Passengers are in the driving seat for a smarter travel experience

We book holidays with the intention of relaxing, but organising a trip is often anything but. Choosing the right destination, booking your travel and getting from your front door to your hotel room can be a stressful experience – but new technologies such as machine learning and augmented reality could make choosing, booking and going on a trip a breeze.

According to Scott Crawford, vice president of product at Expedia, travel has so far missed out on the benefits of many of new innovations. But he says there will be “a lot of movement” in the industry over the next year or so as it embraces these latest advances, which will mean customers’ online bookings flow much more like a natural conversation.

“What we find very interesting is if you think back over the last 20 years there have been huge advances in technology but the fundamental customer experience of booking travel online has not changed a great deal,” he explains. “The interface has remained reasonably constant… We feel that in the next few years there will be some pretty fundamental shifts.”

The average user visits Expedia’s website 49 times before finally booking a flight, and it is no wonder given the sheer choice on offer. Even for a simple flight from Seattle to Atlanta on a set date, Crawford says there are 19 million combinations to choose from. So the challenge for the firm is to make it easier for customers to find and book a trip that is right for them.

Although he says travel matching is “a really, really complex problem to solve”, the site is already trialling new features including a Search Anything button that lets users enter keywords in regular language to find suggestions. Advances in areas including machine learning are allowing Expedia to interpret customers’ requests increasingly accurately.

“The more you open that up to natural conversation, you get an exponential increase in the number of options that we could return or match to, and so… that’s where machine learning comes in,” Crawford says, adding that as a first step the firm has launched chat bots for Facebook, Alexa and Skype, with the latter also allowing customers to change or cancel flights.

At the moment, customers whose queries cannot be answered by the bots are referred to human agents, but to improve on these services and make it even easier for visitors to find and book a trip, he explains that Expedia looks at their emotional reactions and collects “a huge amount of data” to ensure that its services improve and grow easier to use.

“For us it really is a game of collecting as much information as possible,” Crawford says. “The more data we get, the more the algorithms can be refined and the more we can look for patterns… to look at how well we are matching customers to their experiences.”

To ensure a perfect match, in future holidaymakers may even be able to “try before they buy”, he explains, using virtual reality to get a feel for potential destinations before they book and giving those without the budget or means to travel a chance to “visit” more places.

“We definitely see a very interesting opportunity there,” Crawford says. “I think virtual reality will really make experiences a lot more accessible… and definitely virtual reality will play more of a part in that inspiration phase.”

But the improved travel experience does not end once you make your booking. The way we travel is also set to change, and part of this involves smoothing out one of the biggest pain points of any holiday or business trip: the airport.

“Airports are very focused on the layout,” says Andrew Watson, co-founder and head of global partnerships at airport app Flio. “This is where I always have felt that airports have focused on how they manipulate the passenger experience, whereas it feels now it’s more the passengers that are dictating how that airport experience is.”

He says various technologies are fuelling this transformation, including mobile. Flio allows passengers to add their own hints and tips for airports around the world, improving future travellers’ experiences with handy information like where the best shops are.

“For me, it’s about personalising that experience,” Watson explains. “I think how that will change is through indoor mapping – what would be fantastic is there needs to be some sort of navigation element to that.”

By combining map information with data from beacon technology, he says, future airport apps could advise passengers on the most efficient routes through the airport, suggesting places to visit on the way based on their previous purchases.

For example, a coffee-drinking passenger would be given a chance to stop off at a coffee shop before they reach their gate, and may be given a special offer through their smartphone. Ultimately, it is about making the airport experience less stressful and more efficient.

And the transformation will continue once you reach your destination. Crawford says augmented reality will present “a lot of very interesting opportunities for travel” – for example, pointing out the most efficient route to hotels, directing travellers to pre-booked taxis once they arrive at their destination airports or acting as a virtual tour guide in foreign cities.

“You could imagine the integration of those technologies to make that experience as seamless as possible,” Crawford says. This, he stresses, is the end goal: making sure that each new innovation solves a problem for travellers to make their trips more enjoyable.

“I think one of the things that is more unique about travel is that for the majority of people, it is a reasonably infrequent purchase,” he explains. “It is also a pretty expensive purchase… And it is not like when you buy a book from Amazon, where if you do not like it you can send it back. You don’t know you’ve got the right trip until you’re on it.

“There is a huge amount of financial and emotional investment in that, as well… All the investment we are making is designed to take the pain and angst out of that process as much as possible and help customers find the right experience for them.”

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