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Where the OTAs are going next: The evolution of voice search for hotels

At the recent Skift Global Forum 2016, the major OTAs discussed the future of online travel. Most of them are pretty convinced that the current era of automation is coming to an end, and that voice search will soon redefine the way consumers browse and book hotels.

Artificially intelligent chatbots are already being used by travel brands to offer quicker, streamlined interaction. This year, Booking.com launched its own chatbot to help customers more easily communicate with the hotel they’ve made reservations with. But current forms of SMS-based chat could soon be transformed by a new era of voice assistants.

The likes of Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Assistant are now becoming increasingly adept at learning from behavior and understanding conversational context. While limitations still exist, the fiercely competitive nature of this marketplace will continue to drive innovation.

It’s this potential that OTAs recognize and are keen to exploit. As the technology advances, voice search could soon revolutionize the way people search and book trips.

Voice search in travel is already here

Earlier this year, KAYAK launched its own voice-activated service by integrating with Amazon’s Alexa, the voice-based cloud service on the company’s home device Echo. As well as checking real-time flight data, users can search for flights and hotels based on date, price and availability. Travelers can also receive inspiration through open questions like, “Alexa, ask KAYAK where can I stay for $500.”

Right now, bookings still need to be physically completed on the main site, but it’s likely that fairly soon this function will also be possible through voice command.

In fact, the ability to book a room through voice alone might not be too far away. During TechCrunch Disrupt NY, the CEO of Viv (an artificial intelligence platform) gave a public demonstration of its voice-controlled capabilities for travel. Offering a glimpse into how hotel bookings may soon be made, the software was used to carry out a booking at Hotels.com in less than 30 seconds. (Video below starts at 6:08.)

Viv is also making itself available to third-party integrations, allowing developers to tailor the platform to their own unique needs. In the near future, similar platforms such as Viv could be harnessed to completely transform the current OTA experience.

A faster way to interact

According to Google, 20% of its mobile queries are now voice searches, while the use of voice search and virtual assistants has risen over 40% in the past year. As travel becomes increasingly mobile-centric, voice-based search will become especially helpful as a streamline form of interaction.

In particular, it’s easy to see how replacing tapping with talking would enable OTAs to offer a better user experience to business travelers and the increasing numbers of last-minute bookers.

While packing bags for a trip, a traveler could access their OTA account and start looking for hotels with a simple request like, “Find me four-star hotels in Paris for under $300.”  They could then refine their search while loading up the car, and complete their booking while driving to the airport, all without ever needing to physically touch a device.

A customer-driven experience

At present, OTAs are designed to dictate the way consumers browse and book hotels. By using a series of urgency-based reminders over price, room availability and limited-time deals, users are encouraged to make quick decisions over considered choices.

This whole approach is rooted in creating a persistent feeling of low-level anxiety, ultimately intended to manipulate booking behavior and drive conversion rates. But this  hurry and hassle approach can be pretty exhausting, described by Skift as creating a kind of traveler fatigue that involves pushing customers along the marketing funnel, skipping steps from awareness to conversion.

Voice-based search could radically alter this current model. Instead of price pressuring and scarcity tactics dictating hotel search, customers could start the conversation by asking open questions. Given the amount of time travelers spend researching trips, there’s a strong case for OTAs to make the experience of searching for a hotel feel a lot less pressured and perhaps more thoughtful.

Replacing mass choice with curated suggestions

The current OTA experience is based around offering huge choice. A basic search for hotels in a major destination will likely return hundreds of results. But while the ability to compare lots of options sounds a good thing, is that what consumers really want?

In reality, it’s impossible to look at all the available results. In the end, only a limited number of hotels can be compared, and those might not even be the most suitable options available.

A big advantage of voice search is that it offers the potential for a more curated approach, allowing customers to refine the search process with their own specific requests. This might involve asking something like, “Search for 5-star hotels in New York with rooftop bars within 2 miles of Central Park.”

In this scenario, instead of being given potentially hundreds of hotels to compare, a customer might be given ten. But these ten would represent exact matches for the kind of hotel they’re interested in. In the end, a reduction in choice but increase in relevancy would allow for a more in-depth comparison.

As a consequence, this could lead to greater guest satisfaction levels by virtue of the fact travelers are able to make more informed booking decisions.

Predictive search with smart suggestions

voice search in travel

By learning from past behavior, voice-navigated systems are starting to anticipate needs and make informed recommendations. For instance, Google Now can send alerts to leave early for a flight if there are traffic delays. But that’s just the beginning of where this technology is going.

Artificial intelligence platform Viv seems to be ahead of the game right now in this particular area. Instead of being limited by programming, the software is designed as an open system that constantly learns from the world around it. It’s this limitless learning ability that could really benefit OTAs.

Every customer interaction would provide an opportunity to gain more in-depth information, leading to highly personalized recommendations that become more accurate and helpful over time. By also monitoring recent online activity, OTAs could then make smart and timely suggestions.

For instance, booking a flight to New York could alert an OTA that a traveler will probably need a hotel during those dates. If a person then visited the OTA, this could initiate an automatic search for New York hotels that match a person’s specific predetermined preferences. A simple voice request such as, “Book Novotel Times Square” might be the only interaction a person has to make in the entire search and book process.

The inevitable future of voice-based search

OTAs are acutely aware that mobile-based, voice-activated search represents the future of travel. In this not-so-distant future, the idea of swiping screens and tapping keyboards will seem clunky and inefficient by comparison.

This far more streamlined process will offer a more efficient way to browse and book trips. But when combined with machine learning, voice search could turn the current OTA model on its head. Instead of huge choice and urgency-based messaging, booking a hotel could involve carefully choosing between a curated selection of favored options.

Just as the transition to mobile changed the online travel sector, it seems that voice search and machine learning will also lead to radical transformation. In this new era, OTAs will be able to offer a quicker, more intuitive and highly curated experience that could dramatically alter the way people search and book their trips.

Hotels will need to find a new way to work within these new booking scenarios in order to adapt. One question we will see soon is how to make hotels more visible on voice search—will new categories of metadata be required? Or will hotels need to alter the way they describe their hotels on their channel managers? This will be one of the biggest trends we’re watching in 2017.

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