VR, chatbots and facial recognition: brand adventures in travel tech

Nov 10, 2016

As technological innovation gains more and more ground in the retail sector, travel brands are finding unique ways to use technology to engage with their customers. Innovation Researcher Fraser Scarlett runs through how VR, apps and automation are being used throughout the customer’s interaction with travel brands, from booking a holiday to enjoying the trip.

The travel agent of the future – 

shangri-la-models-with-vr-headsetTechnological innovation presents both a challenge and an opportunity for travel brands.

The Internet allows travellers to discover an enormous range of global destinations. Online comparison and booking through third-party websites allows customers to search through the marketing noise and reach the cheapest deal in seconds.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that The 2016 POPAI/Roamler Travel Agents Survey found that only 11% of holidaymakers booked in-store last year.

In response to this is, how can travel brands with physical stores improve the in-store experience to encourage more customer visits? The answer lies in fighting fire with fire; making use of technology to provide a customer experience that these short-cut travel websites can’t provide. As Nick Longman, managing director of TUI UK & Ireland, said: “We have seen a shift in the way customers research and book their holidays. As a leading travel company it’s essential we adapt to these changes to make sure our website and retail shops stay relevant to holiday-makers”

VR headsets have been used to great effect in a whole range of scenarios. In 2015, luxury hotel chain Shangri-La equipped teams in 17 sales offices around the world with Samsung VR headsets. The new hardware allows salespeople to immerse potential customers in 360-degree videos of their resorts and hotels. Amazed customers can virtually visit the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa or the Grand Ballroom in Kowloon Shangri-La. This is something that the potential traveller cannot engage with at home, yet. However, this may change soon should VR become a common part of domestic entertainment.

Taking the idea further, Marriot Hotels, partnered with VR and animation agency Framestore to create a ‘4-D experience’. Customers are given an Oculus Rift headset and are placed in ‘The Teleporter’ that exposes them to Hawaiian tropical scent, or London’s chilly breeze.

marriott-oculus-11Best Western Hotels, on the other hand, chose to simply improve the brochure model of travel advertising. It released virtual reality tours for more than 2,000 properties. Accessed through its YouTube channel, the guided 3D tours include narration and music and can last up to two minutes.

VR is not the only way to engage potential travellers. Take Expedia’s ‘Discover your Aloha’ campaign for example. This uses the computer’s webcam to record the viewer’s smile whilst they watch the advert for a vacation in Hawaii. The kind of holiday that is offered at the end of the clip is dependent on when the viewer smiles. If they smiled during the scene with the happy family, for example, they are recommended family-focused holiday experiences.

Besides offering personalised recommendations, travel agents can add an element of digital engagement to make a marketing campaign special. The real success of ‘Discover Your Aloha’ is that they’ve managed to get people to voluntarily smile through a two-minute advert.

Connecting with your customers – 

With more technology comes greater connectivity. Brands that are willing to recognise that travellers want authentic experiences can benefit from just how easy it is to impart useful, curated, information using existing technology.

Take the Insidr Paris smartphone for example. For €45 ($50) travellers are given a smartphone a smartphone with a contact list full of English-speaking Parisian locals and ex-pats. The traveller can contact them, by calling them or by text, to ask specific questions and receive a real-time, intelligent response. The phone also comes with more than 700 curated restaurant, shop and cafe recommendations and serves as a Wi-Fi hotspot. Clearly, the local, insider knowledge is what’s valuable; the smartphone is just the medium of communication.

Large travel brands are also recognising the value of utilising technology which is already in the customer’s pocket to provide great customer service. For the final 24 hours before a flight, Virgin America’s smartphone app, strips down the excesses of its usual UX and presents the user with a clear interface. Travel information is presented as clearly as possible, all in one place.

check_in_02Luanne Calvert, Virgin America’s chief marketing officer, said: “All that ‘I’m going to the airport’ and ‘at the airport’ stuff is where an app can do what a website physically cannot do. That’s where the magic is.”

There are other, less conventional, ways of utilising the already ubiquitous smartphone to provide a high level of customer service. The Dutch airline KLM released a chatbot that can be employed within messaging apps, such as Facebook Messenger and WeChat. Travellers can ask for flight-related information, such as flight times and boarding passes, when they actually need it.

By improving customer service by making it seamlessly fit with what the customer already has installed on their smartphone, KLM secured its chatbot’s success. During the first three months the chatbot was asked 1 million questions and is now asked an average of five questions a minute through Facebook Messenger.

Travel brands are, and should be, using technology to engage with, and provide information for, customers. To entice and intrigue potential travellers, travel brands can create fun, memorable experiences using cutting-edge consumer technology. To reach a wide audience, however, brands are better off working with established pieces of hardware and software.

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