Travel supplement: Alexa, pack my bags

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The travel industry has earned an undesirable reputation for being a tad reserved when it comes to investment in new technologies and innovation. Tight margins and old habits mean that travel companies are rarely heralded for their marketing and tech efforts and when they are, it tends to be for work on more traditional channels.

Some brands are realising that it pays to be ahead of the curve. Take Contiki for example. The tour specialists that serves 18 - 35 year olds recognised an opportunity to create a bespoke Alexa voice skill to help their customers pack for their holidays. The ‘Pack My Bags’ skill was unveiled at World Travel Market 2019 and has been praised for being the first of its kind in the industry.

Contiki is certainly not alone in the use of voice as a new sales and marketing channel. Large travel brands have also dipped a toe into the fresh waters of Alexa. Budget airlines RyanAir and Easyjet have both created Alexa skills to aid passengers with flight information, while you can also find city guides, translation apps, and navigational help. However, these skills remain rudimentary and are viewed as gimmicky in the wider Alexa user community.

A recent report by Strategy Analytics asserted that smart speakers are now in 20% of UK households. Elsewhere, eMarketer estimates that this year, 111.8 million people in the US will use a voice assistant at least monthly, over a third of the country’s population. With such rapid and impressive voice assistant adoption figures, voice experiences look like they are here to stay. As brands move forward, greater investment in voice appears inevitable.

So with voice still in its infancy in the travel world, where is this technology headed?

Your virtual travel agent

It is important to remember that voice assistants are not confined to a specific device - such as smart speakers - but instead are an entire User Interface. This means the potential for accommodation and transport providers to use voice are practically endless. The use of voice could potentially join you on your entire travel experience, from booking to destination, and post-holiday too.

It is a well-known fact that consumers want information quickly, and they increasingly want information that is relevant to them. Voice offers the opportunity to provide consumers with both. As users grow more comfortable with voice technology, travel companies could look to voice as a new booking platform.

Imagine being able to converse with a voice assistant like you would with a travel agent, informing it of all your personal preferences and adventurous ambitions and in return receiving the perfect package holiday without the (sometimes) exorbitant commissions added on.

For businesses in the travel sector, this presents an entirely new revenue stream and a tool to decrease costs. With an ever-growing demand for assistance along every part of the customer journey, voice assistants will also allow businesses to deploy their resources and employees more effectively and use voice as a first line of enquiry.

Alexa, come fly with me

Smart speakers are beginning to pop-up in hotel rooms across the globe. This year, Angie Hospitality began deploying their interactive voice assistant Angie in hotel rooms across Australia. The functions remain similar to those offered in smart homes with features including switching on the TV, adjusting light settings, and syncing mobile devices. However, the potential to leverage this technology for better more personalised travel experience is constantly expanding. As the AI of voice assistants improves, in-room helpers like Angie could welcome you to your room, remember your room service order preferences and help you book your favourite tours and attractions.

Taking to the streets in unfamiliar surroundings can be daunting and intimidating. Not knowing where to go or how to speak the language can create barriers to travel that put off those without a strong wanderlust. Interactive voice-activated tour guides could help break down these hurdles. With access to the right data, a voice assistant could recommend where to eat based on your taste preferences, provide you with directions to the restaurant, and translate your order into the local lingo like a digital Passepartout.

In this sense, voice assistants could transcend the line between technology and companionship, providing the confidence needed by more nervous travellers and enhancing the experience for those more hardy adventurers. Google Assistant has already made some strides toward this technology with the release of the Pixel Buds, which use built-in Google Assistant to translate languages at the touch of a button. However, the technology still has some way to go before reaching the levels of sophistication to ensure a totally seamless and personalised experienced.

Erasing borders through voice

But even the internet had its doubters. Emerging technologies will always attract scepticism, but if voice AI is able to learn and adopt your own tone of voice, emotions, even your personal history, it could become the dominant technology for generations to come. In a world where machines could process your every word and accurately translate it into another language, the world suddenly becomes a far more accessible and open place.

On a less grandiose scale, voice has the potential to disrupt and advance all aspects of the travel industry, bringing benefits to consumers and businesses alike. So, what are we waiting for? Alexa, pack my bags!

Ramsey Marwan, marketing manager at FX Digital.

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