Sabre Labs, the R&D arm of the travel tech giant, is a team of that tracks emerging technologies and consumer behaviors.
A few weeks ago the Texas-based group published its first Emerging Technology in Travel report, which Tnooz covered. But we wanted to dig a little deeper, so we caught up by phone with the head of Sabre Labs, Mark McSpadden. (This interview has been edited for brevity.)
Tnooz: Will chat bots replace travel agents, or will bots give agents superior powers?
McSpadden: Technology wants people to work on the things that they bring the most value to, and leave the rest to computers.
A lot of the calls that we see come in to our biggest travel agency partners, a good chunk of those calls, aren't making good use of the agent's time. Agents are spending too much time on routine queries rather than more complex questions that draw on their expertise....
But chat bots aren't only for consumer use!
There are some workflows that today the agent handles entirely with commands on their desktop tools that, I see somewhere on the close horizon, agents using chat bots alongside some commands to perform the workflows more efficiently.
Tnooz: What was a partnership that particularly intrigued you this year?
McSpadden: Airbnb's promotion of audio walking tours created by locals via a vendor called Detour. Airbnb has the reach to expose people to the self-directed, audio tour, mobile-phone-based concept.
I could see more auditory augmented reality come out of a partnership like that. What if your phone prompted you to look up at something near you based on knowing your location? We tend not to think of that as augmented reality but it is. And it could be a modest version that gets adopted fast in travel.
Tnooz: If you had to give a report card to the travel industry, how would you grade it for adopting to new consumer behaviors in mobile, compared to other industries?
McSpadden: I'd give the travel industry an A-minus on the transaction side.
Travel has been really fast on experimenting on improving shopping and transactions on mobile platforms. Brands were quick to try mobile apps and the mobile web, then wearables and chat bots.
On the service- and support-side, I'd say B-minus. Travel has this too easy fall-back of call centers. We're lagging retail verticals there.
In conversational commerce, travel has the chance to lead other industries. Not only do we have a fairly well defined domain but we have the human repository of industry knowledge.
If you get a really hard problem via a bot in travel, we have human agents who could help. Compare that to consumer electronics -- they don't have information to index on, say, how to shop for a stereo. Not a perfect metaphor, off-the-cuff there, but you know what I mean.
Tnooz: Where do you see conversational commerce going?
McSpadden: Well the big example is from December, when the Wynn Hotel group in the US said it is equipping all of its more than 4,000 rooms with Amazon Echo by next summer.
We believe that voice channels are very viable for customer support and service.... Machines are surfacing relevant answers either for customers or for agents helping customers calling into a call center.
In my own home, I've got Amazon Echo and Google Home and I have Siri on my iPhone. I'm asking questions all the time....
But I'm not shopping by voice.....
We did a small study for an internal project, and only about 3% of people actively using Amazon Echo were using it for shopping -- small sample size, Amazon would say something different, but we think in travel the category of v-commerce is not yet there.
Tnooz: Why haven't conversational interfaces become popular for shopping?
McSpadden: It creates quite a disconnect. You don't get pages and pages of listings-based results, which is what a consumer is used to. You don't want Amazon Alexa to read you back 200 results. But the technology isn't yet ready to give the most relevant results in a concise way.
We do see people offering context in a natural way that could help machines return relevant results. "Hey, I've got a meeting Thursday in New York. What's the best flight to get in and out as quickly as possible?" That offers a lot more contextual information that could allow a machine, in theory, to provide relevant results.
The earlier win and the most serious work is happening on customer support instead.
Tnooz: Pokemon Go came and went. What should we make of the technology that surrounded that, as it might apply for travel -- augmented reality (AR) tools, virtual reality (VR) experience.
McSpadden: Things are shifting kind of constantly. Earlier this year, there might have been a lot of focus on augmented reality. But then at the holidays the talk was about VR, though the sales may not have panned out.
We see VR as inspirational. What we're intrigued about is that, at the product-level, using VR to differentiate your brand. It has surprised us a bit how some airlines and hotel brands have been willing to invest in the space as a marketing tool, such as handing out VR devices and content to business-class passengers. The verdict is still out.
Tnooz: What's up with wearables?
McSpadden: Our team did a some futuring in December to figure out where we are with wearables in the adoption cycle.... We think we're still in early days. I've been wearing an Apple Watch for a year-and-a-half, and my use of it has evolved, and I expect that may generalize as a behavior pattern.... As an industry, we're still figuring out the right use cases for smart watches in the travel space.
Tnooz: Anything on mobile payments?
McSpadden: The friction in digital payments is still pretty high. We want to see mobile-based solutions that help with that.
Voice commerce might help. If you buy something via a voice-based device, like Amazon Echo, payment is the furthest thing from your mind.... Is voice-based authentication a part of the larger mobile payments future?
Tnooz: Sabre and other travel tech giants sit on mounds of data. Is some of that data being analyzed and made actionable?
Tnooz: Google says we're moving from a mobile-first world to an AI-first world. Do you agree?
McSpadden: We're going to see AI as a supplement, rather than AI-first, for a long time. Google is talking more about charting a long-term path.... Machine learning is getting great at speech and translation. Google is getting better at using machine learning to supplement its search results....
All that said, machine learning has a lot more milestones to achieve. ... It's in a data-first mindset instead of a product-first mindset....
We as an industry need machine-learning boot camps for sellers of travel products. As products and services are being built, the people building the products and services need to talk with the people who know what these new AI technologies are capable of.
McSpadden: I see that bubbling up on how the B2B side, as corporations and agencies and airlines all coming together around an agreed-upon set of data and interpretation of data. I expect to see data to continue to enable a common ground open up around managed travel programs.
We have a product at Sabre called Prism, based on an acquisition, that illustrates the trend.
But that's just an example of a broader concept, like how to use blockchain in travel -- it's about reaching "agreed-upon data and analytics". There are several ways data analytics is going to change the conversations that happen between partners on the B2B side, as new data and new analytics tools become available.