Will travel industry jobs be threatened by AI?
If your Siri request for “directions to Maidstone” is instead delivering “directions to gravestone suppliers”, you’ll understand the joy many of us have working with Artificial Intelligence. So, when the question arises whether travel industry jobs will be threatened by AI in the near future, our immediate response is always: “not for some time”.
It is true that we’ve listed the rise of Artificial Intelligence as one of the key travel recruitment trends in 2018 and that the number of travel companies that have developed and deployed travel bots or chatbots has increased incrementally over the past few years. However, their obvious limitations mean that a human touch will still be required for many transactions in the near to medium future.
Research by Oxford University and Deloitte forecasts that 35% of the UK’s jobs could be automated in the next 10 to 20 years, and that while technology has potentially contributed to the loss of over 800,000 lower-skilled jobs, there’s equally strong evidence to suggest that technology has helped to create nearly 3.5 million higher-skilled ones in their place.
According to Deloitte, there’s a strong pattern that indicates that tasks that are repetitive and routine for humans are increasingly performed by machines. The jobs that are being lost are therefore in lower-skilled clerical, administration and manual occupations.
Meanwhile, thousands of new jobs are being created in technology and creative occupations, business and professional services. These growth jobs require a high degree of manual dexterity or higher cognitive skills, such as those that depend on management or human social interaction – a shift from brawn to brains if you will.
The extent to which AI technology can replace routine and mundane transactions in the travel industry and travel industry jobs is only now being seen with many airlines, online travel agencies and travel management companies employing some form of customer-facing chatbot or virtual assistant.
Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had plans to help businesses build bots on his Messenger app so they can hold automated chats with customers and make sales. Although one wonders if his appetite for AI will be as high since he was forced to shut down his Alice and Bob chatbots which started to invent their own language.
Nevertheless, it looks like they’re here to stay, but what are the benefits and drawbacks of chatbots or virtual assistants?
Benefits and drawbacks of chatbots and virtual assistants
Besides the obvious benefits of saving money and automating routine transactions, chatbots and virtual assistants are available 24/7. But are they as perfect as the techies keeps insisting they are?
Benefits of chatbots and virtual assistants
- They are cheaper in the long-term than apps and human staff
- They free up human staff to conduct more complicated transactions
- They can automate routine and mundane activities
- You can message a chatbot or talk to a virtual assistant at any time of the day
- You don’t need to train them – they’re good to go
- You can reach a big audience because over 75% of Internet users are already using messenger platforms
- Bots can deliver data based on their experiences that can be used in the human environment
Drawbacks of chatbots and virtual assistants
- They’re only as good as they’re programmed to be
- Can take longer to resolve a problem because of primitive algorithms
- Can lead to bot spam if you have to sign up for automatic updates
- There’s no grey – if you have a complicated or unusual request, they cannot pivot as quickly as a human being can and that could mean a missed sale or angry customer
- User experience isn’t always seamless and the service sometimes viewed with suspicion by users especially when it doesn’t work first-time
Chatbots or virtual assistants currently in the market that could threaten travel industry jobs
In the travel industry, we take chatbots a step further, creating virtual travel assistants that have the same characteristics of a chatbot, but also offer additional features such as data for travel management and analytics about business travel spend.
Consider the impact to travel: better corporate travel compliance, automated helpdesks, 24/7 call centre support, a virtual tourist guide…
Here are some of the travel bots / virtual assistants we’re already seeing on the market:
- Expedia Bot
- KLM on Messenger
Sam:] is FCM’s 24-hour travel assistant is designed to simplify life for corporate travellers by blending artificial intelligence with the expertise of a real FCM travel consultant. Sam:] is the highly interactive, travel-savvy and anticipatory “Smart Travel Assistant for Mobile” that assists business travellers with all aspects of travel via a conversational interface to answer questions, make recommendations and perform actions.
Lola is a personal travel service that connects business travellers with a travel agent. The assistant blends AI with human support and learns your personal preferences to create personalised travel results. Her mission ostensibly is to provide business travellers with the “best travel tech” making it easy for them to plan, book and manage their business trips.
Portugal’s TAP Portugal has launched Sofia which is supposed to pop up when you’re asking a question, although she was nowhere to be found when we typed “Where is Sofia” in TAP’s search function on their website. Sofia is supposed to help answer questions about TAP Portugal flights and services, but since she doesn’t pop up when you ask a question users have to rely on normal search results on the TAP website.
Expedia launched its Expedia bot for Facebook Messenger in 2016, promising travellers a quick and convenient way to see hotel options and move forward with a booking. The bot analyses information provided by the user and asks follow-up questions to gather other relevant data to present the hotel options that best match the request. The user can then choose the hotel that meets their needs and book directly with Expedia. Once the booking is complete, the user gets an updated message in their Messenger window with a link to their itinerary. Interestingly, its launch has not come with difficulties as Expedia’s vp of product management, Scott Crawford, was quoted as saying in Digiday. “Natural language processing is the art of knowing synonyms like ‘yeah’, ‘ya’ and ‘yup’ also mean ‘yes. It is a way of better answering questions in a more natural, conversational way, e.g. typing in ‘3 nights’ when prompted how long you want to stay still isn’t accepted, while ‘3’ is.”
KLM offers you to receive your flight documentation via Messenger. After booking your flight on KLM.com you can choose to receive your booking confirmation, check-in notification, boarding pass and flight status updates via Messenger. This makes your travel information easy to find in a single place, available at the airport, en route or at home. KLM also answers questions in 13 languages.
Although we mention Carla, Carlson Wagonlit’s foray into AI includes other characters like Jin, Mei, Aurore and Franck, which are all on hand to memorise travel policy and provide instant advice on business travel. Launched in 2015, Carla can help book flights, recommend hotels and give useful advice such as the type of power adaptor required in a destination. She’s touted as a personal travel agent in the business traveller’s pocket.
Travel industry jobs that could be at risk
When you see how clever these chatbots can be, you have to wonder what travel industry jobs could be at risk of being replaced by the Lolas, Sams and Carlas out there, not to mention the plethora of chatbots and virtual assistants that are under development.
Experts agree that chatbots’ use is for now confined to routine and mundane transactions so customer service roles, call centre agents, helpdesk and basic travel planning and booking.
However, take heart that the discussion around Chatbot/Virtual Assistants is the same as that we’ve been having for decades. When technology makes our role obsolete, we apply our minds to adding value elsewhere and creating different roles.
Even something as universal as the Internet did not kill the role of travel agent. Rather, it forced travel agents to move their focus from transaction to consultation. We employed technology to take over the transactional part of our role and evolved to provide more consultative, sophisticated services.
The perfect recipe for AI influence over travel industry jobs in the near future could well be a combination of chatbot and human support and supervision.
What chatbots do you use? Is your company developing any chatbots currently? Perhaps you’re worried your role might become redundant and you’re looking for a change? We want to hear from you.
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