Firms us­ing AI to help trav­el­ers with trip plans

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Business - BY JULIE WEED New York Times

At the Ex­pe­dia Group prod­uct test­ing lab, fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware gauges trav­el­ers’ feel­ings as they go through the process of book­ing ho­tel rooms on­line. The Swiss cruise com­pany MSC Cruises is start­ing to use a vir­tual as­sis­tant to an­swer pas­sen­gers’ ques­tions. De­sign­ers from the bou­tique de­sign and re­search firm, the Get­tys Group, can show ho­tel ex­ec­u­tives new room lay­outs us­ing vir­tual re­al­ity gog­gles, so ho­tels don’t need to build a full-scale model.

Travel com­pa­nies are adopt­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and other new tech­nolo­gies to look more deeply into what cus­tomers want and to use that in­for­ma­tion to find faster, cheaper ways to im­prove their of­fer­ings. And as so­phis­ti­cated re­search tools be­come less ex­pen­sive and more widely avail­able, even star­tups in the in­dus­try are us­ing them.

Com­pe­ti­tion in ev­ery as­pect of the travel sec­tor is ex­tremely stiff, and travel com­pa­nies “need th­ese mech­a­nisms to reach their tar­get mar­kets,” said Alex Susskind, as­so­ciate dean of aca­demic af­fairs at Cor­nell’s School of Ho­tel Ad­min­is­tra­tion. “They need to know who wants to see pic­tures be­fore they buy, who de­cides mainly on price, who likes to speak to some­one” and why, he said.

Tammy Snow, the di­rec­tor of user ex­pe­ri­ence re­search at Ex­pe­dia, said re­searchers still use prod­uct test­ing, cus­tomer sur­veys and data anal­y­sis. “What has shifted sig­nif­i­cantly,” she said, “is how we are com­bin­ing tech­nol­ogy and method­olo­gies.”

In Snow’s prod­uct-test­ing lab at Ex­pe­dia head­quar­ters in Belle­vue, Wash­ing­ton, trav­el­ers test as­pects of on­line travel pur­chas­ing, sit­ting down in front of a com­puter in a small room and go­ing through the process of book­ing a flight or plan­ning a va­ca­tion. In a room next door, re­searchers and mem­bers of the prod­uct cre­ation team watch a large video screen that dis­plays what the test sub­ject is do­ing and a scrolling read­out of the sub­ject’s re­ac­tions, gen­er­ated by soft­ware that plots points on that per­son’s face and then uses a cod­ing sys­tem to iden­tify the per­son’s emo­tions.

Alex Hop­wood, a di­rec­tor of prod­uct man­age­ment at Ex­pe­dia, said it helped to get an out­side per­spec­tive. “We get so close to a fea­ture that we start mak­ing as­sump­tions and think we know what the cus­tomer wants,” he said. See­ing how a real trav­eler uses the web­site and re­acts to it “is al­most like a slap in the face – in a good way.”

Scott Wain­ner, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Fare­ness, a 15-per­son startup that lets trav­el­ers com­pare flight prices from a spec­i­fied de­par­ture point to a set of des­ti­na­tions like Euro­pean cities or beaches, said feed­back tools are now af­ford­able even to small travel com­pa­nies. In­ter­net-based ser­vices like Us­abil­ity Hub and UserTest­ing.com al­low com­pa­nies to test dif­fer­ent as­pects of a prod­uct, show­ing two nav­i­ga­tion screens to a sam­ple set of users, for ex­am­ple, to see which they pre­fer. Testers, who have been cho­sen based on their de­mo­graphic pro­file, an­swer ques­tions on­line or record them­selves on video do­ing the task and giv­ing feed­back.

Through user test­ing, Wain­ner said he found that his cus­tomers were most in­ter­ested in learn­ing about the cheap­est flight, the short­est flight and the flight that of­fered the best com­bi­na­tion of sav­ing time and money. Dis­play­ing search re­sults based on this in­for­ma­tion, even though the changes were small, made a big dif­fer­ence in sales, Wain­ner said. He noted that the com­pany “didn’t have to set up our own in­ter­nal test­ing fa­cil­ity” to get that in­for­ma­tion.

Web­site an­a­lyt­ics soft­ware has been im­prov­ing both in the amount of data it col­lects and in the ways it makes that data un­der­stand­able and use­ful. Fare­ness.com uses Mix­panel, a tool that helps an­a­lyze trends like the num­ber and de­mo­graph­ics of Wain­ner’s cus­tomers who view com­pany ads, ex­plore the site and book air­line tick­ets. Us­ing Mix­panel, he said, he can, for ex­am­ple, test dif­fer­ent mes­sages fo­cused on cus­tomers us­ing a spe­cific iPhone op­er­at­ing sys­tem or liv­ing in a cer­tain re­gion of the coun­try, or com­pare ac­tions of re­peat cus­tomers in dif­fer­ent de­mo­graphic groups.

Some travel com­pa­nies are cre­at­ing sys­tems that them­selves gen­er­ate re­search. MSC Cruises is rolling out a vir­tual as­sis­tant in pas­sen­ger cab­ins called Zoe that will an­swer spo­ken ques­tions. It can im­prove its an­swers with con­tin­ual re­search based on the in­ter­ac­tions it has. Zoe was pro­grammed to an­swer the 800 most com­mon ques­tions – queries about ex­cur­sions or on­board restau­rants, for ex­am­ple – and vari­a­tions of those ques­tions in seven lan­guages. The ques­tions were gleaned from staff mem­bers and from data col­lected from the ships’ guest ser­vices desks. To work with an in­ter­na­tional clien­tele, the sys­tem “lis­tened” to 400 peo­ple and im­proved its abil­ity to un­der­stand dif­fer­ent ac­cents.

If a pas­sen­ger needs to ask the same ques­tion re­peat­edly in dif­fer­ent ways, that in­di­cates the sys­tem didn’t un­der­stand the pas­sen­ger’s mean­ing the first time. Ques­tions that Zoe can’t an­swer will be sent as a text to re­searchers who can add ap­pro­pri­ate an­swers to the sys­tem’s next it­er­a­tion. “It’s a never-end­ing process,” said Luca Pron­zati, chief busi­ness in­no­va­tion of­fi­cer of MSC Cruises. “As more peo­ple use the sys­tem, the pool of data gets larger and we do bet­ter.”

Book­ing.com, an Am­s­ter­dam-based on­line travel agent, is in­cor­po­rat­ing sim­i­lar learn­ing into its hy­brid chat­bot, Book­ing As­sis­tant. The as­sis­tant an­swers about 60 per­cent of users’ post-book­ing queries, like ho­tel check­out times or Wi-Fi avail­abil­ity. It also loops in hu­mans when it can’t find the ap­pro­pri­ate an­swer, the com­pany said. The chat­bot im­proves its reper­toire much as the Zoe sys­tem does, ad­ding ques­tions that staff have tagged and an­swered. James Wa­ters, vice pres­i­dent of com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions at Book­ing.com, said that the com­pany was ex­pand­ing its of­fer­ings be­yond ho­tel room reser­va­tions to trans­porta­tion and leisure book­ings, so more cus­tomers would need an­swers to more ques­tions. “The sys­tem is a blend of tech­nol­ogy and hu­man help,” he said.

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