Synopsis: In this Leadership Insights video, Mike Vizard talks to Knowbl CEO Jay Wolcott about how generative artificial intelligence (AI) will transform the travel experience.

Mike Vizard: Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the video series. I’m your host, Mike Vizard. Today we’re with Jay Wolcott, who’s CEO for Knowbl. And we’re talking about how AI is going to impact the travel industry. And hopefully, it’s all for the better. Jay, welcome to the show.

Jay Wolcott: Thanks, Mike. Thanks for having me.

Mike Vizard: I think that we have seen over the years that technology has clearly transformed the whole travel experience, sometimes for the better and sometimes not for the better. And I feel like maybe we have more visibility into flights, but I’m not quite sure we’re all having a better experience. So, as you look at where we are at the start of 2024, what do you think the impact AI is going to have on the whole travel experience and what might we expect?

Jay Wolcott: Yeah. That’s a great topic, Mike, one that we’re really passionate about here at Knowbl. If you think about industry, this relationship between brands and consumers, there’s long been an application of AI, an attempted application of it, helping make that experience easier. And one of the things we’ve seen it take shape in is in the form of chatbots or virtual agents, as people like to talk about them. So, it might be on the front end of a contact center. So, you’re trying to reach out to that brand and their 800 number. Or you might be on their website and these virtual assistants, or chatbots, or virtual agents are designed to make that experience easier, guide you along the way.
The problem is, is that hasn’t met customers’ expectations. The way that chatbots and virtual agents have been designed for the last five, 10 years, have proved to be a little bit more of a rigid experience than consumers would expect. Ultimately, having them recognize that over 70% of the time it might not be able to do what they need to be able to do with that virtual agent experience. Ultimately, meaning they’ve got to reach back out to a live agent to get something done that, that virtual agent couldn’t do. So, ended up adding more time to their experience and drove high levels of dissatisfaction. But I think where we’re at today and stepping into 2024, is certainly an exciting time for the travel industry, because there’s been a remarkable improvement in technology that can be used for these virtual agent experiences that we’ve seen in the form of pretrained transformers or large language models.
Many of which took the scene with ChatGPT over a year ago and is now going into applications that will certainly have a major impact on the travel industry. So, this is the area that we’re excited about stepping into, because it can have a big impact on the way that you shop for travel experiences, but also in forms of service. So, you might be in a travel experience, and things might not be going according to plan and you need some help on getting things back on track. And those are two really big areas where this new role of virtual agents with this new technology can have a profound impact on customer loyalty.

Mike Vizard: Will it be a virtual agent as I know it today or something completely different? Because I can envision a world where I might just type in a natural language, “I wish to go to New York from Florida, show me the most efficient way to get there, or maybe least expensive, or the one that is going to get me there for lunch on a specific day after I need to stop off in Baltimore for breakfast or something like that.”

Jay Wolcott: Yeah. That’s the exciting part of this more natural language interface, is I might ask that question like I would to a human. And now the technology is certainly at a point where it can break apart and decipher what the intent of that query was from the user, and be able to return information that is complex as providing multiple requests in that same type of statement, being able to respond very accurately with different demands. And if you compare and contrast that to today, what your options are… And my wife and I just had this experience where we’re planning for a trip. And on one computer we’ve got Google open, where we’re having to run all these different scenarios and on the second tab or on the second computer, we’ve got the airline and then a third one on the hotel. And it all becomes just different parts where you’re trying to put these pieces of information together.
But your example there is a perfect one. Now, if you have location information, if you have weather information, if you have other information from other third party apps, why not build that into the experience? When you’re thinking about booking a flight or you’re booking a hotel, you can bring in all of this different information to help inform where is the best place, or best time, or best flight, or hotel that you would take that experience from. And that certainly would be a much easier experience than having multiple tabs open or setting different filters in the way that you’re trying to book something within a company website. At Knowbl we started a podcast called The Conversational AI Divide. And the hypothesis behind this is that we need to equip brand leaders for a big divide that’s going to begin in the form of customers’ expectations.
So, much like you phrase that question, you know the full capabilities of advanced artificial intelligence, where you can go to an application like ChatGPT and ask all of these crazy things and it puts together a really good response. But if you compare that to going to a company’s website, now you’re trying to get something done, it isn’t quite sophisticated. You now have to possibly set multiple filters, you’ve got to run different queries on the things that you want and it’s not quite as easy. So, if customers have an expectation that AI can perform things extremely complex and critical in this type of way, yet you go to some of the biggest brands in the world and that experience is much different or very broken or not as fully capable, it’s going to start to increase the amount of frustration.
So, we like to beckon this as some of the early days of e-commerce. Those brands that really embraced it quickly developed a massive competitive advantage, versus those brands that said, “Hey, we’re going to wait and see how this plays out.” And we use that example in some of our slides, where we show the net income at a company like Sears or Kmart, as compared to maybe a Walmart or an Amazon during the same cycle. We think that same experience is going to happen here with conversational AI, especially in this travel category.

