We All Want Better Travel Experiences. Can AI Help Us?

Marc Maleh, SVP Connected Experiences and Emerging Technology, Valtech.

Travel is a deeply experiential and emotional activity. It should fill us with excitement. But nowadays travel increasingly fills all of us with dread.

These positive sensations compete with fears that our return flight will be canceled, or that our rental car will be unavailable when we go to pick it up, or that our bags will not show up.

When millions of us travel this holiday season, we are going to leave our homes with the expectation that something will go wrong. That’s an awful starting point for travel brands that are in the business of selling memorable experiences.

In April 2023, Expedia launched a conversational trip planning tool in collaboration with OpenAI. As I was writing this article, Airbnb announced it had bought Gameplanner.AI to expand its notion of being a travel concierge.

Creating meaningful experiences using tools like OpenAI and or AutoGen requires clean, usable data that is accessible in a secure environment. Additionally, converting unstructured data-like images or video into structured data is a process that computer vision and media understanding can help with, but most large brands don’t know where to start. They struggle to define the pain point and to understand what data is needed to build a better experience.

A Better Experience For Everyone

So, first, let’s imagine a future in which travel is exciting—not dreadful—with some help from AI.

Imagine going to a hotel’s site or app and saying, “I’m going to be in New York this weekend. Tell me every event happening near the hotel.” You would then see results, with images, that you could scroll through and book.

Now, imagine the hotel already knows your preferences. When you say, “Book a car service and order us room service in the morning,” it knows you are booking for a family of five, so it books an SUV with child seats.

It knows your wife likes extra pillows on the bed from previous bookings, so it emails those instructions to the hotel’s staff. It knows your daughter has a peanut allergy, so it flags this for the kitchen.

All while never engaging a human, but reinforced by a human.

Thanks to the hotel’s secure and robust content supply chain, you receive an email that states your car is on its way, peanut-free breakfast has been ordered and your extra pillows are waiting for you.

You have a 5 p.m. flight from JFK to LAX, and the airline knows JFK will get slammed with passengers just before your time of departure. The airline could send you a nudge at noon, inviting you to avoid the crowd and arrive by 3 p.m. The airline could reserve you a seat at a convenient airport bar so you have a comfortable place to ride out the surge. They could send you a summary of customer reviews for that bar so you know what to order when you get there.

Sure, a savvy traveler could piece that information together if they had the flight details in their Gmail account or were actively checking reviews for airport bars and the TSA’s wait lines data. The opportunity is for airlines to bundle that information into something every passenger can use. With a robust, AI-driven system to communicate it, the airline could create a truly seamless experience.

Imagine an airline’s maintenance team has a system that accounts for every single component of every plane in its fleet. When the system knows a component will need to be replaced, based on historical data, it can order that component well in advance, schedule the work and assign a mechanic. Besides making air travel safer, this precision in maintenance scheduling would reduce strain on a supply chain that’s already stressed. All of this makes for a better customer experience with fewer delays.

Each travel brand is at a different point in its data journey, and data maturity will remain a major blocker before the industry can realize experiences like those above.

Preparing Your Data For A New Solution

Companies must first get their data into a usable and accessible place. An image of a hotel room with two queen beds and a mirror, for example, must be turned into structured data that AI tools can use. This unlocks the wealth of data housed inside a single image, whether that’s an image owned by the brand or from social. A few key strategies I would start to consider:

1. Have an agreed view of the entire data journey and ensure accountability for each of their part of the data journey.

2. Ensure that data is clean and structured. Documents like PDFs, images and video can be converted into structured data by using media intelligence tools that unlock previously untapped data.

3. Regularly assess the quality of your data to identify inconsistencies, errors, and inaccuracies. Implement automated checks and manual reviews to evaluate data accuracy, completeness and consistency.

4. Standardize data formats and units to ensure consistency. Normalize data by converting it into a standard structure, making it easier to compare and analyze.

5. Provide training to employees on the importance of data cleanliness and the role they play in maintaining data quality and how this can then ladder up to opportunities to use AI and GenAI.

6. Create a culture of innovation within the data practice. Encourage experimentation while ensuring data compliance and legal and ethical standards.

This doesn’t mean travel brands should kick the AI can down the road. But if those brands are not currently mapping their data journeys based on emerging customer experience trends, in the long run, they will be the brands that fall behind.

Happy holidays, and good luck this travel season.

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