HB ON THE SCENE: Expedia strives for seamless, frictionless travel

LAS VEGAS—While Expedia Group Inc. has made the headlines in recent weeks with the resignations of Mark Okerstrom as CEO and a member of the board of directors and Alan Pickerill as CFO earlier this month, the organization also recently held its Explore ’19 conference here at The Venetian Las Vegas, where it outlined the ways it plan to improve travel experiences by reducing the areas that cause friction for travelers.

“When we think about frictionless travel, we want to make it as easy as possible for our customers to find the best and right accommodation for them and then have amazing experiences when they are traveling,” Scott Crawford, VP, product and technology, Brand Expedia, told Hotel Business. “Some of the ways we have been investing is really leveraging the huge amount of data we have to help customers make the informed choice. One example would be applying an algorithm to our photo selection so our properties can put photos into our systems that actually help to target exactly what the customer might be interested in.”

In partnership with business strategy firm Magid, the company released the “Online Travel Friction Index,” which found that travelers want suppliers to offer a seamless travel experience, and to quickly and effectively handle any challenges during their travels.

The company is using its platform, which offers a variety of travel products, to build out traveler and partner solutions to lessen the barriers to travel. Expedia Group’s Innovation Lab tests new products continuously, leveraging advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, eye tracking and face-reader technology, to understand travelers’ focus on a website and the emotions they experience while booking travel.

These tests recently uncovered the attributes travelers value the most that provide an easy-to-use, frictionless online booking experience. Friction reduction occurs through the creation of extensive end-to-end user experience research, highly efficient coordinated processes, iterative product development and obsession with customer and partner centricity.

In 2018, Expedia Group spent more than $1.6 billion on technology, with a focus on making its platform seamless for both partners and travelers.

The company’s platform aims to solve partner pain points through different tools, such as the new Partner Central Chatbot, powered by the next generation of the company’s AI Lab’s Centralized Conversational Artificial Intelligence Platform (CCAIP) architecture. This chatbot is a virtual assistant experience providing contextual help and support to partners.

“We can help other players in the travel space make their own consumer journeys more seamless,” said Shelby Reed, VP North America, Expedia Group Partner Solutions. “One of the biggest ways we are doing that is with our API solution—in particular, with the machine learning that is driving that. The predictive components of that model take in all of those signals and inputs coming from that massive platform that is Expedia Group and we actually can match it with the unique travel behaviors and preferences of our partners so that when those results are delivered, [they are]highly personalized and highly targeted. It means less time booking travel and less time scrolling through results that aren’t relevant to that traveler.”

The central intelligence computes, organizes and passes revenue opportunities to partners, constantly evaluating the state of each partner to identify potential actions they can take and the return reward in doing so. Currently, this engine is generating 2.5 million recommendations and will continue to evolve to be more precise, the company reports.

Expedia is also using its conversations platform to removing friction for both travelers and partners. The platform includes a virtual agent (bot) that offers self-service experiences, all supported and altered by artificial intelligence/machine learning through a configuration console, resulting in reduced effort and a quicker process for making changes to bookings or completing queries. It is currently being used by Expedia Group agents and partner agents, reducing their cognitive load, delivering operational efficiencies and improving satisfaction, according to the company.

Barry Diller, Expedia’s chairman of the board, spoke during the closing session.

Brand Expedia launched a trip assistance function on the app that will alert the hotel a traveler will be checking in, if the traveler is experiencing a flight delay of eight-plus hours, regardless of where the flight was booked. The company is also piloting a shuttle tracking technology program built by TrackMyShuttle into the Expedia App, allowing guests to see exactly where to find shuttle pickup for their hotel, and follow along with a live route map.

With its growth and so many travel partners, Cyril Ranque, president, lodging partner services, Expedia Group, said the challenge is how to communicate with all of them.

“The challenge becomes how we communicate at scale with these properties in a relevant way, as far as talking about our AI model in a way that makes it relevant,” he said. “Then, on the flip side, how do we serve them at scale when they have needs? This is through an adaptive Partner Central experience. This is through the virtual agent technology that can solve 90% of the questions of partners when they call us or when they go into Partner Central, in a simple way, rather than relying on teams to do that over the phone. That is the most important setup that we have to deal with now.”

Beyond the technology, another way the company is working to reduce friction with its partners is to listen and work with them. “My group focuses on having direct partnerships with owners and management companies and, just by the nature of that, we wanted to make sure…to remove the friction that has existed there,” said Sue Spinney, VP, owner relations, lodging partner services, Expedia Group. “We have the teams on the ground that are talking directly to the properties day to day… By giving them a seat at the table, making sure that we are talking to all of the different components, our goal is to help remove friction in distribution for them so that they understand the value that Expedia brings. We are understanding more and more from them what they want us to develop to help the process be easier.” HB

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