Would you like to speak to a human or machine sir?


A 10 min read about the rise of voice search, chatbots and the future role of artificial intelligence (AI) in the travel & the vacation rental industry. 

Good Day Sir, Thank you for calling “Advanced Vacation Rentals”, would you like to speak to a human or a machine?

It’s an interesting thought. If by any chance you can find an actual phone number in the future, then perhaps the chat bot or artificial human at the end of the line will ask this exact question and qualify it with an option or two.

“Please note booking with an actual human interface will add 10% to your booking, you will find this at checkout under HSF (Human Service Fee). Our specialist, Silvia Turing, however is free and would be happy to speak to you, she is lovely and costs no extra!”

We hear and read a lot about “robots”, “voice search”, “artificial intelligence”, “big data” and the “internet of things”. So whilst the owners and managers of rental properties lie around pools, play golf or are fully V.R. immersed (that’s Virtual Reality this time) on the beaches of the world, guests will settle for a machine. They will be safe in the knowledge that Silvia will have all the answers and instill confidence.

The “machine” will tell them the type of linen they can expect, the local council’s parking charges, what the beach camber is like for safety of the kids, the best place to celebrate a birthday for vegans and recount the joy of paddling down the local river at sunset (but make sure the tide is in however).

Apparently, technology and in particular voice management combined with AI will change all this. It will help remove more of those expensive staff in the hunt for progress and in so doing establish levels of trust and connectivity via automated systems, which so far have been out of reach.

Is voice search the future?

Voice search is the buzzword and will be far more specific because it’s still easier to speak than type. Bolt on significant advances in translation software and we are moving to a verbal digital environment that covers the globe connecting all of humanity. The varying cultural demographic makes this substantially more difficult of course, but the intent is there and with a lot of funding and innovation supporting this movement.

Imagine the non-English speaking part of the world coming alive through native, real-time translation connected via the net and the opportunities are boundless for travel, commerce, cultural advances and other less desirable impacts of course.

Better conversational interfaces

Most people do not engage at a deep and meaningful level with their current technology for search and still require answers to simple well-defined questions. Instead of typing “villas in Koh Samui” and scrolling through thousands of search results, it’s easier to ask “Find me a great villa, in a quiet location with… erm… a heated pool, hmm yes and make sure it’s close to the beach in Koh Samui… but… it must have 4 bedrooms for under $5,000 per week in November, actually… December”.

Voice search is predicted to be huge and is rising rapidly as shown in this Forbes report. Windows Cortana and Apple’s Siri are all entrenched in operating systems on desktops and mobiles but still suffer consistency and interpretation problems.

Once a search is completed for that ideal holiday destination and a few questions need answering, then it’s over to the phone or to chat online. Sylvia Turing (our future winner of the famous Turing Test), mentioned above, may be able to answer questions with aplomb eventually. This relies on deep data access and AI to provide a “human-like” experience.

In 2014 the pre-requisite 30% of people believed they were talking (via a type chat scenario) they were speaking to a 13-year-old. So it appears that it’s coming, albeit slowly!

There’s going to be more personalisation & more exposure of your personal data

Now add in hardware to the software challenges and we have a multiplicity of options. Amazon Echo, Google Home, are both novelties and great for playing music, asking personal questions and getting the weather forecast, but it’s the beginning. They will see screens added, perhaps VR equipment, translations and will hook into massive data systems. These will be commonplace in homes and can dive deeper into your personal life. On top of this, the other internet of things will have also curated you and your life, so predictive intelligence will come to the fore.

Your diet habits, bedtime routine, YouTube recommendations, salary, driving style, health requirements (let’s hope this doesn’t happen), family’s likes/dislikes and much more may be extremely well known. Confronted with this subliminal information, the optimal most personalised holiday destination, accommodation, restaurants, car hire and timing can all be offered up.

