This article was published on September 11, 2018

How Google’s using AI and big data to make travel better

How Google’s using AI and big data to make travel better
Patrick Reynolds
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Patrick Reynolds

Patrick leads Marketing efforts for SessionM, the leading customer data and engagement platform. Prior to that, he ran marketing and strateg Patrick leads Marketing efforts for SessionM, the leading customer data and engagement platform. Prior to that, he ran marketing and strategy for two successful startups in the streaming audio industry. He also has client-side experience as CMO of a publicly traded retailer as well as multiple leadership positions with leading international advertising agencies. He is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.

Since its acquisition of ITA Matrix Software eight years ago, Google has been quietly rolling out new tools for travelers. Its progress has been even more notable over the past months and weeks as it began unveiling tools to help predict flight delays, plan trips, and manage itinerariesamong other things.

These changes have some wondering: Is Google making a run at total domination in the travel space? If it is, there’s a strong case to be made for its potential to disrupt the travel and hospitality sector with a similar approach to Amazon’s run at retail, and more recently grocery.

Parallel paths

Consider how Amazon grew to the retail gargantuan it is today. Step one, see an opportunity to provide a better service by removing friction points. Step two, incremental growth through adoption and retention of loyal customers. Step three, data, data, and more data. Step four, harness data into action – innovate, enhance, and repeat.

With an already loyal band of customers and data stores that rival those of Amazon, Google is perfectly positioned to take a dominant position in the marketplace as it dives into travel. Its platform has the largely unrivaled ability to see when consumers are searching, it knows when they’re away from home.

It even has flight and hotel reservations pouring in through Gmail. Leveraging its vast data network and app integrations, Google is uniquely poised to give consumers a seamless and tailored travel experience from the moment they decide to take a trip (and really, even before that), to the moment they return (and really, even after that).

Picture this – it’s a cold winter day, and Julia is going about her usual business. She sees an ad (or maybe an article, email, or push notification) displaying a beautiful beach in Bali that she’s always wanted to visit. Clicking through, she finds a unique package offer for discounted airfare, hotel stay, and even scuba equipment rentals (she got her certification last year). Of course, Julia books it.

As the trip approaches, she receives tailored communications highlighting amenities and experiences that get her even more excited. The vacation is everything she hopes it would be – except, as always, too short. A few weeks after she returns, however, Google knows she’ll be looking for her next destination and starts serving up trips to visit her friends and family members across the country.

Google is more than capable of delivering this experience today as it orchestrates its data into actionable intelligence. Google’s disruption to travel could be on the same magnitude as Amazon’s disruption of retail – which has played a major role in today’s so-called “retail apocalypse.” The bar for the travel industry is quietly rising, and airlines and hotels will need to rise to the challenge or risk suffering, just as big retailers have while trying to catch up to Amazon.

Destination: Loyalty

So, disruption is coming. How can airlines and hospitality companies stay relevant without the massive data stores of a tech giant?

It all comes back to mastering data orchestration to create meaningful experiences for consumers across all channels. Even smaller data sets can have an outsized impact if leveraged properly across the organization and in real time. Travel companies can’t afford to miss crucial decision points and interactions along the customer journey.

This includes instances where they may be able to upsell (offer upgraded seats and rooms), improve service (provide bag tracking or easy access to concierge services) and personalize (empower service representatives on the front line to go above and beyond to make the customer feel special).

Airlines and hotels have begun dabbling in their data and deploying AI to make it actionable, but there’s plenty of ground left to cover. According to SITA, 52 percent of airlines are planning major AI programs over the next three years, but are particularly interested in leveraging AI for prediction and warning systems.

Still, there are numerous other ways airlines can leverage AI to improve the customer experience and differentiate themselves from competitors. Hotels are similarly beginning to embrace AI, enhancing the customer experience with chatbots, AI-based customer service and better understanding of customer behaviors, but advancing along this path will be even more vital with Google in the mix.

But there is one advantage travel companies have over Google – their physical location touchpoints (check-in desks, POS systems, planes and hotels, etc.).

These face-to-face interactions give them a unique opportunity to make above-and-beyond experiences a reality for their customers. If you want an example of this done right, just look at what JetBlue has done.

Until Google starts buying up physical airlines and hotels, paralleling what Amazon started doing with its acquisition of Whole Foods, there is still time and room for travel and hospitality companies to get an edge and stay on top of the game. The important thing is to master turbulent data streams now to keep from missing the boat.

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