The Concierge is a Bot (and Other True Stories of Travel Tech)

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Eye For Travel was a low-key and session-packed conference for professionals who believe that “machines” can make travel and hospitality better for humans.

Although some of the content revolved around algorithms, databases, and hardcore geeky stuff, much of it dealt with the customer experience — before, during, and after travel. The global event itself was an interesting blend of face-to-face mingling (cocktail parties, lunches, and the networking board — see the video, below) and technology-enabled interaction (via a conference app and for audience polling).

Paul English, Co-Founder of Kayak and Founder of travel start-up Lola was one of my favorite speakers. Anyone who wants to make business (or bleisure) travel easier is my superhero!

A few of my takeaways:

  • We are all being followed. As we search online booking engines, our habits and preferences are being collected and used to make highly-personalized recommendations. Our phones know where we are and what we’re doing. To quote Del Ross of McKinsey, moderator of several panels, “Google is the scariest company in the world that we all use all the time.”
  • As in many industries today, the consumer is in charge. Technology enables each of us to act as his or her own travel agent. Virtual reality is being used to give prospective guests a better sense of destinations and social media is being harnessed to influence purchase decisions. Airlines still have a long way to go, according to Ray Singh of Jet Blue. He quipped, “It’s the 1990s calling and they want their websites back,” when talking about how transacting online with most airlines can be ponderous and frustrating.
  • The mobile device is the ticket to travel planning these days. Jeena James, Global Head for Travel & Local, Apps Business Development at Google Play, talked about how travel companies must develop a “mobile first mindset.”
  • Even traditional travel companies are looking for ways to deliver unique alternative experiences. Companies like Oasis and Vacasa are cropping up as alternatives to Airbnb. Shockingly, few speakers addressed how Gen Z (soon to be the largest segment of the population) will impact the industry. Michelle Woodley of Preferred Hotels (one of the few executive women on stage over the course of two days) had the foresight to note, “Understanding their [next-gen travelers] preferred methods of payment will be important to capturing your share of market. They don’t carry cash.
  • Competition in the travel industry is coming from far and wide. Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are the Great White Sharks,” said Kurien Jacob of Highgate Ventures. “If they’re not in travel now, they will be.
  • Bots are helping humans deliver better, faster service. The winner of the start-up challenge this year was Dazzle, in test with Marriott to supplement the human concierge with a virtual team. See the video for more, as well as some words from first runner-up, Bizly.
  • As one speaker said, “Voice is becoming sexy.” Voice recognition technology has advanced and we will continue to speak to devices (the iOt concierge...our phones...airport kiosks) to help us get where we need to go.

But bots, AI, and algorithms aside, I think Todd Henrich, SVP of Corporate Development at Priceline Group, summed it all up in the shortest distance between millions of points:

“The purpose of technology is to make travel frictionless for the consumer.”

Here’s to a future of frictionless travel! Hope to see you at the next Eye for Travel U.S. conference in San Francisco!

You read the post, now watch the movies! Here are some short video interviews.

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