Whether this is presented as definitively as possible or is influenced by corporations sponsors or margin calls, will determine its real usefulness but can be considered “Connected Intelligence”.

The goal for machine is to understand intent & deliver results across multiple cultures, languages & technologies

Through conversation, we establish, build and strengthen relationships. A conversational interface is different and requires a seamless experience for the user. A simple chat bot or messaging system does not form a relationship or association. The goal is for the technology to disappear and for the user to forget about the interface. The system must be able to determine intent and develop through conversational association a trust acceptance level, let alone answer questions that may only be available offline. Doing this with language barriers, dialects, cultural nuances and technology barriers is not so simple.

Are we currently in the worst of both worlds?

We aren’t there yet by any stretch of the imagination and that’s where the traveler suffers. The industry is so hell bent on enforcing simple rules that can be interpreted without supercomputer machine learning and removing expensive humans from the travel process, it’s potentially the worst of both worlds right now.

It’s now possible to book a flight, take a remote controlled car to the airport, check in the bag automatically, collect a pre-booked car without speaking to a soul, check into a hotel or Airbnb without human interaction and return home the same way.

It’s unlikely the average person will be able to do this without issues on the way. Online promises are fine but on the ground, daily issues such as strikes, coups, traffic, weather, disease outbreaks, fires, road closures, terrorism, other travelers issues and more will affect the smooth running of any chain of travel activity.

That’s where problems occur as it often needs a human to sort the problems, but there aren’t enough souls to go around and they are generally overworked, socially removed and now quite angry!

Technology has exacerbated the problem, not solved it, sucking more from a decreasing labour force and applying tech to add more to the bottom line.

Humans are social by nature

Ask why Facebook is so popular and so many people now use it daily. Humans are social and have a million years of personal interaction. The Chameleon Effect, for example, is a powerful tool in the war on automation. It does mean seeing the prey first however and the drive to distance connections in favour of revenue reduces opportunity reduces this.

Social has moved online and is developing. How many people do you see communicating by text, chat, WhatsApp, email these days rather than talking even at a close distance? Facebook is the prime mover in the western world for social networking and is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored in this context. The reason for its high usage and success also highlight Airbnb’s social and site profiling.

This article explains well the need to belong and the ability to portray a well-considered personality which actually dilutes the chameleon affect.

Millions of years of social evolution are being changed via human neural network adaptations and no doubt being imprinted on the human genome too.

The problem with all this, is that distancing human from human leaves doubt on identity & intent and means both sides of this social equation sees reduced trust and empathy. This is one of the reasons fraud has moved online. Humans can determine trust more accurately with actual real life interaction.

So human or machine Sir?

Right now, in an ideal world, it’s human for me. There is absolutely no doubt Silvia Turing will become more human and perhaps fool all of us, but for now, she’s a database of outdated information and no real world experience especially at a local and continually changing environment.

After trying An OTA’s suggested helpline number and asking for information on a small village property in Devon and speaking to an unintelligible accented person in the Caribbean we know that this is simply damaging a booking opportunity, if not the marketplace itself. This illustrates the need for true connectivity, not call-center incentivised screen read replies.

What can you do, as an owner or manager, to improve your situation going forward?

  • Voice search is very important going forward, humans like to speak questions. Create very long tail popular search pages, with the definitive answers.
  • Use the “belonging” social approach of Facebook and Airbnb and collect all your reviews into a “friends” collection and get to spend a few moments with each guest or at least call them to make sure all is OK and you do create a connection. You are as important as the property quality. How many times have you seen reviews that say “Tom and Julia were such great hosts……..”
  • Let people know, on your own site, they can book online, push them to some great FAQ’s BUT make sure they can see how to contact you by phone and email and even WhatsApp or Facebook. Use the phone as a priority, it will help you identify the potentially challenging guests and allow you to activate the chameleon effect: interests, places you have been to, birth dates, friends, experiences, places you have both visited and more. Its what humans do best!


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