data and AI
A session at the Skift Data & AI Summit [Credit: Paul Stevens]

Data and AI: Addressing key questions and tracking their potential

US: The current landscape and potential for data and artificial intelligence [AI] in travel, hospitality and real estate was discussed in detail at two industry conferences in New York City this week [Skift Data & AI Summit and NYU International Hotel Investment Conference] – answering some questions and raising others.

Below are our key takeaways and the quotes that piqued our attention:

  • How can we use data and AI? How should we use it? [Skift Data & AI Summit]

In the opening address of the summit, Skift CEO Rafat Ali emphasised that “there is no good AI without good data” to back it up. His message: Be Bold: Break Things. Data and AI are evolving at such a rapid pace in travel that new innovations must be constantly tested and refined before tangible innovation and efficiencies can be achieved.

While there is huge potential within data and AI, the Skift team narrowed down their usages to six principal use cases in travel and hospitality: improving experiences; prioritising markets; tracking path-to-path purchases; streamlining operations and costs; forecasting scenarios; and measuring outcomes.


  • How is Marriott utilising and testing generative AI across its brands?

Drew Pinto, EVP, chief revenue and technology officer, Marriott International, delivered a fascinating overview about how the company was going through a “full digital transformation” by continuing to invest in generative AI technology. Ultimately, Marriott wants to make it easier to search for accommodation, personalise the experience and then amplify the trip [e.g. through pre-arrival information], but to do this, it can only learn by doing.

Pinto, who holds the first job title of its kind at Marriott International, says that the brand sees itself and wants to reinvent itself as a travel retailer through the use of AI, allowing consumers to book bespoke and personalised experiences through the trip planning process.

A new generative AI incubator called Gen AI Studio has also been introduced, through which Marriott can test different concepts and organise ideas to create the most targeted and specific searches in its history. While the company currently has a chatbot on its hotel site, it is seeking to consolidate its tech inventory in voice technology, which includes developing an effective Gen AI conversational product.


  • What does this mean for Homes & Villas by Marriott Bonvoy?

Marriott is significantly growing its homes and villas inventory, which now stands at almost 160,000 properties, as alluded to by vice president Jennifer Hsieh [at the Skift Short Term Rental Summit] and VP digital innovation Nitin Sood. Since the company began piloting its homes product in 2019, Homes & Villas now has its own site and its platform possesses a “great ability to test and try things” according to the executives.

It became clear that as the brand grows its inventory further, the Marriott team will continue to learn as they go, including about traveller behaviour, trends and preferences. It is also evident that the majority of consumers on HVMB are existing Bonvoy members and are predominantly searching by location. Pinto called for patience as there is still “a long way to go” with generative AI but expressed his optimism that the team was already driving innovation in the sector.


  • How will AI change our perception of guest loyalty?

Anna Jaffe and Harriet Brown from collaborative AI platform Mobi Systems participated in an all-female panel on ‘Powering personalised travel with collaborative AI’, addressing how intent-driven search is playing a part in forging dream trips. Intent-driven search personalises the search experience and drives more granular results, from asking for attributes about the places you want to visit, to how to get there, who you are and what you want.

Brown highlighted how loyalty in travel and hospitality has been largely “transactional” up until now, whether it be through loyalty schemes or branded credit cards to access particular incentives. However, Mobi Systems is keen to tap into “emotional loyalty” and engendering specific feelings from consumers – thereby going beyond the traditional preconceptions of what loyalty means.

Both Jaffe and Brown believe in the huge potential of data and AI in the future, given that there has not yet been a tech solution in the space that has “really blown people’s minds”, but they expressed optimism that that solution might emerge in the year ahead.


  • How is Expedia Group planning to deploy smart search comparison?

Rajesh Naidu, SVP, chief architect, Expedia Group, delved into how the group is deploying generative AI extensively across its brands, notably smart search comparison for listings which compares millions of properties in different destinations.

As part of its 2024 Spring Release, Expedia Group recently unveiled Romie, an AI-powered travel buddy with whom a traveller can “roam” the world, as part of 40+ new features. The product is designed to learn from travellers and to get smarter over time in order to suggest the most curated and personalised searches ever, with Naidu keen to point out that Romie will be “differentiated” from typical conversational interfaces.

Like Marriott, Naidu also referred to the “importance” of gathering feedback from travellers and reviewing the data as this creates a more responsible AI that meets the internal bar for quality control and testing.


  • What is the forecast for AI in the travel sector?

Chris Hemmeter [Thayer Ventures] and Kurrien Jacob [Highgate Technology Ventures] took to the stage to provide the investor view of how hotel and hospitality technology needs to evolve moving forward.

Hemmeter pointed to Gen Z as an integral demographic in the adoption of artificial intelligence and the evolution of hospitality technology because they now see automation as an enabler to help them make their choices, as opposed to an impediment to travel. He referred to how this portion of travellers are “decoupling” from what a tech stack can deliver and are taking choices into their own hands, adding that platforms and travel agencies need to offer “inspirational” content that keeps up with the new degree of expectation that Gen Z holds.

In the meantime, Jacob said that the hospitality industry had become gradually more fragmented due to owners, managers and brands, and that it had neglected to focus on efficiency and productivity as much as revenue growth. To reverse this, “smart” companies will see automation as “squeaky” and only add a layer on top of their solution, although the “tectonic shift” required to drive this shift will take time.

As forecasts predict that AI in the travel sector will be valued at $4.5 trillion by 2025, both investors stated their belief behind the big opportunity ahead for generative AI, although the “hype” around it is still ahead of the current reality. Hemmeter in particular suggested that “the jury is still out on what AI means for startups” and that “it is not clear where new innovations will come from”, amid concerns that heavy jargon and “elegance” from the larger companies could get in the way of getting to the root of problems and pain points.


  • How will AI find its “voice”?

As the day drew to a close, Matthias Keller, chief scientist and SVP, technology, at KAYAK, addressed the impact of conversational search in travel. While the value of ChatGPT and generative AI has revolved significantly around productivity and saving time in the search and trip planning process, Keller said that KAYAK was “on the cusp of something magical to open up travel” when it comes to voice recognition.

Citing products that look like a chat [ASK KAYAK] and innovations that do not look like ChatGPT [KAYAK PriceCheck], Keller said that voice had become a “commodity” in travel that has untapped potential for extensive use. According to the chief scientist, AI will be a “bridge”, acting almost like a translator, to curating your dream trips in the future, to the extent that it almost resembles a new jargon in itself.


  • How can the hotel industry work best with AI? [NYU International Hotel Investment Conference]

In CEO panel at the NYU IHIC, MCR Hotels CEO Tyler Morse was sceptical about the future usage of AI in hospitality – an industry which he said was mainly people-based and interactional. While Morse said that it had been “terrific” for companies with large budgets such as Apple, he implied that the technology would have little to no impact in the hotel business in the next ten years because the New York-based operator had tried to get optical reader machine learning to read its invoices and it had “failed 50 per cent of the time”.

While Peachtree Group CEO Greg Friedman agreed to some extent, he offered a counter opinion that AI tools could be employed to create more staffing efficiency models as we figure out and keep up with the current rate of adoption.

With the majority of the panel anticipating that hotels would not return to pre-Covid staffing levels, Joseph Bojanovski of PM Hotel Group and Pyramid Global Hospitality’s Warren Fields clarified that AI would not “take over” their business, but instead they would use the technology efficiently in different ways for transactions or repetitive or menial tasks.


Final takeaway:

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