I've found flights for you – your next travel agent is a chatbot

In the Hollywood sci-fi Her the main character falls in love with a computer operating system called Samantha. It may still be far-off fiction, but humans and machines are steadily growing more and more alike.

The tourism industry is one area where so-called chatbots are springing up to improve customer communication.

And while it's unlikely that any of us will be romantically involved with these primitive digital travel agents, you may soon prefer them to their human alternative. What you need to know about this trend, and how soon will chatbots replace your local travel agency?

What are chatbots?

Chatbots are computer programs that automatically communicate with the user. "They react to catchphrases and typical phrases and can respond to them," says Markus Schaffrin from Germany's Federation of Internet Businesses (Eco).

The bot formulates semantically correct sentences like a human being. For example if asked what flights are available it can respond with something like “I’ve found 5,291 matching flight offers."

How common are they in tourism?

Chatbots are a new phenomenon and so far relatively few tourism companies are using them.

The ones that do include the travel fare aggregator Kayak and the flight search engine Skyscanner. Industry giants such as Booking.com and Tripadvisor are also currently testing chatbots.

Why are they even needed?

With websites, apps and social media you might think there are already enough options for customers. So why chatbots?

"The advantage is that they work where many people are already," says Pim Van Oerle, senior technical manager at Skyscanner. Chatbots are therefore very close to the everyday life of users.

"Messenger apps are extremely popular," says Martin Keller, chief developer at Kayak. "Users are increasingly reluctant to download many more apps. Chatbots are therefore important."

The human-like interaction is also appealing to users. "Chatbots respond very quickly and in a friendly way," Schaffrin says. "They remain cool, even when under pressure. They don’t get stressed, unlike perhaps call centre staff."

What can chatbots do and what can’t they do?

Chatbots may soon develop into our personal travel consultants, but they’re not there yet. So far they can only respond to fairly simple requests such as “Where can I travel for €500 (RM2,390)?”

They’re simple programmes and "the error rate in communication is still high," says Schaffrin. "The chatbot needs clear instructions. You can’t expect too much." They quickly become overloaded if a person asks follow-up questions after an initial query.

The Kayak flight search, for example, is limited to one person. "Information for a group of passengers is currently not possible," Keller says. It's similar for Skyscanner: "The bot can find a flight to London next Thursday but it can't, for example, tell the price without hand luggage," Van Oerle says. Any decent booking website for an airline or a hotel is still superior to these bots.

Are chatbots the future?

It’s hard to say. But their functions will definitely get a lot better. "In five years it will definitely be possible to book through the chatbot," says Kayak’s Keller. "There will be a target group who’ll use them intensively. But there will still be people who go to the travel agency."

How human-like are chatbots?

That they can communicate like a person was supposed to be part of the appeal, but in reality this has proven to be not so important for users.

"At the beginning we thought the linguistic component was very important," says Keller. “But customers are actually making things simpler. Above all they use the ready-made answers which we offer.” That means so far there's no clear risk of anyone falling in love with a chatbot. —  dpa


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