In Focus: Is this the artificial real deal?

OpenAI’s artificial intelligence chatbot tool ChatGPT went viral when it launched last November, reaching one million users in just five days. Google’s answer – Bard – followed in March. Artificial intelligence (AI) – the leveraging of computer systems to simulate the problem-solving and decision-making capabilities of humans – has been around for years, but experts say recent advancements pose a compelling opportunity to us all.

While many believe AI software signals the beginning of a brave new world – in travel, advocates say it has the potential to “revolutionise” the way we plan, book and experience holidays – others are sceptical, concerned about how such technology might affect human interaction in certain service industries.

New opportunities

The travel sector has always been an early adopter of emerging technology – and AI is no different. Examples of its use in the wider industry are vast and varied: Emirates is harnessing the technology to shortlist, select and respond to prospective job candidates; Expedia has integrated a new in-app travel planning experience powered by ChatGPT to support future bookings; and Lithuania’s summer campaign, which reimagines the country as a fantasy-laden dreamscape, was co-created using an AI image generation tool.

Indeed, Airbnb’s investment in AI is so significant, co-founder and chief executive Brian Chesky believes there will be “a whole new Airbnb” by next May. “We’re basically rebuilding the entire app with AI at the centre,” he recently told US travel site Skift. New businesses wholly centred around AI are also taking shape: last month saw the launch of AdventureGenie, the world’s first RV and camping travel planning tool powered by AI.

There’s a similar uptake among luxury brands, many of whom believe AI will form the foundation of exceptional customer service. Alongside facial recognition and opt-in technology, luxury South Florida resort The Boca Raton will soon roll out location-based ‘beacons’ to alert venues such as restaurants when a guest is approaching, notifying them of names and other unique information, like whether they’re a first-time or returning guest.

In the private jet sector, private aviation company XO says the integration of AI now helps it facilitate bookings “in under 10 seconds”. Augmented intelligence, which merges AI with “the human touch”, enables the company to coordinate complex trips from hundreds of terminals and select from diverse aircraft options - all instantaneously.

Tour operators and agents are following suit. If Only general manager Gordon McCreadie highlighted price optimisation, customer service and risk management as just a few ways AI can help travel companies optimise the customer experience. “Instead of being apprehensive about [AI], we need to embrace it and fully understand what these digital enhancements can do,” he wrote in a recent Travel Weekly column.

Jason Oshiokpekhai, managing director of Global Travel Collection UK, which has a network of independent luxury consultants and agencies, believes AI could bring about some of the “most profound changes” to the way the trade operates.

“It’s important to reinforce the human-first service that we provide, however the demands on travel advisors have grown exponentially post-pandemic,” he says. “Some of our advisors are harnessing AI to streamline operations and apply their expertise where it is most needed. For example, utilising a combination of tools like ChatGPT and Google Bard to assist in crafting website copy and marketing materials.”

The flip side

Not everyone’s convinced. Caroline Bremner, head of travel and tourism research at market analyst Euromonitor International, warned of concerns over safety, security and the amplification of “misinformation, bias and inequality”. She says: “The path of AI adoption will not run entirely smoothly as there are major concerns over consumer privacy, with countries like Italy temporarily banning ChatGPT,” she says. “There are also concerns over large language models (LLMs) being reliant on out-of-date internet knowledge. Safety and security of consumers must be of paramount importance.”

She adds: “Travel agents faced mass disruption due to the rise of online travel three decades ago, that led to mass store closures and job losses. Now, the sector is ripe for more disruption as generative AI accelerates automation of tasks across every stage of the customer journey, before, during and after the trip.”

Perhaps there’s a happy medium to be found.

While some companies have been slower to embrace AI, most recognise that its abilities are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. “The speed of technology advances is mind blowing [but] you have to start looking at it or you will get left behind,” Carrier’s managing director Natasha Towey told Leaders of Luxury delegates in June. “It’s something we are introducing for our new website later this year. I don’t think it will replace people – the luxury experience is about that human connection.”

Elegant Resorts’ managing director Lisa Fitzell agrees: "AI will only become more and more relevant to all aspects of our life as the technology progresses. We have seen an instant impact with the use of Chat GPT within our marketing team. It definitely has a place and improves efficiency at the planning and editing stages of content generation although we have no plans to reduce input from our content team.”

According to ChatGPT, AI is set to have a “significant impact on the luxury travel sector in the next five years”. We’ll let the humans decide whether that comes true...

Case Study: Ten Lifestyle Group

Travel and lifestyle concierge service Ten Lifestyle Group is currently trialling a ‘co-pilot’ system created for the company in partnership with Microsoft using a large language model (LLM).

“It’s a private version of ChatGPT4,” says founder and chief executive Alex Cheatle. “We overlay it over nine million client quotes and requests, as well as 600,000 suppliers – everything from restaurants and hotels to ticket companies and attractions.

“A lifestyle manager could have a member travelling to Venice. We can ask our LLM what the best restaurants are where we have priority access. They don't need to do an old fashioned category search, they can just ask it a question and the LLM does the work. 

“It saves a lot of time, and because of that, it allows the consultant to be a lot more proactive in the areas which surprise and delight. 

“We're expecting AI to grow our efficiencies, service quality, conversion rates, and the overall size of the business. And because our business is growing, we will be hiring more people. AI is the real deal. It's the biggest innovation in luxury travel since I set up Ten 25 years ago.”

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