Transforming the Business Travel Experience through AI and Machine Learning – Interview with Mark Lister, Chief Digital Officer at Ness Digital Engineering
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are transforming the nature of business travel around the world as technology allows us to experiment, model and mimic the synapses of the human brain when it comes to passenger tasks, requests and experiences – both on the ground and up in the air.
In this Q&A, Mark Lister, chief digital officer for Ness Digital Engineering, discusses current trends surrounding AI and machine learning in business travel, and which companies are taking flight with these technological tools.
Can technologies like AI and machine learning eliminate the need for business travel altogether?
Technology – whether it is augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning or cloud – is already reducing the ubiquitous need for business travel because remote meetings can now be conducted almost as effectively as in-person meetings. However, despite technological advancements, today’s remote meetings still have the potential to be derailed by issues such as incompatible hardware, inaudible speakers and misdirected cameras. It’s not always seamless, so the need for business travel still exists and, in my opinion, nothing replaces face-to-face interaction. In fact, dinner with your host on their home patch is usually as valuable to a new relationship as the meeting itself.
Describe how AI and machine learning differ in business travel versus leisure travel.
The source and profile of training data for AI and machine learning solutions in business travel is different compared to leisure travel, because there is an inherent unpredictability within the discovery and transient whimsy associated with choosing a vacation. Because business travel is much more frequent and predictable, there’s a lot more structured data and potential for finding insightful patterns to work with. If we think about a business travel example of a London to New York trip, we could use all manner of data sets, including:
- Airlines and frequencies of flights
- Flights booked by corporate travel agents over individuals on credit cards
- Average duration and most popular day for business in each city
- Patterns for getting into the city from the airport(s) and how this changes with arrival times
- Types of accommodations
- Intersection with sports or cultural events
The list goes on. Each data set would reveal patterns and opportunities for developing innovative services.
How do chatbots come into play when it comes to business travel?
If voice is the next frontier for faux human engagement, one must consider how it will handle such requests as a non-city facing room minus a noisy air conditioner, an ironing board, and a 5 am wake up call for a one-night stay. Will voice technology eventually be able to process the real flow of my natural language (and accent) in a way that makes someone feel confident the requests will be carried out – and they won’t have to expend energy double checking them? Can I access a virtual assistant with specialist insider knowledge (i.e. that I might pay a premium for) of the city I am visiting that will save me hours of preparatory web surfing? There’s still a lot of work to be done in this area.
How can the business travel experience ultimately be personalized?
A social network of personal connections contains within it people residing in or visiting the city I’m visiting; restaurant and hotel reviews they have previously left; and events they have recommended or plan to attend. There is already a data cloud created by the knowledge of the network hanging over a city. This prompts such questions as: “Can an AI travel agent access that social knowledge cloud and plan an itinerary for me without me doing all the legwork?” and “Can it help me buy presents for those I love in the most efficient manner possible?” The company able to accomplish both successfully is the one that will make the biggest splash in this area.
Which global companies do you feel are the current leaders in AI and machine learning and business travel?
From an objective perspective, Expedia and Priceline are both investing strongly in these areas. Meanwhile, Airbnb is reinventing itself as a content company able to organize and facilitate one’s entire visit, which is a novel concept. That’s why they are investing so heavily in AI and machine learning; they need to analyze historical data to make personalized recommendations for the future. Additionally, Disney has also made an impact with the Magic Band, which helps the bill payer spend money more easily than ever before. There’s also a startup like Lola (lolatravel.com), which combines AI with real human intelligence as part of its operations. They are an interesting story in progress.