Mike Vizard: How smart can all of this get, because I feel like a lot of the conversation is still about getting people from point A to point B? And yet, if you’re like me, every time I go someplace, I’m like the first thing I check is, well, what sports teams are playing? Can I go to a game? The second thing I might check for is what restaurants are around that are in a range of area that I typically like, whether it’s French, Spanish or pick your choice, doesn’t much matter. How much can we expand this whole experience just to beyond something that’s just the let’s get them on the bus and ship them out kind of feel?

Jay Wolcott: Right. And it’s a great question, because you do look at some of today’s experiences, just even booking an airline. Every time I go in there, it maybe remembers where I fly out of or they’re using my location to detect that when I’m booking a flight, but it doesn’t remember much else and this personalization of the experience. But also, that opportunity to really expand, what are you going to be doing there? What are the types of things that you want to take into consideration? Hey, we have an alternative flight here that is actually on time, 25% more of the time than the flight that you’re booking. Bring information to that experience that helps that end user, depending on what you know about them. But also to your point, when you’re going to a location and you’re looking for the same types of restaurants or you’re looking for the sporting experiences, that was the example I provided earlier.
If there’s third party information available, why not bring that into the brand experience that’s bringing you to that destination? And I always like to think about where have things gone wrong. In the old days, you go into a property and that in-person experience is very rich and personalized. I would oftentimes know, hey, if I’m looking for a hotel or for a restaurant, I’d go and talk to that concierge. And today, that concierge desk is 90% of the time very vacant in many of these big properties. You could even go out to places like Las Vegas, there’s nobody manning those desks anymore. So, how can you replicate that in-person experience that we became accustomed to where it was like, hey, I knew where I needed to go to get something done, with a rich virtual concierge-like experience.
So, now, if it has that ability to bring forward the top restaurants or the booking applications and all of those things, can it be integrated into the mobile app, or can it be something that you can bring into a texting experience for that traveler that’s visiting the property? There’s a lot of different ways that we can think of what made great experiences in person. Now that same capability with the role of a virtual concierge, a virtual agent that can help guide you and bring forward those same level of capabilities without all of that cost of manning different desks 24/7.

Mike Vizard: So, what is the challenge in realizing that? Because part of at least my knowledge is there’s going to be a lot of different AI models running around. And they might be optimized for restaurants, and for travel and for sports. But how do I get all those AI models to share something in a way that is cogent and that results in some sort of advice that I’m going to take?

Jay Wolcott: So, this is where I think information sharing becomes very efficient for these types of designed experiences. So, if you think about the traditional virtual agents or chatbots, we never had this capability of having a lot of different knowledge brought into one singular experience, because we had to teach the machines very specifically what we were trying to get done. So, if you think about in a hotel, it’s really designed around maybe the booking experience. So, you teach this virtual agent, hey, let’s really optimize the booking, because that’s where the revenue comes into the property. If you went to that team that was designing that chatbot and said, “Hey, can you bring forward information that also recommends the top restaurants that are nearby?” It was really unfathomable at that time to say, hey, we’re going to bring in all of this additional information, because we were having a hard time getting the machine to do the simple things fairly well.
But now, when we’re at this point with large language models and pre-trained transformers, things become much more possible, because these models understand language out of the box. When you think about the billions of conversations that they’ve been trained upon, they’re very specific in being able to process information where you might say, “Hey, I’m looking for a top Italian restaurant nearby that offers these types of things.” And if it has access to that information, which many of these models do, where you can now start looking through menus, and property listings and things like that, they can bring all of that information back into the experience without the level of effort of having to think about what are all of the things people are going to ask of this virtual concierge.
So, now all of a sudden if it’s very easy to stitch together that content without having to think about designing out that experience, now all of a sudden we can bring in many things, like local restaurants or other applications into that, that really enrich that experience. And that’s where I think we’re going to now start seeing just an explosion of capabilities with some of the leading travel brands, that now start to compete for all of these time and attention of travelers that might have to go to other areas to get that information. Now it’s going to start to be built into that brand experience.

