Every traveler has a voice. Let them speak.
Almost as soon as Apple’s Siri showed up in the iPhone 4S in October 2011, there was excitement around the role the voice-based personal assistant could play in the travel industry. For example, just days after the release, veteran digital marketer Dennis Jenders put travel planning on the top of his list of things he’d like Siri to do.
“At the very least, it would be wonderful to see Siri give a range of dates and then show a list of flights from a provider,” said Jenders, who is now vice president of digital and social at GMR Marketing. “This shouldn’t stop with flights either. From car rentals to hotels, Siri should have the ability to help you plan your travel.”
A similar story could be told about Amazon Echo, which burst onto the scene in 2015. But while everyone seems to agree that voice-enabled tech and the travel and hospitality industry are perfectly matched, that match has mostly gone unrealized as we head into 2018.
52% of U.S. broadband households use a voice-enabled personal assistant through an application or device:
Source: Parks Associates
Hotels, such as Marriott and the Wynn Las Vegas, have made news for exploring how they can use voice-enabled technology to help customers manage room temperatures, TVs, and so on. And in 2016, Kayak began launching its integration with Echo, which allows customers to perform basic travel-planning tasks through the device — booking a hotel, checking the status of a flight, and so on. While these early starts are promising, they aren’t the nirvana of voice-enabled travel that seems ever on the horizon.
“The Kayak/Alexa interface…may work best for people with simple, repeatable travel needs, such as a corporate traveler who visits the same destination weekly,” says Sean O’Neill, travel and technology editor for Skift. “Yet that describes only a sliver of the traveling public. While the concept has promise, [it] has to improve before it becomes useful to the average traveler.”
For Jon Glick, a partner with PwC who works closely with travel and hospitality brands to understand how technology changes the way they interact with consumers, reviews like this sum up the current state of travel and voice. “I don’t think I’ve seen anybody truly winning,” he says. “I think people are experimenting and I think there’s a lot of opportunity, but I don’t see anybody really winning in a spectacular way.”
Making memories, not stress.
As we start to untangle the challenges that beset travel and hospitality companies that want to take advantage of voice-enabled technology, let’s consider the opportunity. Why does everyone seem to think voice and travel are so clearly a match?
The quick answer is convenience. “Travel is often stressful,” Glick says. “So the whole point of using voice-powered technology would be removing stress and inconvenience from a travelers’ journey.”
And voice technology is perfect for reducing what can often be complicated tasks. For a real, non-travel example of this, consider a boardroom meeting where executives need quick access to numbers and data to make good decisions. The standard solution is for someone to dig through dashboards or PowerPoints to find the needed info, but by the time they do, the meeting has either stalled or moved on to something else. But some companies today are using voice technology to work around this. By training an Echo with the right skills, they can simply ask for the data they want and Alexa gives it to them.
50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020.
It’s not hard to see how this convenience translates to the travel and hospitality industry. For both customers and companies, time is crucial to a travel experience. Both are trying to get the most out of the time they have — whether that means more time relaxing on a beach instead of stuck in an airport for the customer or selling more hotel rooms so inventory isn’t wasted for the company.
In all these cases, the more a travel or hospitality company can do to simplify complicated tasks — like booking a flight or hotel — the better that experience will be, and voice could go a long way in helping to do that. For example, a person can speak at 140 words per minute versus type at 40 words per minute. Most travelers would prefer to spend their time doing something other than filling out laborious reservation forms.
But the value of voice doesn’t end with convenience. Travel and hospitality brands today aren’t in the business of simply selling time. They want to help travelers create memories that are timeless. Voice has a role to play here, too, but it involves more than a simple voice interface.
Mike Pearl, another PwC partner, describes what one such voice-enabled travel experience might look like.
“Regular travelers like me typically do the same things. For me, if there’s an ironing board or a place to get clothes pressed, that’s a big deal. These regular behaviors are the kinds of things that, if handled by a voice-enabled device, you could use to begin to create a useful profile.”
In other words, by allowing customers to interact with a voice-powered device in situations where they might otherwise interact with a person — say, calling the front desk — you can gather valuable behavioral data about that customer, and consequently offer a more personalized and memorable experience.
“By providing that concierge effect in the room, you’re not just using it to automate certain functions but also storing that customer data and then enriching the profile of that customer. That’s pretty compelling,” Pearl says.
“You can then begin to curate the persona of an individual guest in a way that you wouldn’t be able to if you were capturing all of that information offline — it’s just too much work,” Pearl continues. “As you capture that, you can then create a personalized experience across all of the different aspects of your engagement with that individual guest.”
Technology talks back.
It’s a compelling vision on any level, so why hasn’t it happened? And what can travel and hospitality brands do to make it a reality?
The obvious answer is technology. Pulling off a seamless voice-enabled journey requires an investment in artificial intelligence and machine learning, natural language processing, and more. But as crucial as these investments are, the ability to integrate them into an existing stack may be a bigger challenge.
“At its core, you need an infrastructure and volumes of data,” Pearl says, “something that has enough context and enough intelligence to parse voice interactions and then do something with them. That’s the biggest barrier. Our organizations need to understand and lay the foundation for everything that needs to be in place for these very powerful, emerging technologies to be employed effectively.”
In travel and hospitality, this may be a significant problem. According to Adobe’s Digital Marketing Study, only 18 percent of travel and hospitality brands have the kind of digital maturity to pull off this kind of integration. But that number is up 80 percent from 2016, so clearly there’s momentum.
Another concern is that many parts of a voice strategy rely on third parties like Amazon, Google, or Apple.
