It is fun to speculate about what generative AI could mean for travel, but the online travel agencies are collectively telling us to chill with the hype for the time being.
Despite all the hype around what generative AI could mean for the travel industry, the online travel agencies seem to be in agreement — there is potential, but there’s a lot of work to be done first.
Rathi Murthy, chief technology officer for Expedia Group, shared that sentiment in a call with journalists this week.
“It’s a model that is yet to unfold,” Murthy said. She has had executive and other leadership roles in technology for companies in several sectors, including Verizon Media, Gap Inc., American Express, Ebay, Yahoo, and WebMD.
“Honestly, the travel industry as a whole has a lot of legacy technology, and it’s not super easy to move in and adopt some of this. But I do see players like us — players that have core technology in the background, large OTAs — start jumping in to experiment and try things out. And we are right in there.”
Expedia Group owns multiple online travel agency and booking brands, including Expedia.com, Hotels.com, Vrbo, Travelocity, Hotwire.com, Orbitz, CarRentals.com, and more.
Expedia has been investing in AI and other technologies to make these platforms and internal operations more efficient for a while, she said. ChatGPT, the generative AI chatbot made by OpenAI, has shown that it can help users with pre-trip planning, but that’s pretty much the extent so far.
“We don’t see generative AI, today, being able to replace this whole gamut of services. Planning a trip is just way more complex than just a bunch of questions,” Murthy said.
The real value with generative AI, as experts have said, is not in the chatbot alone but how the technology can be used in the background — overlayed by large swaths of data — to power the future of how these platforms will operate. Though it is unclear exactly how that will look, these platforms will likely be able to make full use of data to personalize interactions in a more comprehensive way, even anticipating users’ needs.
“I think there’s potential for us to leverage both of these together to drive transformation. But there’s a lot yet to be done. There’s still a lot of training in the voice and the output that comes from some of the generative AI. There’s a lot of things we are keeping our eye on,” Murthy said.
There is a future for the technology — Rob Francis, chief technology officer of online travel agency Booking.com, said he is sure of that. But we’ll have to wait to understand its full potential. While the hype may die down a bit in the meantime, travel companies are investing in the long game.
Booking.com is researching internally so that when the company does release generative AI capabilities, the technology is good and ready, Francis said. Singapore-based Trip.com is also doing the research but a bit more publicly, having released a chatbot on the website last month.
These booking platforms have already been using AI and machine learning for a while to organize data and aid in personalization. The Expedia platform, for example, processes more than 600 billion AI predictions each year, powered by more than 70 petabytes of data. Experts expect that generative AI will advance that effort a few steps further.
Meanwhile, Expedia has been working for the last few years on converging its platforms into a common tech stack in an effort to more easily share data between brands.
“We are about 80 percent done with that transformation. So we’re really starting to see the wind and benefits of this huge transformation that we have been on,” Murthy said.
Former Orbitz and Uber Exec Joins Car Rental Platform Startup
Barney Harford, former chief operations officer of Uber and CEO of Orbitz Worldwide, has joined the board of a next-generation car rental company called Kyte.
Through the app, consumers can have cars delivered to them for daily, weekly, or monthly use. A hired driver delivers and picks up the car at the time and location of the customer’s choosing.
The startup raised $60 million in Series B growth equity financing last year shortly after getting an asset-backed debt investment of $200 million from Goldman Sachs and Ares.
Since then, the company has been working to triple its fleet and expand in new and existing markets globally. The company has access to a few thousand cars in 14 cities.
“Kyte’s model of delivering cars to customers when and where they want is an important unlock as society transitions from individual car ownership to transportation as a service,” Harford said in a statement.
Holograms at the Front Desk
Skift recently interviewed the operations manager of Oslo-based CIC Hospitality about why the company is putting holograms at the front desks of hotels it owns in Scandinavia. The plan is that off-site workers will handle administrative tasks, and they will be ready to appear as a hologram if a hotel guest needs help from a person.