The Evolution of Hotel Chatbots (Updated)

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Evolution of Hotel Chatbots

Updated, April 2017:
According to consulting firm Activate, 3.6 billion users will be using messaging apps to connect with friends and businesses by the end of 2018. With many identifying AI (Artificial Intelligence) and hotel chatbots as one of the top hotel technology trends in 2017, we thought it timely to update this article – originally published in July 2016.


The times they are a-changin’. In our ‘always on’, connected world, guests are becoming increasingly demanding in how they want to communicate with hotels.

No longer content with picking up the phone, or simply booking online, they want convenient access to ask questions before, during and after their stay. They want concierge services quite literally ‘on tap’. And they want you to be on the platforms they use daily, rather than download yet another app on their smartphones.

Enter chatbots.

What is a Chatbot?

A chatbot, also known as a chatterbot, talkbot or artificial conversational entity, is a service that simulates the behaviour of a human within a conversational environment. They can be standalone services or integrate within other messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger. They normally allow the sending of messages via text/audio, along with more advanced structured messages that can include calls-to-action, scroll bars, links etc.

Chatbot’s wider use in hospitality is still evolving, but presently includes hotel booking, customer service enquiries, pre/post stay enquiries and general travel advice.

One of the most significant recent developments in chatbot technology was Facebook’s announcement of their Facebook Messenger chatbot platform in April 2016. With over 900 million members using it’s service on a monthly basis, there’s clear potential for a lucrative new booking channel and an opportunity to reduce the amount of questions that your reservations team deal with day-to-day.

The 4 big challenges for hotels in adopting chatbot technology are likely to centre around;

  1. Simplifying your booking process so that it can be accommodated within a chatbot.
  2. Providing a consistent booking experience on chatbots, compared with other channels.
  3. Monitoring chatbots where there’s a human element – will require staff resources.
  4. Managing guest expectations – with a fast messaging service comes expectation of fast turnaround on their requests through chatbots.

But where have chatbots come from? In our ‘Hospitality and Travel Chatbot Timeline’ below, we plot the key points in their rapid development over the last year;

The Hospitality and Travel Chatbot Timeline

May 2015

  • Marriott launches Mobile Requests service (via its App) that includes an ‘Ask Anything’ concierge service and ‘Anything Else’ function that allows guests to chat directly with hotel staff, 72 hours before their stay.
  • July 2015
    • Japanese Hotel, Henn na Hotel, introduces an English speaking robot dinosaur to handle guest check-in, check-out and everything in between. It’s mission is to be almost entirely robot-staffed. Quirky!
  • Throughout 2015
    • Chains like Starwood Hotels and independent hotels make increasing use of WhatsApp to allow guests to communicate directly with hotel staff pre, during and post stay.
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
    • Marriott expands use of its Mobile Requests service to include four further brands – JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts, Renaissance Hotels, Marriott Executive Apartments and Courtyard and Residence Inn hotels in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia.
  • March 2016
    • IBM’s AI software Watson powers a robot concierge, named Connie, at the Hilton McLean hotel, Virginia.
  • April 2016
    • Facebook launches Messenger platform with chatbots at their F8 Conference, allowing businesses to deliver automated customer support, content and interactive experiences through chatbots.
  • May 2016
    • Booking.com soft-launch a chat tool to allow guests to interact with hotels where they hold a reservation, through their own website. Hotels receive questions via the Pulse for Accommodation Partners App. Intended to be gradually rolled-out for all hotels throughout 2016.
    • Skyscanner launches a bot for Facebook Messenger to allow flight booking through the App, or booking of other services by chatting to an actual human.
    • Edwardian Hotels London launches a ‘virtual host’ service, called Edward, to hotel guests at 12 Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotels, designed by Aspect software.


Expedia discuss how easy it is to talk to their chatbot in Facebook Messenger

  • June 2016
    • Expedia launches bot for Facebook Messenger that helps travellers book hotels.
    • Hipmunk launches ‘Hello Hipmunk’ bot for Facebook Messenger and Slack, promising to answer more travel questions than any other AI (Artificial Intelligence). (see April 2017 also)
    • Kayak launches an interactive chatbot for Facebook Messenger that allows users to search and book travel within the App.
  • July 2016
    • GuestU announces GuestUBot, a BaaS (Bot-as-a-Service) platform for the hospitality industry to increase direct bookings and enhance guests’ experience through Facebook Messenger.
  • September 2016
    • Amazon launches Amazon Echo in the UK, widely expected to expand the use of voice search and AI services within the home. Expedia are quick to test the waters, debuting an Alexa ‘skill’ that allows Expedia customers to ask Alexa (through Echo) about their existing flight reservations. How long before they add a skill to allow new hotel (and flight) bookings?


