IN REVIEW: Current AI trends in corporate travel
“Think of a carpenter,” says Flight Centre Travel Group’s Chief Data Science Officer, Stephen Pitcher. “AI is the nail gun. You want to embrace the new tool because it will help you work smarter and faster.” And embrace it the industry has. Since ChatGPT launched in November 2022, we’ve seen AI travel tech startups explode onto the market, large corporations exploring use cases, and suppliers leveraging new ways to offer their products and services.
From our research and conversations with technology leaders across the industry, we’ve identified a few key areas where AI applications are abound.
Data collection, analysis, and reporting
We all know that data is more available and accessible than ever before. And it can help companies by providing the proof points they need to make strategic decisions, create more efficient processes, or improve the traveler experience, such as by providing tailored services.
“The true treasure in the tech world is data,” says Abdel Abatouy, Chief Technology & Information Officer for FCM Asia. That’s because, as Pitcher elaborates, “The more data you collect, the more information you can feed your engine. The more you feed your engine, the smarter it gets and the more intelligent the output is.”
Indeed, some early-stage companies like Aisera have begun to develop industry-specific large language models and shop them to companies, eliminating the need for each organization to train its own model with proprietary, often sensitive, data.
So, how exactly is the travel industry bringing this to fruition?
In Singapore, some companies are using AI for business travel‒related expense monitoring and reporting, which can automatically detect fraud and forged receipts. And in our own organization, we’re already seeing AI play a bigger piece in how we analyze data. In the example of hotels, AI can standardize the data we have across different GDSs, such as by cleaning up the addresses, and then enrich it to identify trends around things like population density, rates, and adoption.
“More companies than ever before are making critical decisions with the help of data, including about their travel programs,” says Pitcher. “We’re seeing a surge in clients coming to us for travel policy modeling. They’re interested in looking at the ‘what if’ scenarios and re-shaping their travel policies with the future in mind.”
Airports, airlines, and hotels
Although the hospitality world isn’t historically known for being an innovation hotbed, AI has been making inroads there as well. Major hotel chains like Hilton and Marriott have enabled digital room keys, allowing guests to use the brand apps on their smartphones to choose their exact room, check in, and access the room with keyless entry. Another hotel association in Asia is employing robotics like autonomous lifts and zero-contact, privacy-focused room delivery to improve the hotel guest experience and enhance safety. Then there are startups like Duve that offer guest review summaries, among other services, enabling personalization and more targeted decision-making. According to Abatouy, all these innovations make travel more convenient while adding a modern touch to the traditional hotel experience, making it more personalized and efficient.
In the airport space, the Netherlands have proven to be a leader, with Eindhoven Airport rolling out a technology called Deep Turnaround that positions cameras on aircraft stands to track the start and end times of the ground handling process. An AI-based algorithm then processes the data and hands it off to gate planners and air traffic control staff, with the goal of reducing the turnaround time between when an aircraft parks and departs. The insights have already helped reduce turnaround delays by up to 30%. Not to be left behind, some airlines have also begun using AI to improve their offers and data management.
Any seasoned traveler would surely welcome applications to streamline the drudgery that comes along with the experience – and the digitalization of travel documents should do that on a personal level.
Again, Singapore has made early strides, introducing an electronic arrival card that travelers can fill out in advance online, simplifying the immigration process at the airport. The next stage of innovation comes in the form of their Next-Generation Clearance Concept, developed by the Home Team Science and Technology Agency. In this not-yet-deployed program, self-enrolment kiosks can use facial recognition technology that leverages AI-enhanced biometrics to revolutionize immigration, allowing travelers to clear customs in under 10 seconds.
“Such innovations not only simplify processes, but enhance security,” says Abatouy, “marking a significant leap forward in the integration of AI in travel.”
Virtual travel assistants
One proven travel industry trend that’s been enhanced by the evolution of AI is virtual assistants – similar to FCM’s SAM, developed by our own Head of AI, Adrian Lopez. These smart companions can proactively manage your travel throughout the journey by personalizing content recommendations, alerting you to delays and recommending available amenities, like lounges – all game-changers in business travel.
The Lufthansa Innovation Hub recently showcased an AI assistant for business travelers, in which users can book flights and accommodation by chatting with the assistant, then access trip confirmations, business invoices or receipts, and ask questions at any stage of their trip.
Some travel companies have begun piloting AI assistants embedded in standard tools like Microsoft Teams, where users can plan trips and share itineraries with their colleagues, as well as receive recommendations to meet with collaborators at their destination, all in one place.
The role of TMCs
Not to be left behind in all of this, of course, are the TMCs. Many have rolled out AI-powered virtual assistants and found quick wins using AI for content creation, such as the AI copywriter in our FCM Extension product, which incorporates ChatGPT and Dall-E technology. As FCM Digital Chief Product Officer Michel Rouse explains, “AI acts as a copywriter to assist travel managers in delivering notifications to their travel community. The person selects parameters for a notification (such as what to show, when to show, and tone of voice) and AI crafts the notification and adds imagery. The person then refines the notification to suit their audience, focusing on being an editor rather than a writer.”
But the next level of transformation that Pitcher foresees is with cognitive analytics, which combines advanced AI and machine learning techniques with data analytics approaches. In simple terms, this translates to a machine doing something without a human intervening in the process – think automated approvals, re-booking, and policy adjustments, as it applies to travel.
Along these lines, some startups have already begun facilitating automated refunds and exchanges for airlines and online travel agencies.
Search and book
Content creation is certainly a clear use case, but Flight Centre Travel Group’s Chief Experience Officer, John Morhous, thinks the technology is doing a far greater job of transforming our search capabilities.
“Generative AI is very interesting and disruptive stuff, with the ability to train data at scale and replicate experiences that look very human,” Morhous says. “But if you think about how humans interact with each other and how humans interact with computers, they're very different. For the last 20 years, if any one of us wanted a question answered, we would go to a search engine, type into a little box, and hit search. You'd get a whole bunch of results based off an algorithm. We've become so used to that, but people don't work that way. I think generative AI is retraining us to search with computers like we're used to searching with humans and iterating through conversation.”
Along these lines, generative AI for personalization is likely to gain traction and alter how users interact with research and purchase travel. Kayak founder Paul English agrees so strongly that he’s launched a new venture that provides AI-generated, user-specific itineraries. Other ideas with tangible applications include an AI-powered ancillary marketplace that offers bundled packages before, during and in-destination, and a collaborative AI platform that offers seamless, end-to-end travel experiences, such as adaptive mobile itineraries, detailed profiles, and customer insights.
While this innovation is essential, Rouse is quick to emphasize that “we fully believe AI is not an answer or a replacement for humans, but rather a tool that can enable people to be better at their job and focus on the creative parts. We will not replace people with bots but give our people bots to help them be more efficient, informed and responsive, so our customers have an even better experience.”