In 2017 chatbots will become commonplace

What now for chatbots in travel? Very interesting article by Scott Crawford, VP, E-Commerce at Expedia, Inc.
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Advances in artificial intelligence technologies – such as neural networking and natural language processing – have allowed brands such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon to offer conversational products, letting consumers order products or map their journeys through speech or messaging.
As we enter 2017, chatbots will become commonplace, particularly in the travel industry. Machine learning will allow chatbots to become more and more sophisticated while customer expectations will rapidly evolve in tandem. On-demand 24-hour information and service will become commonplace.

In the competitive world of travel, many in the sector are asking how they can take advantage of these new technologies. This year Expedia launched a Facebook chatbot, a new Expedia skill for Amazon Alexa and a chatbot for Skype.

Travel has an unusually long funnel compared with other e-commerce sectors. 

In the early stage, customers are unsure of the details of their trip, looking for flights or hotels in various destinations and time periods. Users further down the funnel might be business travellers or frequent fliers, who are more sure of what they’re looking for and need less guidance.
Users at each stage have very different information requirements, and so your chatbot needs to be designed to reflect multiple variables.
We see too many brands design a chatbot first and then think about its purpose to the customer afterwards.

First, think about bots in terms of solving a particular consumer problem or need.

A chatbot interaction is more likely to result in a successful outcome for the customer in situations where the task the bot is resolving has clearly defined parameters. This means that chatbots, for the moment at least, don’t have much of a role at the top of the funnel in the research phase, as this is a highly subjective and open-ended experience for customers.
It’s difficult to design a single-purpose chatbot that will suit all consumer needs.
Once you’ve isolated a specific stage of the funnel where a chatbot might be helpful, build a chatbot for that stage of the funnel.
Current chatbot technology is not advanced enough to allow for multipurpose bots: they need to be designed for single uses, such as collecting pieces of information from customers specifically to book a flight, or providing date ranges of available hotels matching certain criteria.

Expedia recently launched Skype chatbot is the first bot experience on Skype to connect a traveler to a call with an agent within the platform. Customers can easily search for and make a hotel booking, or manage select elements of travel bookings, including hotel or flight confirmations or flight cancellations.
And if a traveller has an additional request that is not yet supported by the chatbot, Expedia will handoff the experience to an Expedia travel representative, or the traveller can call directly from within Skype for no charge.
 
There’s a vibrant and growing ecosystem of startups developing chatbots for all stages of the travel funnel. New companies such as Mezi, KimKim and Pana have sprung up to help facilitate the booking process for flights, hotels and entertainment: once the customer has provided the initial information and search terms it becomes much easier for chatbot technology to help by automating key steps in the booking process.

There are already more than 11,000 chatbots on Facebook Messenger.

Additionally, continued mobile penetration provides the perfect context for chatbot growth.

As travel brands continue to experiment and release more bots into the ecosystem, insights will begin to show how consumers want to engage with chatbots – the better data and insights at our fingertips, our expertise will grow.