ITB 2017: Digitalisation vs traditional travel chain

The digital transition affecting the tourism industry was a very clear trend across ITB 2017 where three halls were dedicated purely to Travel Technology – digital marketing, social media and mobile travel services.
Also noticeable this year was the increase in international startups in the eTravel World hall as well as the higher number of payment system providers underlining the growing importance of travel technology.

Judging by the mind-boggling number of new technological solutions coming on the market, it is obvious that digitalisation has the potential to undo the ‘traditional’ travel chain.

Are we ready for the digital revolution?
Timothy J. O’Neil-Dunne, Co-Founder of Expedia, who has over 30 years experience in the travel distribution industry led a panel discussion about Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
“In 1995 there were 55,000 travel agencies in the US, today there are less than 14,000 but the big question is ‘are we ready for bots?’ or ‘are we ready for the day when there are no more jobs?’,” he asked. In O’Neil-Dunne’s view, Chatbots will become mainstream pretty soon but we are not there yet.

Mike Slone, Chief Experience Officer at Travelaer SAS, shared his company’s recent investigation into the use of Chatbots in the travel industry.
Out of the 200 airlines, 16 car rentals, 46 hotel chains and 18 OTAs surveyed, only nine currently have Chatbots.  Very few of them have a Facebook messenger link and most – with the exception of the car rental companies – are unresponsive to Facebook messages. “The question is will the industry use Chatbots if they already don’t take Facebook messaging seriously. So why do we believe in them,” Slone asked.

David Low, Developer Advocate, Skyscanner, has been dabbling in bots for two years using messenger, Skype and Alexa (a voice platform). His advice to the audience: “Think twice before building any new product. And don’t follow fashion, do it for the right reasons. Building a bot is easy but building a bot that customers will use again is not so easy.”


Meet #AmadeusPepper, the world’s first emotional robot
Four companies were showcased at the Amadeus booth – Amadeus, Travel Audience, Traveltainment and Pixell – but it was a robot named #AmadeusPepper in Amadeus’ Innovation Center that stole the show, giving visitors a taste of what might one day become the norm in the travel industry.

Pepper is the first ‘emotional’ robot, capable of understanding and reacting to human emotions. Pepper is already being used in the tourism industry – for example, Eva Air uses Pepper during the check-in process and to answer travellers’ questions at Taipei Airport, Taiwan, while at the Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki, Japan, humanoid and dinosaur robots are being used for check-in and to transport luggage to the hotel rooms.

Closer to home, KLM tested ‘Spencer’, a robot to guide travellers during flight connections at Schiphol Airport, Netherlands, in 2016, while Costa Cruises is using Pepper on its AIDA ship to welcome guests aboard.

The scenario demonstrated by #AmadeusPepper was a customer needing to wait in a travel agency until an agent becomes free. While waiting, Pepper ‘entertains’ the customer, showing pictures of destinations and the robot quizzes customers on their travel preferences. Based on the answers and reactions, Pepper comes up with some destination recommendations. The idea is to pass this information on to the travel agent to speed up the booking process. (See for yourself here!)

“We don’t know if the robot will ever be used in a travel agency but we wanted to show visitors at ITB what could be possible,” says Sascha Nau, Head of Marketing, Amadeus DACH & Traveltainment. 


Virtual reality experiences at Sabre
Across the floor at the Sabre booth, the focus was on “creating experiences not itineraries” with the new, more graphical Sabre Red Workspace as one of the main highlights. Visitors could also try out a virtual reality travel experience using the Microsoft HoloLens. The idea is that you wear the goggles, view the street you are on and a hologram shows you the nearest pub, as one example. This received a mixed reaction from visitors – tech geeks loved it, others felt less comfortable with it.


Like it or not – these trends are here to stay
Norm Rose, President, Travel Tech Consulting, summarised his views on Artificial Intelligence (AI).
- "We are at an early stage but three specific AI initiatives – machine learning, deep learning and natural language processing – are becoming more common in travel solutions across all the industry segments. Over the next few years these AI techniques will be imbedded in various software/online solutions. By its nature, AI will help simplify and personalise the travel experience.”