Booking.com gets conversational
The 'Booking Assistant' chatbot feature will now be available to English-language bookings worldwide, Booking.com announced yesterday. According to Booking, the chatbot 'empowers customers to get first-line support for their upcoming bookings, including timely responses to their most common stay-related requests, all through a single intuitive chat interface.'
Crucially for hotels, this is a 'service and support' chatbot available to consumers after they have made their booking, rather than a pre-stay bot focused on conversion (like Expedia's). It is trained to respond to customer FAQs, such as questions regarding payment terms or parking policies - in other words, the information that hotels have already provided to Booking.com as part of their listing.
The travel giant's acquisition of tiny Israeli software company Evature for its Natural Language Processing (NLP) and chatbot capabilities is clearly paying dividends. While the FAQs may be simple, the ability to capture the intent of a question and provide a response that makes sense in context requires a fairly high level of sophistication. Booking.com say that Booking Assistant is currently able to automatically respond to 30% of customers' stay-related questions in under 5 minutes. For those queries it can't answer, support is provided by either Booking.com's own customer support team or the property themselves.
"A valuable timesaving innovation" - but will hoteliers be convinced?
Booking.com are posing Booking Assistant as a helping hand for their accommodation partners, fielding common questions for hoteliers and saving them time in the process. And, when the bot is providing answers already available on Booking.com to consumers who have already booked on Booking.com, it likely is a valuable time-saver. In addition, Booking Assistant will doubtless appeal to, and keep happy, those future guests who prefer speedy automation to asking questions over the phone.
It's probably not all good news for hotels though. For one, introducing a communication layer (owned by the OTA) between OTA booking and hotel stay further muddies the water between the two - something that is already a well-documented frustration for hoteliers trying to maintain a coherent brand. It's no wonder that a significant minority of consumers think that 'Expedia' is one of the world's largest hotel chains. Having a blend of Booking.com and hotel personnel answering questions where the bot fails raises the risk of miscommunication and conflicting information being given to the guest.
It's also not clear how time-intensive the 'hotel response' part of this 'hybrid' chatbot is; it is difficult to know how a hotel will be able to (a) be notified of and (b) adequately respond to a guest's enquiry on Booking.com before that guest has left the site - unless the hotelier is constantly logged in to their account. We know from running Front Desk, our live chat for hotels, that leaving a guest for longer than 2 minutes without a response leads to a drop-off in engagement. It will perhaps be a concern for hotels that a guest's online engagement and satisfaction with their property is in the hands of a third party.
Whatever its form, messaging is the future
We're watching with interest how consumers and hoteliers respond to the worldwide rollout of Booking Assistant. One thing is indeed for certain - travellers are looking for the opportunity to chat at every stage of the booking journey, so providers at every stage need to be thinking about how to meet those travellers on their own terms. What's more, the rapid rise of voice technology means that those who get ahead of the NLP game now will be best-placed once consumer behaviour shifts away from typing and back towards speech (NLP powers both online chatbots and 'voice assistants' such as Amazon's Alexa). Expedia are tipping voice as 'the biggest disrupter in travel', so it's no wonder that both major OTAs are racing to put themselves in prime position.
Live chat of some form is likely to become increasingly necessary to hotel websites over the course of 2018 as consumers get more and more accustomed to communicating with businesses over messaging. Lucky for hoteliers, live chat is where they can truly shine. A hotelier with intimate knowledge of, and love for, a property is always going to be able to communicate it better than a third-party bot. Check out the Hotelier's Guide to Live Chat to find out how to make this channel your own - or watch Triptease's Charlie Osmond guide you through the subject below.
Want to keep up with Triptease content? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send your our best direct booking tips fresh to your inbox every week. Consider it an early Christmas present to yourself!