If the VA cannot make the booking, it might be able to help mediating the process (e.g., access schedule information for a train and proceed to booking). For providing enhanced customer service it is essential for the VA to be equipped with a strong natural language processing (NLP) capability (preferably with multi-lingual capacity); in addition, the customer-guest would be consulting with a VA that knows both about what is happening in the destination of interest and about the preferences and history of bookings of the user (“Advanced Analytics in Hospitality”, McKinsey Digital). The VA would typically be installed in a hotel’s mobile app. Marriott International hotels, for example, offer chatbots associated with the Marriott Rewards scheme; Aloft Hotels, a sub-chain of Marriott, provides assistance via a text messaging utility (ChatBotlr) to request services from the hotel on the guest’s mobile phone (powered by NLP and machine learning)(Willa Zhou, TowardsDataScience.com, 29 November 2019). Pre-travel, chatbots may be more involved in executing booking for customers, offering relevant rooms and deals, following probing of the prospective customers, and also offer and book related services (e.g., dining or spa reservations)(“Hospitality in the Digital Era [The Road to 2025]”, Cognizant, July 2017). Reservation functionalities are likely to be available already on a hotel’s website, yet with the aid of a VA the ability to make more personalised offers could be enhanced, perhaps even better when embedded in a mobile app on the customer’s smartphone or tablet.
Virtual assistants based on AI capabilities know more often now how to hold a voice conversation (e.g., Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Echo + Alexa). A growing number of consumers favour this possibility because it frees their hands to be used in performing another task while they search for information on any topic, or receive instructions for the focal task they perform (e.g., fixing something, cooking in the kitchen). In the pre-travel stage, consumers may start enquiring about destination options and relevant hotels for their next vacation by conversing with a voice virtual assistant. Making plans this way may have at least two conspicuous weaknesses: (1) the voice assistant is likely to give too few options (3-5), and the information is only verbal where visual information can be crucial in choosing a destination or hotel; (2) the attention of the user may be divided so as to leave inadequate attention for the travel-related task. Nevertheless, this mode may be efficient in an initial stage of planning, for early probing and screening of options, especially if the assistant can save its suggestions with links that the user-traveller can follow and inspect more closely at a later time. A VA with voice-support (and speech recognition) may prove furthermore useful to tourists during their travel, while being on premises of the hotel or touring around (a particular application at the hotel will be discussed below).
Rather than consult with a virtual assistant on a mobile device, a hotel guest might actually talk to a physical robot concierge at the hotel lobby, embedded with AI-powered knowledge and functional capabilities. The robot concierge may answer questions about hotel services or things to do in the destinations, purchase tickets for local attractions (e.g., a cable car to climb up a mountain), or order services in the hotel. It sounds as a more imaginative, futuristic form of interacting and receiving hotel assistance and service, but it appears to be already in reach. Hilton Hotels & Resorts company has taken such an initiative by experimenting the deployment of its robot concierge Connie (named after founder Conrad Hilton) in the hotel lobby. Connie is a product of collaboration of Hilton with IBM, powered by the cognitive computing abilities of IBM’s Watson and enriched with domain knowledge in hospitality and tourism. Connie is also ‘equipped’ with natural language processing capabilities that it applies to comprehend and answer customers-guests (e.g., queries on hotel features and amenities, destination attractions, options or recommendations for dining). Furthermore, Connie learns from interactions with guests to improve its answers and guidance. Benefits expected from Connie, the robot concierge standing next to the front desk in a hotel, include improving the speed and convenience of response to customers’ requests for information and guidance (Willa Zhou, Nov. 2019; “Hilton and IBM Pilot ‘Connie'”, Lisa Key Davis, IBM Blog: Watson, 9 March 2016). In addition to serving as concierge, other services considered and planned for hotel robots include making room deliveries (e.g., meals, toiletries)(McKinsey Digital), and even in cleaning rooms and replenishing supplies (Cognizant, June 2017). Robots are considered as reinforcement to human hotel staff; the human personnel at the front desk are likely to retain an essential role in counselling and advising customers.
More feasible and practical already, we may find applications of Internet-of-Things (IoT) technology in hotels. Capabilities of IoT in wireless connectivity, monitoring and command can be used in a hotel on two fronts: (a) Allowing guests in rooms to control, adjust and operate equipment and features (e.g., lighting, TV, air condition) from distance with a single interface application (e.g., through the use of Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Echo & Alexa); (b) Helping hotel staff with monitoring and maintenance of hotel systems (e.g., water, elevators) — in particular it is suggested that administrative or technical personnel may be able to trace problems and fix them without even attending the rooms, and receive alerts or reminders for other problems that need human intervention. Florian Kriechbaumer (COO, Interel) explains the conception of ‘Hotel of Things’ as follows: “Connecting all those [features] to an IoT platform allow them to become intelligent and digital. All these devices are able to send data and, hopefully, that data is then put to good use through some of the AI technologies that are out there“. However, it is further noted that managing digital intelligent systems requires special care to protect them from security breaches (“The Big Data Opportunity — Hospitality’s Goldmine and How Covid is Transforming Digital Transfomation”, Stuart Pallister, Glion Hospitality and Leisure Management School, August 2020).
