“Computer!” VUI (Voice User Interface) has been likened to all kinds of futuristic pop references from Star Trek to KITT, David Hasselhoff’s smart, talking car from Knight Rider. The concept is a simple—yet tech disruptive—one: Ask a question to your home assistant device (or phone interface) and get a spoken-word answer in real time. And thanks to the advent of home-use-specific devices—Amazon Alexa/Echo, Google Home/Mini—millions (nearly 26 million homes, to be exact) are now using the interfaces. Mobile devices are also in on the ask-and-response party with programs like Cortana (Microsoft), Siri (Apple), Alexa (Amazon), and Google Assistant. All can be accessed by voice; some via typepad (the benefit being texted links). However, some industry watchers predict the type interface will go the way of the rotary phone. Banks including Capital One and Bank of America have spearheaded branded VUI services, and now the travel industry wants in. From booking to alerts, here’s how the future-is-now tech tool may be changing the way we see the world.
Fact: Mobile devices are increasingly used to research travel. Also fact: Direct hotel bookings don’t often happen on mobile or online. (Some stats put it at just 30%.) OTAs (Online Travel Agents, such as Priceline and Expedia) own the digital booking market, with sales projected to be as high as $81.4 million gross in 2020. And OTAs have already begun to roll out VUI partnerships. Kayak (owned by Priceline) gives Alexa users access to room rates and airfares; Expedia allows users to check on flight reservations and rent cars. Currently, neither has the capability to book air travel.
Specialized agents also have a strong appeal for travelers, especially those seeking a curated, authentic and immersive experience. In fact, 60% of millennials say they’d use an agent to craft memorable, niche adventures. And 33% already use such services, according to research by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). With agents saving consumers four hours of research on average, and nearly $450 per transaction, there is opportunity for travel specialists to develop sophisticated VUI interfaces with great impact. Curiously, Lola, a VUI-only travel provider helmed by Kayak co-founder Paul English, recently pivoted exclusively to business travel bookings. In tandem, the outfitter, which launched in 2016, partnered with American Express Global Business Travel to both increase the amount of agents and curate bespoke experiences.
While OTAs own online hotel bookings—thanks in large part to packaging—VUI may give properties more immediate reservation market-share. Industry experts cite leisure travelers’ interest in price above other needs. Smart interfaces can speak to personalization needs, prior search history, and preferences. Answers and options may be more readily available based on system history. Streamlined data feedback can promise great messaging impact, especially for a powerhouse brand such as Marriott that has hotel extensions for literally every kind of traveler.
Experiences and Activities
Speaking of the hospitality giant, Marriott announced an Echo partnership with Amazon this summer. The primary roll-out is for the devices to be placed in guest rooms. Requests—more towels, room service, room temperature—can all be conducted via the in-room speakers. Dazzle, a startup specializing in travel VUI, spearheaded the tech support. Possible wider roll-outs for the company may be more traditional concierge requests—restaurant, theater, excursion requests and bookings—via in-room devices or personal ones. According to research conducted by Google, two in five bookings don’t occur until a few days before travel. Google Assistant would be able to extend available travel options via VUI. The promise is for answers that can be personalized based on search history and spending habits, as well as geotagging.
One of the benefits of VUI is the real-time response. Unlike customer service lines and online chat interfaces, there is no wait time. Airlines have excelled at moving customer service to social media, then to their branded apps. Delta airline’s app upped the ante with real-time baggage tracking, among other services including delay-needed rebooking. When VUI technology becomes even more interactive, it may enhance airline service for on-the-ground customer concerns. And travel snafus may be easier to overcome.
“Insufficient facts always invite danger,” warns Spock. Travel and weather advisories are fluid. Now, some VUI travelers have access to the State Department’s travel warnings and advisories system. Alexa, with code parsed from GitHub, can be programmed to deliver the official State Department information, including local embassy and consulate locations, via its RSS feed. At this time, requests should be pointed and direct: “Alexa, is it safe to travel to Canada?” However, in the future, mobile users may be able to get real-time, geotagged info about safety, weather, and other issues.