With Facebook making headlines this week as it launches ‘ Bots on Messenger ’ where does the travel industry stand? Pamela Whitby takes a look
‘The chat bots are coming’, headlined the Washington Post in an article this week. Bots, a ‘seemingly nerdy new product’ are ‘the programming trend of the day in Silicon Valley’, wrote the Guardian. In this week of media fanfare after Facebook announced that ‘Bots on Messenger’ are coming, one could be mistaken for thinking they are new.
A quick scan, however, of chatbots.org, a directory featuring over a thousand of the world’s virtual assistants from a range of different industries, proves that this is not the case. In fact, the first ever chat bot, Eliza, was born in 1966 and parodies a therapist to answer questions of patients undergoing Rogerian treatment, a form of person-centred psychotherapy.
Also featured on the site are numerous virtual assistants used by airlines, hotels travel agents tour operators and so on.
In the airlines space, United’s Virtual Expert ‘Alex’ has been around since 2009. She originated on Continental.com but migrated to United after the merger in 2011. Today she answers 75,000 questions for the world’s largest airline with a positive.
More recently, in 2015, TAP Portugal launched Sofia who is programmed to respond to queries about check-in, baggage rules and allowances, special needs services and more. She is now available in Brazil and the UK, after first appearing in Portugal.
For UK-based travel agent On The Beach Alison answers common queries 24/7 and Valerie at Virgin Holidays is said to have a ‘wealth’ of knowledge, and is able to respond to natural language queries like ‘What is it like to visit Dubai’ or even ‘What films are showing on my flight?’
On the hotel front Julia is a Polish virtual assistant for Hotel Chobry and focuses strongly on localisation. And Travelodge has Andrea, which uses the technology specifically to reduce the number of routine inbound customer service queries to the call centre. Travelodge says this saves hugely on customer service costs while also increasing customer satisfaction levels.
This is really what chat bots are being use for today.
“Companies are constantly trying to optimise profits and revenues while at the same time reducing costs. At the same time, customers across every industry, including travel, are looking to find the lowest price,” says Erwin van Lun, CEO and founder of Chatbots.org. “This is where bots can help”.
Instead of spending months training a human who then leaves for another job, bots can programmed in any language and are there to answer queries 24/7, something that customers increasingly demand.
Not all, however, work so well. This proved by a brief interaction with one of the oldest virtual operators in the travel space, 11-year-old Barbie Bot, a chat bot for the Bella Vita Boat Club, a sort of boating event and party outfit.