Mike Vizard: How do I work that through to not just myself, but my loved ones, because there’s always going to be issues with security? But I’m a guy, I am married, and theoretically, I would love to have a scenario where something sends me alerts saying, “Hi, your anniversary is coming up and there’s a ticket to a play available in New York, and the flight leaves at 4:00 and it’s priced at this.” But my wife is not going to want that information necessarily floating around the internet. So, how do I strike that balance?

Jay Wolcott: Yeah. So, I think the example that you’re talking about there becomes more of a proactive communication attempt by a brand. I mean this needs to follow the traditional marketing responsibilities of using personal information in the right ways and the ways that you’re going to communicate things to consumers to proactively do things. All of the examples I was talking about previously were more around this kind of like the consumer is already at that site. They’ve called you or they’re on your property, and now it’s really your opportunity to bring information forward to enrich that visit that they have, whether it’s on your site.
Now, conversely, if you start taking that into let’s use information that we collected, you have to follow the same rights of use information. Because I think this is an area we’re going to start to see things get tightened down very much, where if you’re putting information into an experience that’s using a large language model, to your point, you don’t want that content part of that large language model’s training data and things like that. So, there’s a lot of governance around these things that brands are stepping into. And those that understand the rights of use for where’s my data going, how’s it going to be used, really, there’s opportunities where you can use private models where that information remains the property of that individual or anonymizes the data.
So, a number can be affiliated to Mike, it’s just more of a generic thing of an address or a specific date of birth and things like that. So, there’s a lot of protection that can be designed into that to ultimately protect the rights of use, and then the rights of use and the ways they use it for marketing senses going forward as well.

Mike Vizard: Do you think the travel industry is open to sharing that kind of data? Because so much of what we talk about these days is data is the new oil and everybody seems to be wanting to hoard their oil, but it seems to me a lot of this data is not really valuable until it gets shared and analyzed in context with other things.

Jay Wolcott: Yeah. I think this is certainly a valuable area for many brands, and especially in the travel category. When you have an understanding of individuals and their preferences, and for my profile it would look quite unique where there’s a lot of business travel and preferences of things that might not line up very well when I’m doing personal travel, with the differences in those types of experiences. But I think a lot of brands are figuring out what is the right type of information to use when you’re designing that experience. So, much like I talked about, it remembers maybe my home airport in the way that when I go to start thinking about booking and experience. But that’s really surface level. I think now what you’re going to see with these virtual concierge or virtual brand experience is well beyond that first party data and goes into something that is like zero party data.
I’m willing to offer up a lot of information during the construction of that booking, if it helps me with all of the things that I want to get done that I would have to go to other places, too. So, for example, the concert that I’m going to, what is the amount of travel? What is going to be the cost? Is there a train to do that from the hotel? There’s a lot of things that I would bring into that experience that might necessarily not be things that I want shared elsewhere. So, I think brands need to get smart about when do we collect zero party data, how often can it be used or leverage in other experiences, because it might be a point in time thing that’s really valuable for that unique one and not something that you want to leverage or share with other institutions, because it might not be relevant, only specific to that one booking that I was making.

Mike Vizard: We’ve talked about this in the context of the brands having virtual agents, but might not. We someday as individuals have our own virtual agents and my virtual agent will talk to your virtual agent, and they’ll work all this stuff out and let us know how it all turns out.

