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.
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;
- Simplifying your booking process so that it can be accommodated within a chatbot.
- Providing a consistent booking experience on chatbots, compared with other channels.
- Monitoring chatbots where there’s a human element – will require staff resources.
- 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
- 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
- Hyatt Hotels tests usings Facebook Messenger as a customer service channel.
- 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?”