Will Artificial Intelligence change the face of travel booking for business travellers?

Posted: 20th Jul 2017

Business Travel booking, or any travel booking for that matter, has long been reliant on a strong relationship between provider and client.  Historically this was face to face (think high-street travel agents), but it has since become the norm to book travel itineraries over the phone or on-line.  This is nothing new, and most if not all Travel Management Companies (TMCs) accommodate travel bookers in this way.

But with the development of intelligent search systems such as Google, some business travellers and bookers have weaned themselves off the need to speak to a travel expert at all during their travel booking process, and are quite happy to tap their laptop keys, or smart device screens to business travel victory. However, managed travel is difficult to process in this way, particularly where complex travel policies are open to interpretation. This is where the expertise of a trusted team of people comes to the fore.

We had a client recently who changed their return travel plans last minute, and their new schedule meant that flights were only available in a much higher fare category from the same airport. If we were relying on Artificial Intelligence (AI) to work on alternative flights, it wouldn’t know to go outside the parameters of the same airport.  But as our team are constantly up to speed with developments within the airline industry and new routes launching, they could use our 360 Search technology to source a new flight from a nearby airport that was not only lower in cost, but also featured an upgrade to First Class.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for AI within Business Travel.  The fact that it has already successfully infiltrated industries as diverse as personal shopping, recruitment, and medical diagnostics, shows us that it can and does have a use within the service industry.  We reported recently on the big-data travel trends to look out for in 2017, one of which was the integration of intelligent personal data to provide instant tailored information to clients.  We see this as a huge positive in our industry to not only support our resourcing, but to improve our clients travel experience from start to finish.  Whilst we do already take the time to build detailed traveller profiles for each of our clients, it would be incredibly useful to instantly have access to intelligence gathered on trips in the last 12 months that we haven’t had to input at the start.

It’s not all about the booking process when it comes to how AI can help though – it’s about the journey too.  At BFP we understand the time constraints on business travellers and their need for travel data in the palm of their hand. To that end, we have already invested hugely in our intelligent technology offering, ensuring that our clients never need to ‘speak’ to us on their business travel trip unless they would prefer to.  Through our 360 Technology suite, pricing, dynamic itineraries, e-tickets, destination packs, disruption updates and much more are all available on travellers’ smart devices, and could all benefit from the addition of AI – something which we fully expect to develop in the future.

So, how far is too far when it comes to AI? The Hen Na Hotel in Japan has replaced all its staff with robots, believing that the level of interaction matches that of a human.  This means there is no real person at the front desk waiting to greet you, no concierge to offer local advice, no human voice on the end of the phone when you order room service, and we think this could be pushing the boundaries too far for some.  It’s no secret that business travel can often be a lonely pursuit, and replacing people with machines removes an essential element of human interaction that some business travellers need.

Without going to extremes, we believe that Artificial Intelligence DOES have a place within the business travel industry, and a very useful one at that, however we don’t agree that totally replacing a face-to-face relationship is sustainable at any stage of a managed travel journey.  Providing technology that improves an operational process is only one side of a business travellers’ requirements who, in our opinion, value reassurance from a real person – especially in times of travel disruption.  We always have a team of travel experts available 24/7 should our clients need advice, and are often told this is an invaluable feature of our service – one which we have no plans to change.