Expedia announces skill for Amazon Alexa

  • November 2016
    • Starwood brand, Aloft, unveils “Project Jetson“, a voice-powered virtual assistant that allows you to interact with your room. For example, guests can turn off lights, raise the temperature of air conditioning and more, mimicking some of the functionality of services like Amazon’s Alexa. Aloft are no strangers to trailblazing innovative ways to improve the guest experience having introduced a robotic butler/concierge, Botlr, back in August 2014.
  • January 2017
    • Waylo launches into public beta – a hotel booking bot, Waylo is available on Facebook Messenger, via SMS and email with a Slack and web-app coming soon. Innovative features include automatic refunds if the price drops after booking.
  • April 2017
    • Hipmunk’s chatbot on Facebook Messenger is one of the first to allow users to invite friends to chat, offering group chatbot sessions (after the addition of group functionality to Facebook’s Chat Extensions in mid April).

What does the future hold for hotel chatbots and artificial intelligence?

It’s clear that the pace of chatbot development and hotel marketing automation has been extremely rapid. In a little over a year all the major players have developed, or are in the process of developing, some form of artificial intelligence chatbot technology.

As Hilton’s Vice President of Digital Product Innovation suggests:

“Messaging, especially messaging done right at scale, is really going to be a big game changer for the hotels”

Three key three questions for the future remain;

          • Will artificial intelligence and chatbot technology evolve to the point where the boundaries between humans and bots are blurred and guests can no longer tell the difference?
          • Will chatbot integrations with Facebook Messenger become the ‘norm’ or will more companies follow Booking.com’s example and create their own standalone tools? Marriott International’s Senior Vice President of Digital suggests that relying on their own app makes scaling simpler:

“If we relied on third-party apps, which ones would we use? WeChat? WhatsApp? Kakao? Skype Messenger? There’s a massive proliferation of messaging platforms out there — who will manage all of them and respond immediately?”

      • Will 3rd party options like GuestUBot, ALICE, Checkmate, GuestBot etc. be able to compete against the OTA created bots, allowing smaller chains and independent hotels their slice of the hotel chatbot pie?
Sam Weston
Sam Weston is an experienced digital marketing professional who has worked both client and agency side with a focus on the hospitality industry. Currently, he is Marketing Manager for a full service creative and digital marketing agency, 80 DAYS, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Any views expressed on this site are his own.
  • Dimitris Tsirikos

    Great article Sam and very interesting questions in the end.

    1) Although chatbots and NLP have not yet reached the point where they can fully replace a human, they are getting there very fast, see for example the latest announcement by IBM that Watson achieved parity with humans in understanding spoken conversations. In a couple of years chatbots will be able to handle more than 85% of typical user queries.

    2) I’ve been working on the mobile apps business since 2010 and my understanding is that people will only download an app if they really (really) need it. It’s much simpler to go to Facebook and start chatting. Furthermore, creating your own tool is pretty hard and very few can do it successfully. Take a look at the rate companies are embracing Facebook in the last couple of years: more and more; and they do so because their customers are on Facebook.

    3) It seems that the OTA created bots are mostly for enabling users to make a booking (and they have a big advantage there considering their existing pool of hotels). On the other hand 3rd party options are mostly for enhancing the guest experience and for handling the most common and easy guest requests, such as “what time is breakfast”, “tell me a good restaurant nearby” or even notify guests of hotel offers. These can be of great value to the guest and can be automatically answered by a bot. This is why we created GuestBot (https://guestbot.io), a Facebook chatbot to take care of this and provide service to guests without distracting the hotel reception.

  • Gregg Thatcher

    Great Article Sam.
    It is a pity we got overlooked in this revision…maybe next time http://thewaylo.com will make an appearance.
    Your questions at the end of your article are the “Big” questions and only time will tell.
    As we have created a Hotel Booking Bot the question of NLP comes up and yes we can and do continue to “Teach” the bot how to understand user behaviour better, but we are also finding that users are quick to learn how they need to ask the questions to get the most out of the bot, so are we teaching them or are they teaching us? 🙂
    The other thing that we have done recently is opened up our API for other developers to use. This will allow us to get even more data and improve the quality of searches and results for everyone in the network. The API includes all of our hotels and AI baked in and only requires about 10 lines of code to get off the ground. The more developers out there building on top of the technology will hopefully do two things:
    1. Reduce the strangle hold that Priceline Inc. Expedia have on the industry (specifically on the hotels) Allowing for more fair pricing to occur and less dependance on a single channel.
    2. Increased innovation. How many “White Label” Hotels Combined and Expedia sites are out there offering no value. By building something new on top of an already smart API consumers will ultimately win.
    Again great article and hopefully next time we can get a mention.

    Thanks

    Gregg

    • Hi Gregg,

      Have been reading through your site – very interesting tech. Happy to add Waylo to the timeline – is it launched or coming soon? Just to I can tell where it fits in the timeline.

      Really interesting point re: users learning how to interact with bots intuitively… I’m sure Hotel Speak readers would be interested in hearing more about this and the automatic discount after booking etc. Welcome a guest post if you’re keen? Please email editor@hotelspeak.com for more.

      Cheers,

      Sam