Monday, June 17, 2024

As Phocuswright Europe kicks off, travel experts weigh in on the AI buzz

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It’s been a busy spring in the travel world, with product rollouts from Expedia Group, Google and OpenAI, among others. So when more than 500 travel insiders gathered in Barcelona Monday for the start of the 2024 Phocuswright Europe conference, there was a lot to chew over even before the start of the networking happy hour.

But, like choosing among a tray of canapés or between a glass of Rioja and cava, where to begin? Perhaps it’s with Expedia’s travel assistant Romie, which can “roam” with travelers, even joining their chats on Messenger, Whatsapp or text to provide timely information about trip planning.

Or maybe it’s Google Gemini, which was already supplying information about booking options and things to do and can now use spatial data and reasoning to prioritize and make decisions while building a personal itinerary.

And then there’s OpenAI’s new voice agent that sounds more lifelike and has all the knowledge of a large language model to help travelers mull their next great adventure.

Part of the reason artificial intelligence is such an appetizing topic in travel is both the immense potential it represents and the unpredictability of where the next advancements could take the industry.

What seems clear is that the companies that adopt AI tech and use it well will have a significant advantage, said Rod Cuthbert, the founder of Viator.

“You’d be crazy to ignore it,” Cuthbert said. “Anybody who thinks or predicts they know where this is going to go is out of their mind. It could go in so many different directions.”

As appealing as it is to imagine a startup taking travel by storm with a thunderstrike of innovation, it’s more likely that an existing player like Google, or even Apple or Meta, sets the standard for how the tech is used, Cuthbert said, adding, “And I think that’s unfortunate because it will stifle innovation.”

Suzanna Chiu, head of Amadeus Ventures, sees in generative AI a great technology that enables the industry to create new tools — while also making existing tools even smarter.

“Looking at the startup, innovation scene, we were seeing superpowered, trip-planning tools in the very beginning,” she said. “Now we’re seeing the technologies moving from search and book to being able to understand the intent of the travelers a little bit better, getting into productivity use cases as well. We’re looking at supporting travel agents to be able to meet the requirements of their customers better. For example, being able to understand a huge amount of emails or supporting a call center environment with suggestions on what would be the most appropriate responses.”

Perhaps even more exciting is the improvements that Amadeus sees possible in solutions it already has on the market for things like looking at flight operations, she added.

“With this even better tool, we’ll be able to look at optimizing flight schedules to minimize an airline’s carbon footprint and environmental impact, [adding] value on the efficiency side and contributing to the sustainability aspect as well,” Chiu said.

I think people tend to overestimate how much this is about the technology versus actual adoption. Technology is not the constraint here. Adoption is.

Lisa Katsouraki – Etraveli Group

Lisa Katsouraki, the senior vice president for corporate development at Etraveli Group, calls herself a bit of a contrarian when it comes to enthusiasm for new tech. The challenge she sees is that the speed of integration into the travel industry doesn’t match the pace of product rollouts.

“I think people tend to overestimate how much this is about the technology versus actual adoption,” she said. “Technology is not the constraint here. Adoption is.”

That’s not to say she isn’t intrigued by some of the possibilities for travel.

“I really do think there are some exciting things that are coming out: biometrics, digital identities, etc.,” Katsouraki said after serving as a mentor during a session on startup programs. “This has the potential to change consumer behavior. But it still may be many, many years.”

Shikhar Agarwal, the Spotnana co-founder and chief technology officer, said the challenge for the industry is thinking beyond the marketing buzz to find the best use cases for each company. His advice to other CTOs and executive decision-makers: Line up the key performance indicators you want to optimize.

“Say ‘I want to cut my costs by 80% or 20%.’ Have some numbers and really dig deeper and see if you are actually solving a problem or not,” Agarwal said. “Don’t get influenced by marketing. Marketing is good to get influenced to make sure you know there is something to achieve with AI – productivity, revenue, new market opportunities, time to market. But go a little bit deeper and figure it out.”

Anna Schneider, a senior research and intelligence analyst at Lufthansa Innovation Hub, said the new generative AI tools have brought travel to a new level of inspiration and planning.

“It makes things so much easier,” she said. “And I think the fact that we’re seeing so many of the big players in travel already launching [and] using generative AI [and] ChatGPT showcases how important that demand is and how they’re also trying to substantiate their own position in being able to utilize and being able to implement generative AI for travel planning and travel booking.”

That said, she predicts that the coming months will see more discussion over the challenges in using large language models

“Currently, working with LLMs is like taming the beast,” Schneider said. “You have to be able to get it to a point where it can provide reliable information 100% of the time. But it doesn’t happen like that, right? It doesn’t happen as [easily] as that, and everyone’s kind of experimenting. There’s different and new assessment frameworks and techniques. So, I do think there’s going to be more discussion around the challenges “

 Bryan Batista, chief operating officer at Skyscanner, also took a forward-looking view. As interesting as some of the new developments are, he said the potential to impact both travelers and the ecosystem in the near future is even greater. He went on to offer some examples.

“[For travelers] AI-powered discovery and trip planning will be more ubiquitous, while supply chain innovations will be plentiful, such as airline operations becoming vastly more efficient – the work in airspace management and contrail reduction is particularly interesting,” Batista said. “Hotels will allow travelers to create bespoke experiences. In car hire, we will see fully desk-less rentals being more commonplace and AI-powered vehicle damage recognition at return.

“For Skyscanner, we’ll be determining how technology can offer truly traveler-first innovations,” he added, “and we see AI as core to our operations and how we help travelers navigate travel search.”

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