Travel industry players are excited about predictions that AI could add around $1 trillion extra to the global tourism industry by 2025. This is expected to be delivered via new AI-enabled features like automated customer service, smart marketing targeting, voice- and facial recognition, and better demand management. Marketing companies are also babbling excitedly about AI’s ability to create hyper-personalized trips for travelers.
But the travel industry is not new to AI. They’ve long used AI’s little brother Machine Learning (ML) for demand and price management in the airline, hotel, and transport industries. AI is (merely!) expected to fine-tune pricing algorithms so suppliers can get maximum profits. Which leaves us with the question: Why is the industry working so hard to sell the benefits of AI to travelers?
Who will benefit from AI’s predicted industry-changing capabilities? Can the consumer rely on AI to provide the best ideas and prices, or should we stick with our trusty VPN Chrome extension to stay secure and find the best travel deals online?
ML and AI are already working to benefit travel companies
Online travel platforms and service providers have been using ML for years, even if travelers aren’t aware of this. Now, they expect to transition into using AI to become more profitable. Airlines, for example, know that AI can improve how they calculate airfares in the face of external factors like demand, historic numbers, adjacent events, cancellation figures, more competition, and other factors. AI can make travel suppliers more competitive and more profitable:
- Forecasting and supply chain management: In the past, travel companies relied on historical data, industry knowledge, and, sometimes, “gut feel” to forecast trends. Now, AI enables them to integrate any number of other factors that might play a role in forecasts. Hotels can accurately predict room occupancy levels, determine the most profitable rates for certain seasons, and set prices accordingly.
- Automated booking processes: Travel bookings can be automated to reduce errors with expanded, all-in-one transaction chains for connecting flights, seamless transport, sightseeing trips, and accommodation.
- Streamline operations: Online check-ins, contactless transactions, touchless technology, and remote interaction are being adopted throughout the travel industry to make client interaction faster and more streamlined. Self-service kiosks handle check-in and check-out, customer requests, and payment processes much faster than humans.
- Customer-facing AI: AI-based chatbots can interact with travelers to offer personalized advice about attractions, shopping, restaurants, transport, or hotels.
- Fraud detection: AI can detect tiny signals that may expose fraudulent activity or malicious behavior.
- Artificial Intelligence of Things (AIoT): It’s a combination of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and IoT (Internet-connected hardware) that improves access control and personal security. For example, facial recognition software can identify potential threats or be used to speed up the check-in process at airports.
- Smart navigation systems: Every smartphone has a built-in GPS that can help people navigate unfamiliar cities and places.
- AI-enabled natural language processing (NLP): Used to translate website content, emails, or chatbot conversations into multiple languages, making it easy for people from across the globe to explore their travel destinations.
And then there is Hyper-Personalization, the most hyped AI feature
Hyper-personalization is one of the most hyped future benefits of AI. It promises to combine data science, artificial intelligence, and marketing to devise truly personalized user experiences for each traveler. For example, retail stores and restaurants in tourist destinations can offer personalized offers and discounts based on the customer’s purchase history and personal preferences.
But that’s where AI gets a little creepy.
How invasive is Hyper-personalization?
Before the AI can tailor a program, it must learn everything about you. It must have detailed knowledge about every aspect of your life. Sounds OK? Let’s ask one question that’s pertinent to creating a travel plan and drill down into a few aspects:
Do you avoid public transport? Why?
- Is it because you don’t enjoy crowds? AI must know enough about your personality type and entertainment habits to keep you away from crowded transport systems in big cities but encourage you to use them in other locations with less pressure.
- Or do you avoid it because it makes you feel vulnerable in some way? AI must know enough about your mental health history to suggest private transport and additional support services that will help you to feel at ease.
- Or are you the type of person who will fling your normal preferences aside when you’re abroad? AI must have enough knowledge of your social life and party habits to take this into account, too.
Does the scenario sound far-fetched? It’s not. Does AI know enough about us to perform as described? Probably, unless you’ve been taking privacy precautions for many years. The limiting factor is the cost of fine-tuning the required AI functions.
The prediction is that AI will use data from users’ previous search history, social media, and platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Home. The data brokerage industry already owns enough data to make such projects viable. But now, for the first time, AI can help them to weave it into coherent, intimate personal profiles to turn data into useful personal information.
How will AI learn everything it needs to know for personal recommendations?
Data brokers, and by implication, all travel suppliers, have access to enormous databases of shared user behavior data that sometimes goes back decades. Until now, it’s been a complex, prohibitively expensive task to fully combine, clean, and leverage all that data effectively. But AI is much more efficient at sorting information and making connections between various data sources than the current systems.
AI is electrifying the marketing industry with new ways to track customer behavior and target marketing campaigns to the right people. AI-driven SEO tools are revolutionizing customer behavior analysis. They can analyze individuals’ user preferences and pinpoint the people who are most likely to make a purchase.
Which means that the next question is: Who will AI be working for? For you, who is looking for the best deal, or for the companies who know everything about you, including what buttons to push to make a sale?
Will AI be working for travelers or for the suppliers that pay for ads?
How can you trust the solutions and service providers that AI suggests? How does the AI know they are trustworthy? Could travel suppliers (including a few unsavory ones) be buying their way into the system (e.g. via an advertising program similar to Google Ads) to benefit from AI-generated recommendations financially?
Looking at the tech behemoths’ vast profits and execrable privacy practices, are we ready to surrender our privacy controls, trust AI’s owners, and hope for the best outcome?
Final thoughts on AI & The future of travel
AI has vast potential. Currently, AI-powered applications such as ChatGPT are good at answering simple queries and summarizing well-documented facts. But it can’t give you the same level of detail and knowledge that a well-informed local guide could provide.
It can help travelers create a quick travel itinerary, search for the most popular tourist attractions, and generate helpful reference links. But “personalized recommendations in just a few clicks” is currently beyond its capabilities – and for the sake of our privacy, perhaps it should stay that way.
Featured image credit: Greg Rosenke/Unsplash