AI in travel: fleeting fad or the final frontier?
Andy Headington, CEO and co-founder of Adido, spoke to Travel Bulletin to dial down the hysteria of AI in travel and explain what it means for agents and operators.
A member of ABTA and ITT, Andy helped set up Adido, a digital marketing agency specialising in travel & tourism, in 2003, and has since spoken at dozens of times on behalf of ABTA, TTNG and a host of travel organisations.
As a specialist in SEO, data & analytics, and future innovations, Andy is a treasure trove of information on what the future holds for tech in travel. With all the hype around AI, Andy highlighted a need for notes of caution, the importance of human interaction, and why it might not be the be-all, end-all for the travel industry and, more specifically, agents.
"You seemingly can't go online, read the news, watch TV or do much else these days without being reminded about AI and its poster child, ChatGPT. It’s presence is everywhere. And of course, this includes in the travel trade, as we can see that companies across the sector are starting to use AI and ChatGPT. And the good news is we firmly believe these tools can be positively adopted on a long-term basis rather than as a short-term fix.
"From a travel trade perspective, why should you take an interest in AI and ChatGPT if you don’t already, and how can they be purposefully used by industry professionals?
"As a starting point, ChatGPT can successfully complete more basic activities, when given the correct instructions. These can range from simply checking the grammar and readability of written documents, to researching competitors and new suppliers, by asking what public domain information is available on them.
"And this is where our first note of caution needs to be struck. ChatGPT is currently a helpful starting point or a good sense-checker, but it's not a high-level writing tool. The human touch is still required and users can't simply deploy it as a one-stop shop. Think of ChatGPT as your helpful new graduate, rather than an instant solution to everything.
"At a more involved level, some companies have used ChatGPT for creating travel itineraries, often starting with input from non-native English speakers. Where someone knows an area but can't always explain things in English, ChatGPT can be very useful in the process.
"But time for cautionary note number two. When ChatGPT is being used for research, it should only ever be as a more informed and advanced version of Google. Importantly, at its most basic level, it’s just predicting the 'next best word' when compiling an answer. In some instances, when it predicts that next best word, it’s no longer factually accurate for the question. It then continues down that path, building a series of inaccurate sentences - but it’s very convincing in the way it’s been written!
"It's also important to bear in mind that until recently ChatGPT could only access information up until September 2021. It’s rolling out newer updates now, so double check any insight on events, destinations, or anything else which occurred or has been updated after this date.
"This means that in a worst-case scenario, an agent can put together an AI-based itinerary that is a misrepresentation of the travel experience.
"Switching to online, we know that travel professionals are also using AI tools for website content creation and Search Engine Optimisation. Using these can be a helpful aid and we've seen examples of companies moving themselves up the Google rankings by adopting this approach.
"At the same time, it's also worth noting Google's algorithms are smart enough to prioritise content written by humans for higher value and credibility. Website copy requires a nuanced approach to avoid ranking penalties, and while AI can produce content, it often sounds very similar to copy generated by others using the tool - which will be penalised and won't set your brand apart from the competition - so an element of care has to be taken.
"Finally, using AI chatbots for customer service is becoming increasingly commonplace. And it can be very successful too - we've seen examples of travel businesses using 150 FAQs of data to train automated bots to handle online intake for new leads. AI has also been used to answer queries, qualify leads and schedule conversations with real people: one company we support has successfully implemented this and in doing so increased revenue by 80%.
"But again, these approaches aren't perfect. More involved and complex enquiries will need human support, while some customers and potential customers will want to speak to a person rather than being left to technology. Again, it’s all about getting the balance right.
"Overall, we're clear that human expertise is needed to complement AI-generated assistance and recommendations, to ensure a seamless fit.
"ChatGPT and other AI-enabled tools offer the potential for many travel businesses to create efficiencies in their customer service and offerings at scale. But they are there to enhance what you do, rather than drive your activity.
"If you think about AI and ChatGPT as 'super graduates', who are at your fingertips, then you can start to frame how best to use these tools and when. Would you let a graduate speak to your potential travellers without training and support? Or let a graduate publish content on your website without proper review? Probably not. But graduates can bring new energy, new ideas and improve your business, which is the promise of AI.
"We hope that all travel businesses can reap the benefits of this new technology, hand-in-hand with their existing know-how and experience."