May 26, 2024

Force for good

Brian Sheerin, CTM Chief Technology Officer, believes there’s a place for AI in business travel, but timing is crucial

It’s hard to believe, but AI (artificial intelligence) has been around since the 1940s. Yet, only now does it feel like we are on the cusp of a revolution in the way it impacts our lives. I think the tipping point was the launch of Chat GPT last year, followed by much debate around safety and regulation.

Currently, it feels like the AI debate is dominated by the negatives – legislation, safety and job losses – all of which are fair game but also spotlight just how much humans resist change.

Like all tech, though, AI can be a force for good, too. It’s enabled everything from e-commerce upselling and personal viewing recommendations on Netflix, to the likely success of autonomous vehicles and facial recognition. It gets even bigger than that when we start talking how AI could be used in healthcare. It’s suggested that AI could build machines sophisticated enough to detect diseases, identify cancer cells and create customised prevention as well as customised treatment. Who wouldn’t want that?

It’s AI’s ability to personalise offerings that makes it so powerful and relevant to the business travel industry. In the short term, I think we’ll see the biggest impact through ChatBots, online booking tools and offline service desks.

“It’s AI’s ability to personalise offerings that makes it so powerful and relevant to the business travel industry”

At CTM, we’ve already deployed AI across our online booking tool Lightning to deliver personalised results that consider historical booking data and traveller preferences that are also – and this is the important bit – compliant with the company’s travel policy. As more bookings are made, the machine will learn, and accuracy will increase in line with traveller trust and adoption.

AI is already bringing major improvements in terms of product matches, speed of responses and overall customer experience and we are now looking to extend its use across all our products, reducing the need for user intervention and automating as much of the process as possible. If we can proactively deal with travel requests and remove search forms and other administrative tasks without compromising on quality and the human element, that will be a big next step.

Data day

Of course, AI is nothing without data, so it’s key for TMCs and other business travel suppliers to continually feed it with supplier and customer data, ensuring it learns how to match requirements and deliverables with increasing accuracy.

In my opinion, if we use AI sensibly, it will provide quality products and services far speedier than those employed today. In fact, speed of response when it comes to delivering results/bookings and handling queries and questions, is one of the top three benefits to the business travel industry of using AI. The other two are accuracy of requirement/deliverable matching based on previous client experience and demands, and cost savings with service costs being driven down, and preferential pricing being reliably offered across multiple sources.

“It’s important to not race too far ahead of the understanding and needs of your clients (and their travellers)”

Given buyers are still under pressure to cut costs and make budgets work harder, this makes using a TMC with AI-integrated technology a very attractive option.

So, in my opinion, there are many good things to look forward to when it comes to AI in relation to travel technology, but I would also warn against moving too fast, too quickly, just because we can. It’s important to not race too far ahead of the understanding and needs of your clients (and their travellers), especially as our own research has shown that just 3.73% of customers indicated they want to use ChatGPT for booking business travel, compared to more than 60% who prefer to use an OBT or book through our portal.

That’s not to say their needs won’t evolve. History shows they will, and that’s why we will continue to invest in developing proprietary technology at speed, but always in line with our customer-driven timelines.