Carefree Travel is NOT a Relic
AR, VR, and AI technologies can power more compelling experiences in travel and hospitality.
Inconvenient. Stressful. Frustrating.
Too often, these words describe the modern travel experience — even travel meant for leisure and rest. Because once you’ve lived through the hassle of travel — airport security, air travel, jet lag, securing a ride to your lodging, and checking in — you likely feel anything but rejuvenated.
This scenario isn’t lost on travel and hospitality brands, which have been investing in technologies — like augmented reality (AR) virtual reality (VR), voice, and artificial intelligence (AI) — to take the pain out of traveling. What started as experimentation with these technologies is now moving toward deeper integration, and the results are truly transforming the travel and hospitality (T&H) customer experience. But, many experts say, the best is yet to come.
“The travel industry has only scratched the surface in its use of mobile technology enhancing the guests’ tour experience before, during, and after,” says a digital marketing director who works with mTrip Mobile Solutions, creator of destination-specific apps with AR functionality.
Even a cursory discussion of this trend in travel and hospitality makes a few things quite clear. To capture the full benefit of these technologies, T&H brands must treat them as tools that can propel their business and as more than just a passing fad. Secondly, these companies must be willing to undergo a hearty amount of trial and error and invest in the right technology and data infrastructure to create a truly transformative travel experience.
Trying on a destination virtually
VR has long been used as a vehicle to place participants inside video games. However, VR just as quickly has become a means to transport potential guests to lodging and allow them to “try on” the experience before they sign up.
“If somebody is looking for a property in Maui, they can preview the property in virtual reality by putting on a headset and doing a virtual walkthrough of the property’s lobby and amenities,” says Mark Asher, Adobe’s director of corporate strategy. “They can also choose a room through the virtual experience. That’s becoming a really fun and interesting way to make those top-of-funnel choices.”
Recently, VisitScotland created the ScotlandVR app, which lets people use the Google Cardboard headset to explore popular sites and lodging in Scotland and plan their vacation.
“Far from being a fad or gimmick, VR is revolutionizing the way people choose the destinations they might visit by allowing them to ‘try before they buy’ and learn more about the country in an unique and interactive way,” says VisitScotland CEO Malcolm Roughhead.
Augmenting the reality of travel
The insanely popular Pokemon Go smartphone app, which had millions of players searching their neighborhoods for new creatures at all hours of the day, demonstrated the power of using AR technology to bring the “otherworldly” into the real world. But what if it could also be used to bring out the extraordinary elements of existing travel destinations?
Loni Stark, Adobe’s senior director of strategy and product marketing, sees a clear application for AR in many cities and museums.
“Instead of just offering a map or a walking guide, what if you could use AR to guide you through the experience?” Loni asks.
She also predicts that AR actually could be adopted faster than VR, because people need only a smartphone, not a clunky VR headset, to participate. Other experts tend to agree.
In 2016, Visit Orlando created the first mobile app to ever-reportedly combine both AR and AI. With the computing might of AI, Orlando visitors could get answers to natural language questions about their destination, like “Where can I find a scenic view of Orlando?” or “Where can I eat that has live music?”
For cities like Orlando that welcome millions of tourists each year, tapping into emerging technologies can create even more efficiency for travelers and for T&H marketers who want to attract them to their destinations.
Artificial intelligence, real value
Visit Orlando is not the only T&H brand capitalizing on the power of AI. With so much data gathered by these companies, AI is making it easier to capture insights that will produce the best experiences for travel-worn customers.
Adobe fellow and vice president of technology Anil Kamath explains, “You have so much information collected on the experiences of individual customers in various channels. With that data, you can use machine learning and AI to get better insights. Insights that can be used to understand the consumers. Insights that can be used to predict what they are likely to do. With machine learning and AI, you can also target the best offers for each customer.”
Hilton Worldwide, for instance, has used AI to create a virtual concierge named Connie, who can greet guests upon arrival, answer questions about hotel amenities, services, and hours of operation, and suggest local attractions outside the hotel.
Edwardian Hotels has a similar AI-powered concierge (named “Edward”) that is available via text message and can take guest requests and answer questions.
Still, other hotels are creating their own versions of an AI-powered concierge by using interactive surfaces in hotel rooms — concierges that could, in the near-future, anticipate guest needs before any request is made.
“You could take the same touchscreen interfaces that are now used in many hotels, and if a guest walked into the room and said, ‘Its kinda stuffy in here’, that’s all it would need to know,” Mark predicts. “Based on that statement, it would be able to infer that they should lower the temperature or raise the temperature. If the guest was a frequent one, it might even be able to tap into the guest profile and see previous behavior, and then automatically adjust the temperature of the room before their guest even gets out of the elevator.”
To the relief of most travelers, AI also could be deployed in airport security to not only make a notoriously intrusive process more comfortable, but also more effective. In fact, a recent survey found that 29 percent of airports planned to implement AI-powered systems that could improve facial recognition, retinal scanning, and fingerprint identification by 2020. These systems, experts say, could effectively do away with the need for security or immigration checks altogether — two of the biggest hassles in the travel experience.
Making the future travel experience a reality
As awe-inspiring as these real-world examples are, adoption of VR, AR, AI, and voice in the travel and hospitality industry has its barriers. VR, for example, is expensive to produce, at least at the present time. As impressive as AI is, it still cannot duplicate the authentic human-to-human interaction that is at the heart of a memorable travel experience. And any high-tech customer experience is always beholden to the availability of the devices upon which it is based. If your AR relies on your customers owning a $1,000 iPhone X, for example, you might be out of luck.
“Figuring out how to present a really rich experience on the right device to the right person is probably the next big challenge,” Mark says. With so many different devices and capabilities, “we don’t want to come down to the lowest common denominator, because then we won’t really expand on the capabilities of any given device.”
And then, Mark says, there is the question of actual customer adoption. “Are your customers leaning into these experiences or not? Have your most tech-savvy customers leaned into it, but but not other segments that are less interested or less capable of having a positive experience with it?”
If this is the case, he recommends a more incremental and experimental approach. “You can showcase how innovative you are without necessarily having to go all in on these brand new cutting-edge experiences. You can do it in pieces and stack up the experiences, so that over time you become a fully digital experience.”
Loni emphasizes the need to learn from the mistakes of the past.
“Let’s not make the same mistake we made the first time by keeping mobile and in-person and call center separate. Let’s bring it together, and let’s make sure we have that ability to add these other channels to it. It will make it so much easier to get that 360-degree view of the customer.”