Technology has become indispensable in the travel and hospitality industry, especially in aiding the day-to-day operations of businesses and enhancing customer experience. The Covid-19 pandemic has radically changed how hotels, airlines and travel companies operate, with more demand for contactless services and a shift in customer expectations. Today, travellers prefer self-service with tech-enabled ease at every step of the process, from online bookings to contactless check-in and 24×7 digital concierges. A survey by Oracle found that 73 per cent of respondents wanted hotels to offer self-service technology that minimises contact with staff and other guests. Further, recent technological advances and innovations such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and internet of things (IoT) are creating disruptive trends in the sector.
A look at how these next-generation technologies are revolutionising the travel and hospitality space…
AI and ML have been incorporated into several areas within the industry to recommend travel options, render personalised travel assistance, enhance customer experience, and make in-trip and post-trip services more manageable. For instance, enterprises are using AI/ML to continuously and accurately sort through data and draw inferences about business performance and trends associated with customer satisfaction, and even intelligently manage inventories. Many online travel agencies, airlines and hotels apply ML algorithms to analyse large datasets, build sophisticated recommender engines and generate highly personalised recommendations for travellers. Another AI technology that is gaining popularity in the industry is facial recognition, which can identify or verify a person’s identity by capturing, analysing and comparing facial patterns. It uses artificial neural networks to process biometric data and generate filters that transform facial details from images to numerical features. Many airports around the world have started deploying this technology to enable passengers to pass through check-ins and document scrutiny quicker and more conveniently. A recent Oracle survey revealed that 74 per cent of respondents were interested in hotels using AI to better tailor services and offers such as room pricing, food suggestions and discounts.
Robots and chatbots
Hotel robots can be categorised into four major categories: chatbots, robotic service bots, housekeeping robots and voice assistant robots.
Digital assistants or chatbots are the most prominent type of robots in the travel and hospitality space. The services of virtual assistants range from suggesting travel destinations to booking rooms/flights, renting vehicles and providing local weather forecasts. AI-powered chatbots provide customers with real-time responses to queries on a 24×7 basis. These chatbots also perform tasks such as facilitating check-ins, hotel inspection and transportation, and welcoming guests. Various hotels and travel aggregators have enabled the chatbot feature on social media platforms and instant messaging apps. For instance, Connie is a robot concierge used by Hilton. The robot uses an AI platform developed by IBM to interact with guests and respond to their questions with its speech recognition capabilities. The system also learns and adapts to each interaction, improving the answers it provides. Similarly, Marriott and InterContinental have deployed robots name Mario and Dash, respectively, to help with check-ins, hotel inspection, transportation, welcoming guests and assisting as waiters in the hotel restaurants. Further, some robots have been designed to provide bespoke room service options to guests. These robots deliver food supplied from the hotel kitchen to the relevant room, besides performing other housekeeping tasks.
Robots were deployed at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing to perform various tasks ranging from cleaning and food preparation to recording body temperature and dispensing hand sanitiser. As per a study by Oracle, 77 per cent of travellers are interested in using automated messaging or chatbots for customer service requests at hotels.
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) experiences are emerging as the biggest technology trends in the travel and hospitality space. While VR immerses a user in a completely virtual world, AR enhances the real world in real time. Enterprises are using VR tours to showcase their hotel property, restaurants and other attractions to customers through interactive elements. These tours are most immersive when viewed through VR headsets, though 360-degree video technology is currently more prevalent in the industry. Most VR tours or 360-degree tours are compatible with mainstream web browsers, allowing companies to expand their audience reach. Recently, US-based Best Western Hotels & Resorts collaborated with Disney to allow guests, especially children, to enjoy its rooms with Disney characters as their roommates.
Moreover, some hotels are already using AR in conjunction with wall maps placed in hotel rooms. Users can view additional information about hotel services and local benefits with the help of a smartphone camera. Some restaurants use AR to create hyperrealistic culinary models in their menus to showcase their dishes. AR menus provide customers with details such as portion size, nutrition information and ingredients.
The ever-expanding IoT space has the potential to fundamentally change how enterprises in the travel and hospitality industry operate. It involves internet-based interconnectivity between everyday devices, enabling them to send and receive data. Examples of IoT applications are already visible in the industry. For instance, users of smart rooms can adjust lighting, temperature and audio-visual devices directly from a centralised device such as a smartphone or a universal remote provided by the hotel.
Meanwhile, airports can deploy IoT-based biometric devices to automate security checks. They can also resolve problems of luggage mishandling and loss by deploying IoT beacons and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. Beacons can automatically detect and track the RFID tags attached to bags, and passengers and airport officials can obtain real-time notifications on their mobile devices about the location of the luggage.
Other emerging examples of IoT include wireless inventory tracking, biometric cybersecurity scanners, and connected wearable devices. According to a study by Accenture, 78 per cent of travel executives reported that the number of IoT/edge devices deployed in their organisation has significantly or exponentially increased over the past three years.
The travel and hospitality sector generates enormous amounts of data through cookies and other third-party technologies, which can be used by hotels, airlines, travel management companies, online travel agents and metasearch engines to reveal patterns and trends. The three main kinds of data in this industry, classified by source, are user-generated data, which is obtained from questionnaires and social networks; device data, which includes global positioning system (GPS) data, mobile roaming data and Bluetooth data; and transaction data, which is sourced from web searches, web page visits, online bookings, etc. One of the biggest uses of big data analytics is to enhance personalisation for users, with enterprises utilising it to make specific adjustments to their offerings based on past customer preferences. Another valuable use of data is to analyse business performance and make forecasts. Hotel owners can use big data for revenue management, using past occupancy rates and other trends to anticipate future demand and business performance accurately. This helps them optimise pricing, and target marketing and promotional strategies with greater precision.
Metaverse is a technology trend associated with AR/VR. It allows users to create avatars and participate in immersive experiences such as attending live concerts and global summits, touring museums, and comparing hotels before booking. Through metaverse, takeaway restaurants could allow users to place their orders in a virtual restaurant, interacting with restaurant employees who are represented by avatars of their own. Besides, airlines are trialling metaverse deployments such as virtual tours of cabins. Qatar Airways has launched QVerse and unveiled a “MetaHuman” cabin crew. Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and Qantas are also investing millions of dollars on metaverse experiences.
While it is too early to predict any significant impact of metaverse on the travel and hospitality industry, enterprises across the sector are discovering ways to harness its power for sales and marketing strategies, revenue management, operational efficiency and guest experiences. For instance, Metaverse Travel Agency is collaborating with Decentraland and The Sandbox to launch MetaHelmets for safe travel. It is the first non-fungible token (NFT) collection with metaverse-agnostic wearables. Meanwhile, Marriott Bonvoy has become one of the top hospitality brands to enter metaverse with its travel-based NFT. According to a report by Accenture, 53 per cent of travel executives believe that metaverse will have a positive impact on their organisations, with 25 per cent perceiving it as a breakthrough or something that will have a transformational impact.
The way forward
Although the applications of new-age technologies in the travel and hospitality industry are still gaining maturity, enterprises need to evolve and keep pace with the growing demand and rising customer expectations. Ultimately, the goal of implementing these technologies in the sector is to automate travel and related processes, save time, reduce costs and create a more seamless customer experience. The industry is not only set to recover from the impact of the pandemic but is also poised to undergo a tremendous digital transformation in the coming years.