At the Expedia Group product testing lab, facial recognition software program gauges vacationers’ emotions as they undergo the method of reserving lodge rooms on-line. The Swiss cruise firm MSC Cruises is beginning to use a digital assistant to reply passengers’ questions. Designers from the boutique design and analysis agency the Gettys Group can present lodge executives new room layouts utilizing digital actuality goggles, so lodges don’t want to construct a full-scale mannequin.
Travel corporations are adopting synthetic intelligence and different new applied sciences to look extra deeply into what clients need and to use that data to discover sooner, cheaper methods to enhance their choices. And as refined analysis instruments grow to be cheaper and extra broadly obtainable, even start-ups within the business are utilizing them.
Competition in each side of the journey sector is extraordinarily stiff, and journey corporations “need these mechanisms to reach their target markets,” mentioned Alex Susskind, affiliate dean of educational affairs at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration.
“They need to know who wants to see pictures before they buy, who decides mainly on price, who likes to speak to someone” and why, he mentioned.
Tammy Snow, the director of person expertise analysis at Expedia, mentioned researchers nonetheless use product testing, buyer surveys and knowledge evaluation. “What has shifted significantly,” she mentioned, “is how we are combining technology and methodologies.”
In Ms. Snow’s product-testing lab at Expedia headquarters in Bellevue, Wash., vacationers take a look at points of on-line journey buying, sitting down in entrance of a laptop in a small room and going by the method of reserving a flight or planning a trip. In a room subsequent door, researchers and members of the product creation group watch a massive video display that shows what the take a look at topic is doing and a scrolling readout of the topic’s reactions, generated by software program that plots factors on that particular person’s face after which makes use of a coding system to determine the particular person’s feelings.
Eye-tracking software program exhibits observers the place on the display the topic is wanting.
If take a look at topics are displaying rising frustration as they scroll by a lengthy record of lodge selections however not seeing any they like, researchers can ask them what they’re considering.
The emotion tracker “highlights the severity of an issue in a visceral manner” and lets product design groups see the frustration, Ms. Snow mentioned. Similar analysis is completed with clients in Europe and Asia.
Alex Hopwood, a director of product administration at Expedia, mentioned it helped to get an out of doors perspective. “We get so close to a feature that we start making assumptions and think we know what the customer wants,” he mentioned. Seeing how a actual traveler makes use of the web site and reacts to it “is almost like a slap in the face — in a good way.”
Scott Wainner, chief govt of Fareness, a 15-person start-up that lets travelers compare flight prices from a specified departure point to a set of destinations like European cities or beaches, said feedback tools were now affordable even to small travel companies. Internet-based services like Usability Hub and UserTesting.com allow companies to test different aspects of a product, showing two navigation screens to a sample set of users, for example, to see which they prefer. Testers, who have been chosen based on their demographic profile, answer questions online or record themselves on video doing the task and giving feedback.
Through user testing, Mr. Wainner said, he found that his customers were most interested in learning about the cheapest flight, the shortest flight and the flight that offered the best combination of saving time and money. Displaying search results based on this information, even though the changes were small, made a big difference in sales, Mr. Wainner said. He noted that the company “didn’t have to set up our own internal testing facility” to get that information.
Website analytics software has been improving both in the amount of data it collects and in the ways it makes that data understandable and useful. Fareness.com uses Mixpanel, a tool that helps analyze trends like the number and demographics of Mr. Wainner’s customers who view company ads, explore the site and book airline tickets. Using Mixpanel, he said, he can, for example, test different messages focused on customers using a specific iPhone operating system or living in a certain region of the country, or compare actions of repeat customers in different demographic groups.
Some travel companies are creating systems that themselves generate research. MSC Cruises is rolling out a virtual assistant in passenger cabins called Zoe that will answer spoken questions. It can improve its answers with continual research based on the interactions it has.
Zoe was programmed to answer the 800 most common questions — queries about excursions or onboard restaurants, for example — and variations of those questions in seven languages. The questions were gleaned from staff members and from data collected from the ships’ guest services desks. To work with an international clientele, the system “listened” to 400 people and improved its ability to understand different accents.
If a passenger needs to ask the same question repeatedly in different ways, that indicates the system didn’t understand the passenger’s meaning the first time. Questions that Zoe can’t answer will be sent as a text to researchers who can add appropriate answers to the system’s next iteration.
“It’s a never-ending process,” said Luca Pronzati, chief business innovation officer of MSC Cruises. “As more people use the system, the pool of data gets larger and we do better.”
Booking.com, an Amsterdam-based online travel agent, is incorporating similar learning into its hybrid chatbot, Booking Assistant. The assistant currently answers about 60 percent of users’ post-booking queries, like hotel checkout times or Wi-Fi availability. It also loops in humans when it can’t find the appropriate answer, the company said.
The chatbot improves its repertoire much as the Zoe system does, adding questions that staff have tagged and answered. James Waters, vice president of commercial operations at Booking.com, said that the company was expanding its offerings beyond hotel room reservations to transportation and leisure bookings, so more customers would need answers to more questions.
“The system is a blend of technology and human help,” he said.
New tools are helping hotels as well. Professor Susskind of Cornell said large hotel companies were always working on improving their room designs, looking at such things as a sliding door for the bathroom to save space or making showers larger and closets smaller based on consumer preferences. Often that can mean building a full-scale model, but new technology can help designers and hotel management look at the options in a less expensive way.
Meg Prendergast, a design principal for the Chicago-based Gettys Group, said, “More than ever, clients are open to have our team design their spaces using virtual and augmented reality systems that allow them to experience designed space before it is actually built.” They can also see how different materials, like wood or stone floors, would look. Using virtual reality research, design adjustments can be easier to make and cost efficient, she said.
Professor Susskind said that traditional marketing in the travel industry had evolved. “You run the risk of not being able to compete effectively in the marketplace without these enhanced approaches.”
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