There has been a lot of chatter in technology circles about the rise of chatbots, especially since Facebook’s recent announcement that they were opening up their popular Messenger app to developers to build bots. Frequently hailed as the next big trend in tech, chatbots are on the verge of transforming how people interact with brands. Essentially, chatbots work via messaging platforms, using AI (artificial intelligence) and natural language processing to mimic having a “conversation” with a human. Currently existing chatbots can do everything from ordering pizza to managing personal finance; in fact, Facebook now boasts more than 11,000 chatbots on Facebook Messenger.
So how might Silicon Valley’s new obsession play out in the travel and hospitality industry? Here are some answers to the key questions regarding hotels and chatbots:
Are chatbots actually a new thing?
In reality, the travel industry has had chatbots for some time, starting in their primitive forms as early as the ‘90s. But the move toward their intelligent form began in the late 2000s with the start of cutely named bots such as United Airlines’ virtual expert “Alex” and Virgin Holidays virtual agent “Valerie.” Today’s mobile age has simply made the experience of chatting with a chatbot the most convenient over a mobile device. And with the advance of technology, chatbots can feel more realistic than ever—simply look to the modern chatbot’s predecessor, Apple’s Siri, which can make appointments for you, look up movie times, and even give you answers to life’s biggest questions.
With platforms like Facebook Messenger powering user adoption (an already-existing base of millions of users helps to make things mainstream), travel brands are now seeing the benefit in reinvesting in chatbot technology. For instance, metasearch sites Hipmunk and Kayak have both launched their own travel search chatbots to be used with Facebook Messenger and Slack. These search bots not only help travelers find and book travel, but are also equipped to handle logistical questions such as “How far is my hotel from the train station?”
Some hotel brands are also experimenting with chatbots. Edwardian Hotels London, a Radisson Blu brand, recently unveiled “Edward,” a chatbot that allows guests to request hotel amenities such as towels, room service, or information about local attractions. (Keep in mind that this is distinctly different from hotels who have adopted guest service messaging, whereby guests can text the front desk with their requests.)
How will chatbots affect the hospitality industry?
The growth of mobile devices has already reshaped the way that travelers research and book trips. The current average traveler visits 38 websites before booking a trip. Chatbots could potentially simplify that decision-making process by reducing the number of inquiries a traveler needs to make to find the ideal hotel. For example, a chatbot could process in one query (“I’m looking for business hotels within walking distance to convention center with 24-hour access gym and free wifi”) in what might take several steps with a metasearch site or OTA.
Chatbots are also well-equipped to ease communication with international travelers. Booking.com is currently experimenting with a chatbot that can automatically translate simple inquiries (i.e. “What time are you arriving?”) into respective travelers’ and hotel managers’ primary languages.
As technology evolves, chatbots could play an influential role in traveler expectations and create a new norm for booking travel. It happened when online booking was first introduced; guests were initially hesitant at first to put their trust into the Internet, but now online booking (whether through an OTA or direct) is the most common way to book travel. As with online booking, OTAs and other major travel brands will have the advantage when it comes to developing and powering chatbots in travel—not only do they have the technological resources, but they also have access to the wealth of content needed to make chatbots useful.
Will hotels need their own chatbots?
There are two major areas of consideration when it comes to chatbots for hotels: one is for guest service, the other for hotel search and booking.
When it comes to guest service, chatbots can be a useful tool for handling guest requests and inquiries, as in the case of “Edward” of Edwardian Hotels. The use of automated language translation in chatbots (as with Booking.com’s chatbot) would also be a useful feature to help hotels better serve their international guests. But using a chatbot as a complete replacement for the front desk or concierge in the guest experience may have unintended consequences—ultimately, hospitality is very much a human interaction, and most guests want to feel they are being taken care of by people, not robots. When it comes to guest service, implementing a messaging channel instead of a chatbot may be a better investment.
When it comes to hotel search, independent hotels may find it difficult to harness the data processing benefits of chatbots for their own booking purposes. But one big change that chatbots could potentially bring to the industry is increasing the prevalence of natural language hotel search, especially when it comes to metasearch. In the future, travelers may be easily able to find hotels simply by requesting the best options for a “bachelorette getaway with a pool under $250 per night.” In an example like this, a chatbot might recognize that the phrase “bachelorette getaway” and presuppose that the traveler is a woman seeking a hotel near nightlife for a 2-4 night stay.
If chatbots and natural language search were to become more of a norm for travelers, hotels may find themselves having to adjust their marketing strategies to accommodate. We may see adjustments in the language used to market hotels, and perhaps even the rise of “chatbot optimization” marketing. And because chatbots facilitate a one-to-one interaction with a potential guest, we may also see OTAs and hotels teaming up to create unique personalized offers based on hotel searches—such as a friendly “book now and we’ll welcome your bachelorette party with a free Champagne toast on arrival” text to a potential guest.
Will chatbots ever replace humans?
The human versus computer debate will continue on for our lifetimes, especially as technology gets smarter and perhaps even more importantly, cheaper than human labor. But even with the existence of a robot-staffed hotel in Japan and a YOBOT concierge in New York, we don’t see artificial intelligence ever being able to truly replace the need for human interaction, especially when it comes to the hospitality business.