EyeforTravel North America 2018

October 2018, Las Vegas

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AI and why the lucky ones get to play musical chairs

The artificial intelligence genie is out the bottle but it needs to learn kindness and sensitivity, but travel reps may not be the best people to learn from! Pamela Whitby reports

Worried that sneaky artificially intelligent bot is coming to take your job in travel, or destroy your travel business?

If you look at the headlines, the answer to this worrying question could be anything from: yes, no to don’t know, or it depends. The only certainty, it seems, is uncertainty and there will be threats and opportunities as a result.

On the one hand, the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, has warned that AI and machines will potentially make a huge number of jobs obsolete, and on a much greater scale than previous industrial revolutions.

In the travel industry, jobs losses are expected to come from driving cost efficiencies and greater profitability. Reports like this one from McKinsey finds that in travel AI “can more than double what is achievable using traditional analytic methods, amounting to between seven and almost 12 per cent of total revenue for the industry”.

Abhijit Pal, Expedia’s head of research, explains: “Cost efficiencies have been one of the main drivers for transactional travel companies to implement AI and one of the biggest costs is servicing the customer. Every hand off for an agent is expensive.”

Cost efficiencies have been one of the main drivers for transactional travel companies to implement AI and one of the biggest costs is servicing the customer

Abhijit Pal, Head of Research, Expedia

From confirming their flight to requesting a king-size bed or checking whether a room is available, such mundane requests could easily be offloaded to an AI driven chat bot, something that numerous travel companies, including Expedia, are already exploring. However, at the moment human agents are still needed for more complex requests, which chatbots are not yet able to handle, although  this seems only a matter of time.

Understandably, when jobs are at stake, there can be unease, and even resistance from employees. This was the case at Stena Lines, when took it took an ambitious decision to become an AI-first company, and the first cognitive ferry operator to be fully assisted by 2021.

Amer Mohamed, now chief digital officer at CapGemini Scandinavia, was previously head of digital innovation at Stena Lines. Among the milestones of his tenure are that Stena Lines is the first shipping company to appoint a head of AI, has employed 10 data scientists and embarked on 10 AI projects. However, the to get to this pointed required navigating some choppy waters. Among the roughest to navigate were culture and mind-set, and getting employees to buy in to building something that would eventually become autonomous. People had many questions Does that mean my job will be automated? Why? What will I do instead? Will I get fired?  

“I had to learn quickly to not be so insensitive when dealing with people,” Mohamed says.

Harsh realities

Being sensitive to the needs of one’s workforce is a noble quality but the reality is that very often it’s a dog-eat-dog world. “The [brutal] fact of the matter,” says Joerg Esser, a theoretical physicist, consultant to Roland Berger and former group director of Thomas Cook, “is that business has always chosen what's most efficient and scalable, which we have already seen in shifts to outsourcing and offshoring.”

At the Expedia Group, a company that has always put technology central to their mission, mindset and culture has proved much less of a challenge. If you work for Expedia, says Pal, “you have to be prepared to play musical chairs”. And, as somebody who has been with the group for 12 years and has already held seven job roles, he should know.

According to Pal, most of Expedia’s employees are used to change and understand it. “We have literally grown so fast that in our Bellevue headquarters, folks have to move desks at least once every six months,” he says.

The brutal fact is that is that business has always chosen what's most efficient and scalable

Joerg Esser, Roland Berger

However, not everybody in the Expedia ecosystem is comfortable with new technologies. In Hawaii, the company is currently working with Cornell University to investigate the commercial possibilities for virtual and augmented reality in the tours and activities market. These activities are currently sold by sales agents on commission; these local experts have never needed a VR headset to sell a tour or activity, and may view their introduction as unnecessary. Expedia is hopeful, however, that VR gives agents a useful tool in not only helping to boost conversions, but also commissions. While Pal, acknowledges that future VR technology could be so immersive that it replaces travel altogether, Pal believes this is highly unlikely.

Pal argues that Expedia’s success is down to the fact that it views employees as its most valuable asset. “We have recently introduced six strategic imperatives with one focused on people, and strive to attract exceptional people who share a passion for travel tech.”

In general, adds Pal, ”there is no fear in the Expedia culture, just maybe a little agitation that you have to move your chair”.

Ups and downs

While AI might soon be mainstream, there is a flicker of good news for the naysayers in a recent Adobe Experience Index report, which found that 53% of consumers would rather interact with a human than a computer.

Adobe closely marketing firm Invoca, which conducted a survey to understand the role of humans. If found that we are still some way away, tens to hundreds of years, from artificial general intelligence (AGR); while machines might be able to ‘think’ faster than humans today, they still aren’t able to think for themselves!

However, survey also shows that travel employees do need to up their game, if they want to beat the bots in the short to medium term. Compared to other industries, human travel reps rank lowest for problem solving, even temper and empathy, and in meeting consumers’ emotional needs via phone and in person.

Compared to other industries, human travel reps rank lowest for problem solving, even temper and empathy, and in meeting consumers’ emotional needs via phone and in person

Adobe Experience Index

If an AI chatbot can learn kindness and understanding, and 54% of under-35s believe that all artificial intelligence will within five years, then bots might be a better bet for an industry that relies heavily on delivering an outstanding customer experience.

Still, for the foreseeable future most travel brands still see a need for the human interaction for complex enquiries and especially to address the concerns of premium customers.

Says Pal: “We are [still] constantly hiring people in call centres but also in our headquarters and major market management offices around the globe.” Expedia’sexpanding office space in Bellevue, set to open in 2019, is proof.

The lucky ones are those with the ability to move within a tech-driven firm like Expedia, but that is far from everybody in hospitality. Indeed, it is not just call centre operators that are threatened by AI and automation but housekeepers, cleaners, lobby boys, kitchen staff and more.

So, yes, the AI genie is out of the bottle but the significant challenge now is for governments and business, with the help of experts, to guide AI and automation in a direction where all in society can prosper.

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