Humans and machines are steadily growing more and more alike and the tourism industry is one area where so-called chatbots are springing up to improve customer communication. 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.


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.” 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 and Tripadvisor are also currently testing chatbots.


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. 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.”


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. The bot can find a flight to London next Thursday but it can’t, for example, tell the price without hand luggage.


Are chatbots the future? “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.”


Source: The Star


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