27Chatbots here, chatbots there – they are on everyone’s lips and are hailed as a groundbreaking revolution in digital technology and customer communication. But are they really?

Who (and what) are these chatbots?

Robots that help with the household chores  have been around for a while . We can sit back and relax as they almost independently do their work. Even if we do not have one ourselves, we will have seen them at some point (maybe just on a television advert or technology show). But there are other representatives of the robot squad who are often less accessible to us as end users. These are the so-called “chatbots”: computer programs that imitate human communication/interaction based on databases full of text modules.

One advantage of chatbots is that they can be used as non-human helpers anytime and anywhere (as long as there is an internet connection), regardless of time of day and location. Often, they are deployed on websites to provide customer service, responding to requests around-the-clock. Doing so they are saving costs compared to using human resources.

A serious disadvantage is the fact that chatbots, instead of working with human thinking and empathy, are based on algorithms and rely on ready-made text modules. Anyone who communicates with people in a business setting can imagine the obstacles this lack of humanity and individuality can bring.

Chatbots & language assistants in tourism – a field report

In order to provide an analysis of these new “helpers”, we took a closer look at a few chatbots and language assistance technologies from the tourism industry. Here we share the experiences we had with you:

Flight search with the Skyscanner Messenger Bot

The English comparison portal for low-cost flights has since May 2016 had messenger bots on Facebook & Skype in operation to help users with travel bookings.

  • The Skyscanner Bot currently only works in English. If you start communicating in another language, the request will not produce a result. When the correct language is used, the bot reacts quickly and appropriately to various welcome or help phrases.
  • The dialogue is similar to a rigid question-and-answer game: the bot asks unambiguous questions, such as “which city do you want to visit” or “which airport do you want to fly from”. Mor challenging requests such as “I want to experience an adventure” are not successful.
  • If departure or destination are mentioned, questions about departure time or duration of journey become more specific. The more precise the information requested, the better. For example, the answer to the question “when do you want to start your journey” must be a specific date, a simple “soon” will not produce a result.
  • Once city, date and flight type are supplied, the chatbot will prepare various offers that can be accepted, modified or filtered.
  • If you choose an offer, it will be redirected to the Skyscanner website where the booking can be made.

Language assistant for the Achensee region in Austria

Since October 2017, the Achensee region in Austria offers its guests an Amazon Alexa “skill” called “Achensee Info”. Guests who activate this function for free can receive information on the current water temperature in response to simple questions such as “How cold is it in Achensee”. The tourism destination emphasizes that this is a demonstration project to show the areas of future application of language assistance in eTourism. Any added value compared to Google’s Home/Allo or Apple’s Siri, who can answer the same questions about the Achensee, is not apparent in the current project implementation at the time of writing.

Mayley – the chatbot in the Zillertal region, Austria

The Zillertal tourist region Mayrhofen-Hippach is providing digitization through a chat bot named Mayley. As a Facebook Messenger Bot, he can answer questions about the holiday region.

  • Mayley responds to simple phrases like greetings, asking for help, or saying goodbye with appropriate answers. In the first contact, the chatbot announces himself as being still young and constantly learning. Therefore he asks for leniency in case of missing or incorrect answers.
  • Mayley unfortunately cannot answer questions about the location or population of the region. Weather information is available, and is updated on a daily basis.
  • The search for hotels, restaurants or swimming pools in the region works in the sense that various offers are displayed, where with a couple of clicks you can get more information such as descriptions, opening hours or contact details.
  • A specific search for Chinese restaurants or pizzerias is successful, but a question about 4-star hotels is answered with the information that there are no 5-star hotels in the region.
  • Individual phrases directed to Mayley are recognized, and like Apple’s language assistant Siri, also answered with humor, such as: “Mayley, how old are you?” > “You should not talk about your age!”, or “Mayley, you’re funny!” > “I’m glad you think so.”
  • For questions that can not be answered due to a lack of understanding, Mayley offers to direct the user to customer service.

Digital Assistance in Seefeld, Austria

On the website of the Olympic region Seefeld you can communicate with a chatbot named Olympia.

  • Olympia currently works only in German and responds to simple welcome, help or question phrases automatically and with coherent content. General information about Seefeld, the weather and guest card programs is provided on request.
  • Direct questions such as “what is the population?” were unfortunately wrongly answered several times with ski lift & slope information.
  • Looking for hotels, restaurants or swimming pools, Olympia provides different offers. To book a hotel, the Bot will forward you immediately to the destination website, without listing accommodation offers in advance.
  • Regarding Olympia’s replies spelling errors keep cropping up.
  • Some questions were recognized and answered with humor such as: “Olympia, how old are you?” > “If we add your age plus my age and then divide by two, we are the same age.”
  • For questions that can not be answered due to a lack of understanding, Olympia gives the contact information for the TVB offices.

Our conclusions

Apart from the fact that conversations with the tested chatbots is currently only possible in one language, the questions to which the bots can reply correctly in terms of content are quite limited. In dialogue with them, therefore, you should already know as much as possible what you are looking for in order to obtain helpful information. The actual goal of the conversation (i.e. booking a flight) will always end up taking place on the main company website. So being able to see a screen is always needed at some point, so the question arises what are the real benefits of voice control?

At this point in time, the different chatbots of the tourism regions are in their infancy, and only answering basic questions that can already be answered by the technologies of the big competitors like Google, Amazon or Apple.

The tested bots of the tourism regions & platforms still fall under the category of “nice gimmick”. The question arises as to whether chatbots in the initial phase do not take more time (and patience) as to bring success. Furthermore it is necessary to think of the risk that guests refuse to book because of the negative impression they get.

Innovation before function

Our general view towards digitization of destination and tourism portals is that this is a good thing. However, it always raises the question as to what extent the needs of the target group are being considered:

  • Does it make sense to develop your own Amazon Alexa skills when the majority of travellers in the region still book offline and are far from using this technology to make their bookings?
  • Should the limited resources of a tourism association flow into the development of chatbots, whilst large companies are still in the early stages of development and creating viable products with these new technologies?
  • Is it better for destinations to focus on projects and products that have added value for both guests AND accommodation providers?

We believe the development of chatbots is great in principle. But if you land on a website that has little online content to start with, it will be difficult to convert lookers to bookers simply by adding a basic chatbot to it. This makes it all the more important to ensure not only visibility for your own accommodation website, but also online bookability and efficient guest communication.

Quite simply, contact sales@easybooking.at for more information on JULIA, which generates online bookings or SARA, our app to communicate with guests.