“You’re reliant on a third-party hardware and software to manage the voice recognition to make sure that what people say is what the machine hears it to be,” Glick says. “That means you have to interface with that technology so you have to build an interface better.”
At the end of the day, this challenge comes back to the strength and flexibility of your tech stack.
“The hard part is making sure that all your applications and the services will work with this new interface,” Glick continues. “You need to expose your technology to many different layers and interfaces. You need not only a strong foundational backbone for those technology applications but also a comprehensive services layer that exposes those technologies to the different interfaces. We see a lot of companies recognizing this and really thinking about their API strategy.”
While technology can be a significant challenge to adopting a successful voice strategy, there are definitely ways to speed things up. For example, remember that voice is just another channel so making smart technology decisions that enable you to execute a comprehensive, omni-channel customer journey — establishing that unified foundation, solidifying your API strategy, and making sure you have the right data — will help set you up for success.
“Experimenting with different channels, like voice, isn’t about the channel itself, it’s about creating an emotional connection with your audience by using the right data,” says Julie Hoffmann, head of travel and hospitality industry strategy and marketing at Adobe. “Data is the oil that powers meaningful connections for customers throughout the journey.”
An additional tactic is to start — or continue — to invest in chatbots. When broken down to their core, chatbots, which have been around much longer than voice assistants like Siri or Alexa, use many of the same technologies and are much easier to implement.
“Automated chat services have been around for a while,” Glick says. “But now the artificial intelligence has caught up with it and companies have had a decade to build their data and update their technology so that they can expose this content in a way that the automated chatbots can respond to it.
“From there, voice interaction isn’t that far off. So while I don’t think chat technology is necessarily a prerequisite, when you get that as a backbone, it makes this whole voice interaction thing a lot easier because you can piggyback off of it.”
Speak to the customer journey.
As tough as the technology is, however, it may not be the real problem.
The bigger challenge is finding the right use cases that allow you to overlay voice across the travel journey. Where would voice have the biggest impact? Which devices should you use and where? How can voice make your customer’s journey smoother, more memorable? By thinking in terms of the customer journey, you can make customer interactions more useful and seamless, and that’s where value comes from.
For Petteri Skaffari, head of IT at Finnair, it’s as much a design and experience problem as it is a technology problem. “We think in terms of the whole customer journey,” he told Amadeus, a travel technology company. “Our vision is to help customers get through the airport as efficiently as possible and to remove all bottlenecks to the customer experience.”
For Pearl, thinking through the experience is crucial, too, and not something to take lightly. “I actually think the technology problem is easier,” he adds.
We can see this playing out in the Kayak/Alexa integration. For the last 15 years, the booking site has trained users to expect a variety of search results, allowing them to easily compare prices and choose the one that best fits their needs. But voice interactions don’t easily allow such comparisons. Just as mobile forced companies to rethink the way they approached forms, voice requires a similar reframing.
“The brevity that voice search requires incentivizes companies like Kayak to become recommendation or personalization engines that provide only a couple of possible optimal results,” writes O’Neill for Skift. This means retraining customer expectations, which isn’t easy. Travel and hospitality companies need to be intentional about how and when they use voice. And the answers may not be obvious.
As Glick puts it, a new voice interaction needs to be more useful and seamless than what customers are currently doing. This means carefully thinking through the customer’s journey and looking for those pain points that voice technology could solve.
“I think people often default to the revenue side of the equation,” Glick says. “How can we use voice to improve our booking process? But I think some of the more popular use cases can be around the service aspect of it. I mean think about what is the most popular and easy use case for somebody to use.”
“It may not have the highest business value for you as a company but it gets the person engaged and gets them hooked in. And once they’re in and used to using this new interface, then you have the permission to expand your use cases, to expand your channel applications.”
It’s clear that voice-enabled technology opens real possibilities for travel and hospitality brands. And since nobody is “truly winning,” as Glick puts it, there’s real opportunity for brands to enter the field and deliver truly memorable travel experiences that are supported with voice technology.
But just as the possibilities are real, so are the challenges.
“You can do more harm than good,” Pearl says, “if your first experience is something that’s either off-putting or of such low value that your customers decide they’re not really interested.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the way forward is the customer. A successful voice strategy starts with the customer, and their needs help guide the way forward. They each have a voice. Let them speak by first understanding where they’d adopt this technology. Then, make investments based upon that.
Dennis Jenders, “Five Things That Apple’s Intelligent Assistant Siri Should Do,” Dennis James, October 20, 2011.
Dina Abdelrazik, “Voice Assistants and Technologies: Ecosystems and Market Leaders,” Parks Associates, 2017.
“Global Voice Recognition Biometrics Market 2015–2019,” Technavio, August 2015.
Johana Bhuiyan, “Mary Meeker: Voice and Image Searches Are Going to Make Up at least Half of all Searches by 2020,” Recode, June 1, 2016.
Jon Glick, partner at PwC, personal interview, August 3, 2017.
Lawrence Lundy, “Future Traveller Tribes 2030: Building a More Rewarding Journey,” Amadeus, June 2015.
Mike Pearl, partner at PwC, personal interview, August 14, 2017.
“Running on Experience,” Adobe Digital Marketing Study, September 2017.
Sean O’Neill, “Kayak and Amazon Now Offer Voice-Powered Hotel Booking,” Skift, July 11, 2017.
Victoria Petrock, “The Internet of Things for Smart Home: Voice Control Hastens Adoption,” eMarketer, page 15, May 2017.