Understanding and predicting customers’ online behavior helps travel and hospitality businesses better anticipate and meet guests’ needs. The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) presents an opportunity for hospitality brands to deploy chatbots, automated software that interacts with guests through SMS text or messaging apps. Chatbots have the potential to streamline a hotel’s efforts to gather consumer insights and personalize a guest’s experience, yet the technology comes with some drawbacks and risks for an industry where a personal human touch is often critical.
A recent EyeForTravel report on the use of chatbots by travel and hospitality brands considered how this kind of technology is changing hotel operations and guest experience. Globally, more people than ever before are using mobile devices to visit travel websites than on their laptops and desktops. According to the report, catering to this growing mobile usage can potentially help travel and hospitality websites attract more visitors. Implementing additional intuitive offerings based on consumer insights could encourage customers to spend more money through a brand. For example, airlines that offer internet access could link directly to rentable games and movies to engage with flyers and offer promotions in hopes that they’ll book with them again on their next flight.
Along with mobile, app use is also rising. More brands than ever before are using apps as platforms to drive travel rewards programs, hotel room keys, and direct messaging with the company. AI chatbots on apps use algorithms to create a more personalized experience and highlight points of interest specific to a guest. Some social media apps like Facebook Messenger are allowing chatbots from different industries to interact with potential customers to give them travel and booking information. Twitter and Google have also announced chatbots that serve as customer service agents. Booking a hotel via chatbot is on the horizon as well.
Although Facebook is the most widely used social media site (it has a higher average of unique visitors than YouTube, Google Search, Amazon’s app, and Apple Music, according to Nielsen data from 2016), many hospitality and travel companies haven’t taken advantage of possible chatbot integration and don’t believe that it’s worth it. For example, a 2017 Travelaer study of travel companies found that of the 81 percent of airlines with a Facebook messaging link for customers, just 38 percent of those bothered to respond to messages. Hotels performed slightly better, with just over half responding on Facebook Messenger in less than 24 hours, and nearly 20 percent taking more than a week to reply to customers. When it comes to booking with customers over Facebook Messenger, just 15 percent of hotels provide assistance. The findings indicate that travel companies may not yet view social media as a serious outlet to connect with customers in a meaningful way.
Acceptance isn’t just low among travel and hospitality companies—KAYAK published a survey showing that acceptance of chatbots usage among U.K. consumers is low. Of the more than 1,000 adults surveyed, only 18 percent had ever used a chatbot, and just 10 percent of those had used it for travel-related services. In fact, 57 percent of participants didn’t event know what chatbots were. Those who did were concerned with being misunderstood by the bot, or risking security breaches of their personal information. Generally, people preferred human interaction rather than speaking with a chatbot, although younger participants were more accepting of the bots.
While social media can be a useful tool when communicating with potential customers, travelers may not be ready to take the leap into AI chatbots in their current form. Some have difficulties grasping chatbot usage and would prefer to go directly through a travel company rather than a social media form. However, companies in a wide variety of consumer-facing industries are looking for new ways to interact with customers via AI, such as voice-activated devices. Ultimately, businesses that use AI chatbots for guest convenience and efficiency must know when to lend a human hand to assist potential guests.