WTM report: The chatbot debate — are they a do or a don't?

At WTM this week and away from the enormous crowds, the Thai boxers, the Brazilian samba dancers and the mini jungles (courtesy of Costa Rica's stand!), a data scientist from Expedia Affiliate Networks was quietly arguing the case for chatbots in hospitality.

You wouldn’t have known it from the calm atmosphere in the room, but Nuno Castro, a director of data science for EAN, was talking about a potential new front in guest communications that we will see the force of in just over two years.

He claimed that 50% of all internet searches will be done via voice technology by 2020. Chatbots, however, will be involved in 80%. The rapid growth is down to technology having caught up with scientists’ thinking: advances in speech recognition have gotten us down to a 5% error rate. Consequently chatbots “have the potential to be the next step” in hotel search, Castro said.

Castro and his fellow speakers, Paul Mulcahy, Senior VP Commercial, Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts, and Daniel Wishnia, a Digital Marketing Consultant for GCH Hotel Group, were asked whether the use of this kind of technology risks de-humanising hospitality — an industry that thrives on people?

The answer was a resounding no.

Mulcahy suggested technology like this would simply “take the pain” out of this part of the booking process. That would free up hotel staff to ensure “every interaction with a person was meaningful and adding value”.

Wishnia explained that technological improvements are all about making people more comfortable. iPads, for example, suggest music he might like, while voice assistants can help him find where he needs to go. Using voice in hospitality is another extension of that.

What about the effect that chatbots and voice assistants will have on hotel branding? Searching in this way means potential customers don’t necessarily interact with a brand’s website, imagery and positioning.

Mulcahy was again relaxed about the prospect. “It’s already happening anyway. With the likes of Google, when you type in a hotel name, a booking form, all of that functionality comes up on the first page of results. It just makes it more and more important that when your guest is on your property that you make that experience amazing.”

Our own Chief Tease Charlie Osmond agrees that technology can enhance the guest experience. At last month’s Direct Booking Summit in Barcelona, he argued that artificial technology can support staff and "make humanity scalable".

Expedia on urgency messaging

Castro was not let go without being asked about the UK’s recently launched investigation into hotel booking sites and their possible “pressure selling”. Should machine learning be used to create notifications that, for example, show there is only one room left and encourage customers to book?

He responded: “These days people expect ecommerce websites to have recommendations. People expect urgency messaging, like "five people just booked this room". People nowadays expect it and when they don’t see it, they find it strange. What’s important is that the machine and the data that those messages are derived from actually represent the true state of things. If that’s the case and people expect it, there’s nothing wrong with it.”

If you have any thoughts on this, you can contribute to the UK investigation. The regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority, wants accommodation providers to participate via a questionnaire. You can find it on the case page.

In the meantime, you can read our view on the probe or check out the Direct Booking Summit magazine for all the best industry tips, tricks and advice.

About The Author

Clare is Content Manager at Triptease. She'll be updating you on industry news and relaying our exclusive research and special reports. She'd love to know what you want to read so please get in touch!