Technology

Travel agencies trial chatbot tech to serve customers

Hannah Edensor

The travel industry has officially started dipping its toes into the Artifical Intelligence (AI) pool. The future is here, folks.

Tech provider Sabre has announced it’s involved in the development of an AI-powered chatbot that leverages a set of tools so organisations can use it in day-to-day services.

The tools, Microsoft Bot Framework and Microsoft Cognitive services, are being tested in two travel agencies in the US, to work out how travellers feel about using AI, and when they prefer to speak to a real travel agent.

“Travellers want technology to deliver a more seamless experience, especially when managing on-the-go changes and disruptions,” said Mark McSpadden, Vice President of Emerging Technology and Products at Sabre Corporation.

“Together with Microsoft and our agency partners, we are exploring how AI and chatbots can provide travellers with the self-service solutions they want for routine requests while helping travel agencies provide personal service for more complex needs.”

It comes as recent research shows travellers love the self-service technology available at airports and throughout the flight experience, with this approach now being taken to traditional travel agencies.

Other research showed 75 per cent of Aussies are happy dealing with bots on simple requests and services, however still prefer real people when it comes to the more tricky requests.

Two Sabre-connected travel agencies – Dallas-based Travel Solutions International USA and San Francisco-based Casto Travel – will test a white-label version of the chatbot with travellers, who will access the chatbot via Facebook Messenger.

Travellers will use the chatbot for common service and support requests, such as changing an existing flight reservation. The chatbot will divert to a live travel agent if it is unable to fulfil a request.

Throughout the test, Sabre and its partner travel agencies will evaluate travellers’ preferences for how often and when they engage the chatbot and when they are likely to divert to a live agent.

The companies expect to gain a better understanding of the best way to engage travellers with chatbots and solve for some of the most common hurdles that many industries face when it comes to this kind of tech.

With one of the key challenges in human-computer interactions being the ability for computers to understand what people want and find relevant information, the trial will use a number of tech tricks including a Language Understanding Intelligence Service (LUIS).

Travel applications must recognise a huge range of unique terms and phrases, which makes things all the more difficult. LUIS provides simple tools to build language models that allow any application or bot to understand commands and act accordingly.

“Travellers are eager to find ways to save time when handling travel logistics,” noted Claire LeBuhn, Vice President, Support Services at TSI USA.

LeBuhn said her company was intent on exploring emerging technologies that can improve the efficiency and satisfaction of travel agents.

“By handling frequently-asked basic support requests, the bot will free up our agents to focus on more complex, value-added interactions with travellers,” she said.

 

This is not Sabre’s first foray into chatbots. Sabre Hospitality Solutions is building a chatbot prototype that would allow travellers to shop, book and engage with hoteliers through the most common messaging platforms, such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter and SMS text messaging, as well as voice assistants, such as Amazon’s Echo (Alexa), Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google Home.

When ready, the company expects to test the prototype with some of its hotel customers.

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