Jay Wolcott: Yeah. Yeah, you’re spot on there, Mike. I think that the role of these personal assistants becomes something that’s very fathomable now, as you think about the power of having access to these models and teaching at very specific things about our patterns and the way that we do things. So, just imagine now going into whatever airline that you frequent and having your personal assistant sit alongside you where you teach them, this is the type of city that I’m going to fly out of. When I’m going to a location, here are the types of things that I want to do. You can basically teach that personal assistant how to navigate through this website and book your ticket for you or book your airline reservation. So, next time your experience comes up, you could now instead go to your personal assistant and say, “Hey, can you help book me an airline ticket on Wednesday to Houston and I need to be back on Thursday afternoon? Let’s make sure I leave in the morning on Wednesday.”
That complex query is now certainly possible, where a personal virtual agent like that could go out and perform that action, and bring you back a recommendation of your departure, and your return flight options without having to go through and set all of those filters yourself. And to your point, now all of a sudden we’ll start to have personal assistants working with other people’s personal assistants to schedule a conversation like this. And there’s a lot of different things that can get done. This is where things are getting really exciting with artificial intelligence. Just like travel, time is very important for the individual. When I’m traveling, I don’t want to be spending time on a call center, trying to reach somebody to get something fixed or updated. I don’t want to be spending time sitting in line at that front desk, waiting just for something simple like reprogramming my key card for my phone.
There’s a lot of things that we can do to reduce that effort of the traveler in the experience, but those are also certain things that we can do in our lifestyle, mundane things that don’t add a lot of value to a conversation like this back and forth, that we had to do to get things set up. And AI can take on big roles of taking some of those things out of the experience that don’t necessarily enhance the experience, they’re just requirements, where it’s a great role for AI to take the lead in that. And I think one of the areas we’re going to see a lot of that have a major impact, is in this travel category for sure.

Mike Vizard: So, what is the one thing that we’re overlooking here that people aren’t talking enough about when it comes to travel and AI that you’re excited about, but the rest of us haven’t quite figured out just yet?

Jay Wolcott: One of the things, one of my predictions for this travel category is I think there’s going to be a third party company that’s going to be most aggressive with this feature of bringing AI into the experience. Whether it’s part of making, and designing and transacting on what type of experience you’re going to take, or maybe providing that support where you really feel like you have a personal person helping you out. And I think of it like the hotel that I frequent, has now assigned this ambassador or somebody that I can reach out to with an email if I need to get anything done. Well, now with the state of AI, that’s possible for everybody. So, whether I stayed 100 nights or didn’t, you could actually have the sense of somebody always with you, always there for you being able to help you guide you along that experience. And it’s going to really redefine this travel category.
And I think there’s going to be a third party company out there that can get most aggressive, quickest, and really capture a lot of customer interest and customer loyalty because they push the bounds on that. That maybe some of the legacy brands, that it’s a little bit more difficult to make change or transition to enabling some of these new technologies because of legacy systems, or relationships with franchisees, or relationships with airports where they can’t really push the bounds quite as fast. But I think we’re going to see that really begin to emerge here in 2024. And it’s really going to change our expectations as travelers, that it is a whole new art of the possible, like go back to the days of 30 years ago where we used a travel agent.
That travel agent was somebody personal to us. They helped us configure and design a trip. And if something went wrong on that trip, I’d reach back out to that travel agent, not have to worry about navigating an 800 number at various different places that I can configured on my own. I think we’re going to be back to that type of experience with the role of a virtual concierge, virtual agent or virtual assistant that helps guide you along those journeys, to bring time back and give you comfort as you optimize your trips in those destinations.

Mike Vizard: All right, folks. You heard it here. There’s always probably going to be some level of disruption when it comes to travel, but it doesn’t have to be as painful as it is today. And we can adjust and hopefully we’ll all have a better experience at the end of the day. Hey, Jay, thanks for being on the show.

Jay Wolcott: Thanks a lot, Mike. Appreciate the opportunity. Have a great day.

Mike Vizard: And thank you all for watching the latest episode of the video series. You can find this episode and others on our website. We invite you to check them all out. Until then, we’ll see you next time.