Rise of the Bots

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Let us gaze together into the near future.

People continue to post content on social media and increasingly use voice-activated devices like Google’s Home Mini and Amazon’s Echo Dot. Advanced ‘machine learning’ algorithms interpret this data to build an increasingly accurate user profile. Facial recognition (already seen in the new Iphone X) will be able to track moods and responses to certain objects and situations, further enhancing personal profiles.

Eventually, the resulting profile will be so accurate that it can be used to make pinpoint predictions and to offer guests perfectly suited recommendations without any outside intervention.

A modern consumer has almost the same access to inventory as a travel agent, at the same speed, and increasingly, at the same or even lower cost. The Priceline Group and Expedia spend a combined $8 billion per year on ads alone, and this number is set to increase. Booking a hotel, a car, a flight, and increasingly, a local travel experience or homestay is now trivially easy.

Online travel agencies were going destroy conventional travel agencies, many claimed. Didn't really happen. Well it did actually, but it wasn’t a total annihilation, only a decimation.

So, if OTAs didn’t finish off travel agencies and all this ultra-modern tech is around, by what miracle are agencies still in business?

The underlying reason is that the current structure of the internet, and the travel ecosystem built on top of it, is still reactive, making the consumer do much of the work. Online content and booking systems are largely ignorant about personal taste and simply serve up everything to everyone, placing the responsibility with the consumer for matching the offers with their personal tastes. Price is the differentiator, not personalization.

Especially when you have money to spend, the upside of having a person who knows you well filter out all the noise while saving you time, is too significant to overlook.

Every day millions of pages with content come online. Hundreds if not thousands of booking sites are battling for consumer attention. So, it would seem that it's becoming even harder for consumers to see the forest for the trees, pushing consumers back into the hands of agents?

Here's the problem with that conclusion: we humans have a tendency to extrapolate the past and present linearly into the future, distorting our view of how the tech revolution actually unfolds. This is a dangerous mistake to make.

See, technological innovations are not just converging, they are accelerating along an exponential curve. Emerging technologies, many without any real practical application previously, are intertwining and amplifying one another. 

The time between a first-generation and fifth generation technology is very short indeed, and its improvements exponential. So, a product released today will in five years not be five times better, but fifty times, or even five hundred.

Next generation systems will not require us to learn, interpret and understand them but instead, the systems will become increasingly adept at interpreting and understanding us, proactively, seamlessly and in real time. This is happening. Now.

So-called ‘chat bots’ are one of the best examples of an emerging technology to discuss in this context.

Already, advances in cryptic-sounding fields like Natural Language Processing (NLP), Augmented Reality and Machine Learning are being assimilated into bot technology. NLP for example, allows computers to understand spoken and written human language in all its subtlety and nuance. This technology is evolving so quickly that not long from now, you will be able to hold a chat or voice based dialogue using the same language and expressions you would use in a human conversation.

Now how does all this relate to your hotel? Well, there’s the good news. Just when you thought OTAs held all the power and your fate was to live in servitude of the hospitality industrial complex, here’s a chance to take power back and leverage a new set of tools that will allow you to reengage with consumers directly.

How many of you have a bot that engages with your social media following and in-house guests or in a simple but compelling way to start a conversation? Are you aware that there are other avenues than desperately trying to stay ranked on page one of Google while the OTAs outspend you on ads one thousand to one?

Do you realize that once a consumer engages with your brand via messaging systems - Whatsapp, Messenger or another platform - that this establishes a two-way communication channel? You’ll know exactly who is talking to your hotel and how they behave, and you’ll be able to tailor special offers and ideas to the individual, dramatically increasing your conversion rates and without sacrificing your margin to OTAs.

If you embrace these developments, educate yourself a little about their power and implication, and take even only baby steps in terms of implementing some of these technologies, you will be in pole position for the greatest travel transformation in human history.