- IoT used in integration with beacons and other sensors can enable a few more helpful functionalities such as providing hotel guests permitted access (e.g., via a mobile app) to their rooms (‘mobile key’), devices, or amenities (e.g., pool & spa) in the hotel; guests may also be traced as they approach specific locations and be given relevant suggestions or offers (see Cognizant, with regard to helping staff, they refer to ‘predictive maintenance’).
Technologies of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) may additionally be recruited to the service of tourism and hospitality. Hotels, for example, may deploy VR for displaying the environs of their hotels to prospect customers on their websites (as upgrade to static photos, video and panoramic displays). Travel agencies as well as public tourist boards may apply VR to impress future visitors with views from recommended destinations to promote them. The limitation is that to get true benefit of the VR imagery users need to have a special viewing headset which is not yet economic for most consumers and is considered lucrative. The technology of AR seems easier to implement and receives recently greater business and consumer acceptance. It can be applied, for instance, to lay text information regarding outdoors sites or scenes in the hotel over their images as they are taken with a smartphone camera in an actual location; it has been suggested (e.g., Cognizant) that AR could also be used for adding translation during conversations between a staff member and a guest in a hotel, not fluent in the same language (for gaining fuller experience of AR the user(s) may be required to wear a viewing headset, which is again not yet a common device).
The smart actions of AI are enabled and powered to a large extent by sophisticated data analysis, a ‘work’ that is done behind the scenes. Analytics involve primarily learning from human behaviour in the real world, digital & physical (e.g., using methods and models of machine learning), pattern recognition, prediction, classification, and more. From the customer perspective, analytics allow mainly the benefit of personalisation of recommendations put forward or in the course of services delivered that would match more closely the preferences, interests, and past behaviour (e.g., habits) of each consumer-traveller. Consider, for instance, hotel offers; recommendations for destinations, attractions, and art performances; real-time information, updates (e.g., weather) or alerts (e.g., flight delays); or automated personalised tuning of devices (e.g., room lighting). For example, the Total Reward Loyalty Program of Caesars Entertainment (casino & gaming hotels) relies on analysing data on customers’ spending in various categories or amenities owned by the company, together with demographic data, to learn about the customers’ behaviour and interests, and to tailor offers accordingly (Willa Zhou, Nov. 2019). Another important application of analytics is in revenue management in the hospitality sector, which supports the planning of room occupancy, allocating rooms for customer reservations, and setting prices or rates, enabling especially dynamic pricing (similar applications can be found in other sectors, airlines for instance).
The utilisation of AI, robots and other forms of advanced technologies could be applicable mostly to hotel chains and large hotels that have the financial resources to invest in their deployment and maintenance. It would be particularly advantageous for hotels seeking to reduce costs, gaining efficiencies in hotel operations and delivering timely services, and in handling larger volumes of guests. On the other hand, smaller private, family, and boutique hotels might be more limited in their capabilities to deploy different types of advanced technologies. Actually, they may see their advantage in providing more human personal treatment and service to their guests. Yet, they may still find ways to combine some forms of AI and IoT with in-person service that would enhance hotel administration for the staff and increase convenience for guests, at their discretion.
Some applications of these technologies are intended to relate directly to coping with implications of COVID-19 and mitigating risks of contagion. For example, they can aid in providing contactless means of service and payment (e.g., via mobile apps, VA), monitor and regulate crowding of travellers in halls (e.g., avoid long queues in a hotel lobby), face recognition for verifying mask wearing, and for super sterilization (e.g., within air conditioning systems, air and surface purification in public spaces)(see TravelPulse, 4 August 2020).
Travel experiences are about to be different in the post COVID-19 era in more than one way from what travellers have known in years gone by. Advanced technologies are likely to play a greater role in this new future of travel. It may be difficult for some travellers to get accustomed to using more of those technological tools self-service; others may feel more uneasy with implications of using AI and related technologies (i.e., concerns about privacy of their actions and whereabouts) versus the advantages of personalisation the technologies promise to provide. Hopefully, however, it will be easier to adapt and take advantage of those technologies as tourists are able to travel more freely again. Bon Voyage!
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
One thought on “The Advanced Technologies Awaiting Travellers in Tourism and Hospitality”
Dr. Ventura gives us a glimpse into the future. A future that is closer than one might have thought due to the pandemic crisis. The only problem I see is the elderly people and others who are technologically-reluctant. How would they manage to cope with the advent of AI?