HUMAN-ISH TOUCH

Huge booking sites are using chatbots and voice recognition software to perfect robot “travel agents”

Obsession
Getting There
Obsession
Getting There

One of my most rewarding jobs was as a travel agent.

From my desk at 10 Downing Street—in New York City—I comforted crestfallen backpackers denied boarding by airlines because they forgot to get a visa, or only purchased a one-way ticket (don’t do this) for a jaunt through South America. We sat together and filled out paperwork and exchanged their tickets. On happier occasions, I helped travelers enamored with New York extend their stay in the Big Apple. I guided spring breakers through the endless list of destinations for a week of sun and self-degradation.

After I quit to pursue another beleaguered profession—print journalism—the branch that I worked at was among several closed by the student-focused agency, victims of the explosive growth in online travel sites. These sites are still in demand. Chinese online booking company Ctrip.com, for example, just bought travel-search engine Skyscanner.

For about two decades, the process of booking travel has largely become an impersonal chore. Now, the online travel agencies that dominate the way we hem, haw and eventually book our travel, are realizing that would-be travelers are craving conversation.

Most of that, so far, has been achieved with chatbots. In June, Expedia launched its chatbot for Facebook Messenger, while Kayak has had one for Slack since May.

Last-minute booking app HotelTonight offers an in-app concierge, called HT Pros, in which human agents answer requests from guests, such as whether they can extend their stay, or check in early, or have a toothbrush in the room when they arrive.

Once a guest who used the app to book his hotel in Denver asked one of the HotelTonight agents for a Nicolas Cage poster in his room. The company’s CEO Sam Shank told Quartz that the request was granted and said, no, Cage wasn’t the guest.

“This stuff isn’t cookie-cutter,” Shank said.

Barely one-year-old hotel-discount startup SnapTravel allows guests to book their rooms over Facebook Messenger or SMS by conversationally plugging in dates and hotel requirements in chat form. Co-founder and chief executive Hussein Fazal says that human agents based outside of Manila and in Toronto generally take over for post-booking queries.

Other initiatives hark back to times of old, harnessing the ancient art of speech.

Booking.com said it is testing voice-recognition technology for reservations. Glenn Fogel, executive vice president at Priceline, which owns Booking.com, said this month that virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home could serve that purpose.

“Over time, will people say, ‘I want to go to London,’ and the device will do everything, and you won’t have to do anything,” he told Yahoo Finance at a technology conference in London.

Competitor Expedia is dabbling as well. In late November, it launched a service that provides travel updates for Amazon Alexa on Amazon Echo or Echo Dot.

These services are in their early stages. For what is a very emotional business, it’s a step in the right direction. Just don’t expect anyone to hand you a tissue after you miss your flight.

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