JAPAN has done a tremendous amount of work in the past decade to help foreign travellers by installing English language signs at transport hubs and dual language announcements on Bullet trains.
Many street and road signs have also been adapted. So far, so good. This week, however, things started to become even more comfortable.
Hire a car through Times Car Rental at Narita Airport and you will be offered the Bebot chatbot on a messaging platform of your choice. It’s a personal concierge, which can give directions, book restaurants (and show reviews) and answer frequently asked questions, all in English.
Bebot launched in Japan in April and is already used by hotel chains including Holiday Inn. One Japanese hotel, the Henn na, even uses humanoid robots on the front desk – and a report in The Guardian in May discussed how such robots are being taught to become ‘emotional chatting machines.’
It’s not that radical: chatbots have been developing for several years. But their adoption rapidly became more widespread when Facebook introduced chatbot support to Messenger last year.
More than 35,000 chatbots were launched through the platform last year. In travel, I found a list of 100+ on Chatbottle.
Mobile messaging will, by next year, be used by 80% of all smartphone users, according to eMarketer. So travel newbies like SnapTravel have jumped in, using artificial and human intelligence to search online travel agents (OTAs) and offer hotel deals. “A half-bit, half-human service,” it says on its chat platform.
Basically, chatbots will answer straightforward questions (‘What’s the luggage limit,’ to an airline or ‘What time is check-in from?’ to a hotel). Weather and delay updates can be shared easily. Check-in becomes remote. And when the question gets complicated, a human kicks in.
Hotels and airlines (KLM, as usual) have been quickest in travel to adopt the technology. Not only does it save staff time, it helps build profile of its customer base.
Aggregators like SnapTravel and Hipmunk have evolved, while established players like Skyscanner have also jumped into the game. They can see a future where travellers use one app to Plan Your next Holiday, using AI and human research.
On-demand information and service, via voice or messaging, has become common – easy when a lot of the work is done by robots. In an EyeforTravel webinar on travelbots last week, Michael Mrini, director of IT at Edwardian Hotels, said its bot can answer 600 frequently asked questions, and more are being added all the time.
“We decided a few years back that if we wanted to raise the bar, we had to free up our employees,” he said. The staff now have 23 internal apps detailing every aspect of operations, such as rotas, maintenance and housekeeping.
That evolved to customer-facing usage, with guest information and preferences stored and accessible to all staff. “We wanted to make employees mobile and available to guests,” he added.
Guests are texted or emailed three days before arrival. They can choose a room, check-in (and check-out) at the concierge. “Guests like self-service: they don’t like to arrive and queue,” said Mrini. The company found that guests also asked questions – could they get spaghetti bolognese when they arrived at 2.30am?
The bot evolved a year ago. The group’s ‘virtual host’ is called Edward. Like so many, the bots are given names (90% female) and are linked to the live booking system to answer questions such as whether the room is ready or whether breakfast is included. The answers are fed back to room service in the system.
“A lot of companies who do bots think guests will only ask basic questions: in real-life, it’s far more complex.” So if someone asks for a bouquet for his wife’s birthday, information is relayed about the nearest florist – but a message is also sent to customer service to note the birthday, who will act accordingly.
Such personalization is commonly reflected in a customer’s positive social media. But it could, and is likely to, result in loyalty, particularly as the benefits become seamless and ever more personalized.
Naturally, there are industry reservations over data security, a preference for face to face communication and a fear of manipulated answers. The 2017 mobile travel survey by Kayak also points out that more than half of UK adults have never heard of chatbots.
But according to Edwardian, the benefits for both brand and guests are stark.
“It has taught us so much about our guests. We didn’t know that guests started thinking about breakfast when they go to bed. Edward is going to continue to grow and learn,” said Mrini.