[UPDATE, June 28, 2017: Sabre announced plans for a new chatbot that travel agencies would white-label. According to Sabre Labs director of technology Mark McSpadden, Casto Travel and TSI signed up to conduct a pilot later this year.]
Concur still isn’t saying much about its plans for Hipmunk, but a client conference this month featured a roadmap for its natural language processing capabilities. According to a March 15 tweet by Concur VP of business development R.J. Filipski, Hipmunk showed attendees it was enabling “chatbot-based business travel booking via Concur and your preferred TMC.”
Meanwhile, a new NLP-based app for small businesses called HelloGbye last week joined Apple’s store.
These apps and numerous startups are applying natural language, chatbots and artificial intelligence to business travel. NLP allows travelers to type or voice (using Siri and the like) requests for travel options into apps using everyday talk. Algorithms and data on the back end return personalized results and purchase capabilities.
According to a presentation document obtained by The Company Dime, Hipmunk co-founder Adam Goldstein showed clients one way Concur is using the travel planning company it acquired last year. The presentation started by describing the beginnings of Hello Hipmunk as “a simple email bot.” The idea was to “take the agony out of group travel planning by allowing customers to ‘cc’ a bot into their email conversation [and] allow the bot to respond back with hotel results,” according to the slide deck. The Wall Street Journal reported on March 14 that Concur has rolled out this feature.
The presentation indicated that the simple bot would grow in two directions — one as “core functionality” and another in channels like email, Slack, Facebook Messenger and Microsoft’s Skype. Goldstein also noted functionality for fare alerts and budget-based searching. A partnership with Facebook on payments apparently is in the works.
It’s not clear how experimental some of the demonstrated features are. Concur would only confirm that Hipmunk “is exploring ways to incorporate data from Concur Travel to offer more personalized and relevant experiences for business travelers.”
According to the presentation, the “Hello Hipmunk team has created extensive NLP and back-end bot ‘services’ to power future Concur bots.” These include “in-trip management capabilities” by Concur and TripIt — “becoming a true travel agent.” Allowing travelers to change, cancel and rebook “in the channel of their choice via bot” would deflect customer service calls, the presentation noted. The “long-term vision” for Hello Hipmunk includes end-to-end travel services — “on par” with the web — that manifest a conversational, personalized “front-end travel agent experience,” according to Goldstein’s slides.
Just how much new NLP services are aiming to go without human travel agents is one of the ways they’re differentiating from each another.
“I see an evolution from this phone where you have tons of apps on it to a future where, for example, my Facebook Messenger right now is a mix of people and companies and bots,” said Sabre Labs head Mark McSpadden. “Now some of those companies I’m talking to have people behind them so I’m actually chatting with a real person when I chat. Some have automated that chat process so that … I am interacting with a computer system. What gets interesting is [whether] things evolve so that you blur the line. Maybe I’m starting by talking to a company and it’s the bot that is helping me but seamlessly I can transition to an agent if the bot can’t help me.”
The founders at HelloGbye, who released their app on the Apple iTunes store last week, believe users should be able to do everything without human intervention.
“Where the intelligence lies is in taking that text and applying an algorithm to it that understands the context,” said HelloGbye head of marketing Greg Apple. “We have a rich conversational platform that’s fully digital. No humans. We have a semantic capability to understand what you’re asking for and a sentient capability that understands the context of your request.”
Apple acknowledged that other providers may be offering “a richer experience” because there are people behind the scenes who “are smarter than machines … but they can’t scale.”
HelloGbye partnered with American Express for its artificial intelligence component. Amex’s credit card data helps deliver to users ranked sets of hotel properties from which to book.
HelloGbye has subscription-based individual and small business programs that offer access to preferred hotel rates from Priceline. Users can earn cash back and make changes to airline reservations without incurring an extra fee (airline change fees still apply). Subscribers still pay a fee when they make changes by phone, handled by Ontario-based fulfillment partner Flight Network Inc. “We’re not saying ‘no’ to calling, but our goal is to automate whatever we can,” said Apple.
Asked if the technology could be made available to other travel agencies, Apple said the company is open to it and already heard from some.
Additional info: McSpadden and officials from American Express Global Business Travel, BCD Travel and others spoke last month on a Teleconference about the challenges of adjusting travel operations to incorporate bots.
Requests for information on where Evature fits into Concur’s natural language functionality went unreturned. Evature provided the technology for Concur’s mobile app voice-powered search as part of a 2012 partnership.