AI, chatbots not the catch-all solution in corporate travel

Some components of corporate travel still require a human touchcompletely entrusting the travel management process to AI

As AI, chatbots and other smart customer service solutions flood the market, business travel proponents warn against the trap of leaning on automated tools, which cannot fulfil the complexities required of travel policies.

More than 50 per cent of consumers use automated chatbots to facilitate their queries, with the millennial segment of users shunning phone calls as an “outdated service”, shared Jonathan Kao, managing director, Greater China, BCD Travel.

Some components of corporate travel still require a human touch and cannot be completely entrusted to AI

“As a TMC, we receive trip requests for Shanghai to Beijing more than 500 times daily. Chatbots can help us with such low-value services so that we can focus on bringing higher value in our other areas of service,” he said.

AI solutions are useful for solving such “core problems that are simple to handle”, described Kelvin Hu, finance director, Shanghai Chicmax Cosmetics. The FMCG company has a partnership with Ctrip, under which it has customised a standardised travel policy, as well as a middle-tier system that allows travel managers to execute price comparison and expense management.

However, such technology “has not matured enough yet” to be employed across the entire travel management process, opined Hu.

He explained: “Right now, AI’s standing is like Taobao in 2003, when people were not comfortable with online shopping and saw a level of risk. We have to wait for further development that will force the industry to grow.”

Even high-end hotels in China do not have a complete grasp on adept chatbots that can process requests such adding an extra bed to a room, shared Li Lei, founder & director, Youli Hospitality Consulting Co.

He elaborated: “After wrestling with the torturous chatbot that didn’t understand our request, we eventually called the concierge and the matter was easily settled. Even with chatbots, a lot of guests still do not derive the same sense of security (as with human service).”

Frequent business travellers have also grown accustomed to having a secretary who knows their travel needs and preferences for flights and hotels, and such a “perfect solution” is the standard that AI has to meet in order to be fully accepted by the industry, said Leo Pan, GC travel counsellor, Greater China, Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

“Even though BCG has an online adoption rate of close to 80 per cent, we still have some hesitation in completely entrusting the travel management process to AI. It may not be able to handle some problems, such as a shortage of flight seats or hotel rooms, and those boil down to personal service. We still want to take a closer look at how the market develops before investing in a solution,” shared Pan.

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