In late 2017, a report by the RSA (Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) stated that artificial intelligence (AI) and robots could replace 15 per cent of the UK workforce over the next decade. The report, The Age of Automation: Artificial intelligence, robotics and the future of low-skilled work, triggered a debate throughout 2018 and now not a week passes without an AI headline laced with fear.
AI was cited by the RSA report as being transformational to the number of employees needed in finance, professional services, transportation and many other sectors. The same report found that 13 per cent of employers expect 30 per cent of roles to be automated in the next ten years. And research from the Business Travel Show found that just over half of travel buyers surveyed believed that automation technologies will impact their role within the next three years.
Much of the press coverage of AI has fostered fear, but also gives the impression AI will happen in the near future. However, the truth is, AI is with us in the here and now.
“The hype leads to misunderstanding and excessive expectations and excessive fear,” says Andrew Burgess, an independent advisor and author of An Executive Guide to AI. Burgess helps organisations develop AI strategies and create a roadmap for AI usage and he describes his role as being, “to make AI boring”.
“AI is some clever maths that can benefit your business,” says Burgess, defining the technology. Just as computers replaced the typing pool, emails the fax, and the mobile the pager, the reality of AI is not the white robot lazily used by many fearmongers, but the next iteration of technology to carry out essential tasks.
“AI covers the whole landscape from chatbots to advanced predictive analytics and machine learning,” Burgess adds, explaining that it is the variety of AI technologies that has fed the hype.
“Data and data-driven applications will be the future,” says Marion Mesnage, head of research, innovation and ventures at Amadeus IT Group. In her view, far from replacing travel buyers, AI is set to enhance their role.
“AI is not something that is new, it is the enablement, in terms of hardware, performance and data, that is changing the game,” Mesnage says.
Sacha Tomey, chief technology officer and director of Adatis, a data analytics specialist, says organisations will benefit from better revenue management as travel buyers gain access to greater insight from data on seasonal travel and price fluctuations as a result of major conferences or sporting events, for example.
“Data-driven technologies will help us and our clients to execute change very quickly,” adds Eric Tyree, chief data scientist at CWT. The TMC has been at the forefront of using data to improve the service it offers its clients and Tyree is forthright about the need for the change in focus. “We are in a very commoditised market and we have to change fast,” he says.
Tyree believes that TMCs got themselves into the same difficult situation as the facilities management services sector, competing purely on price. This was one of the factors in the collapse of construction company Carillion and the recent difficulties at Interserve. He believes offering data and technology-led solutions will provide buyers with an improved service.
AI will not only improve the technologies of the suppliers, the business processes used by corporate travel buyers will also improve.
Michael McSperrin, head of global facilities and support services at Alexander Mann Solutions, says the talent and recruitment firm is using a simple chatbot to respond to travel policy inquiries within the business, which has 4,500 staff, 1,500 of whom are regular travellers.
Comment: Eric Tyree, chief data scientist at CWT
“You can save money by sending people first class,” says Eric Tyree, chief data scientist at CWT. Its data analysis demonstrates that if business travellers book a first class rail ticket three to four weeks in advance, the price difference between it and a standard ticket purchased three to four days before travel is non-existent. “If you travel standard class you will not get much work done,” he says. “I can work out your time costs. If I assume that on your trip to Manchester you will do an hour more work than you would do in standard class, it turns out you don’t have to be earning much before that first class ticket is paid for.” CWT advises business travel bookers to introduce a policy of: “If you are travelling in the UK and if you book two or three weeks in advance, you can go first class.” Tyree adds that if workers know they can travel in first class, ”shock horror, they start booking in advance and they’re booking the hotel in advance as well, so there are savings there, so the total savings increase”.
“The need for human intervention is reduced; you are getting people to do more interesting tasks,” he says of how his team has reduced the time they spend providing answers to questions about travel policy and process. McSperrin explains that, in essence, chatbots match an answer to a question. With chat already in use for candidates and recruiters, adding it to the corporate travel function was “logical”. “If your business is driven by technology improvement and streamlining, then your travel programme needs to reflect that,” he says.
Amadeus’s Mesnage agrees. “AI is empowering the booker and the end user,” she says. “It is streamlining the operations of customers. We know that travel disruption is extremely destructive for both the traveller and the booker, so being able to optimise and predict disruption is of great value.”
Nuno Castro, Director of Data Science at Expedia Group agrees that AI is streamlining the business travel booking experience. “The algorithms provide the right properties to the right traveller, so it has increased the speed at which you can book.”
Tyree at CWT adds that AI and data tools enable the travel booker to analyse the travel behaviour of their organisation and improve the experience both for the traveller, but also the organisation. CWT advises organisations to integrate data sources. “So we take the travel database of everything you have booked and everything you have paid and then I need to know demographics and then I need to know pay grades,” says Tyree. “I take the HR data and integrate that with the corporate finance system and now I have a 360° view of travel – who is travelling, the business and, more importantly, how the business expenditure correlates to travel.
“Then you can say for every individual and every cost centre, I can correlate your revenue back to travel expenditure and then you can create a KPI.” Tyree adds that data integration also enables organisations to tackle other challenges, such as staff satisfaction and retention.
“The travel industry is a little behind other sectors. That is because travel products do have specifics,” Mesnage says. “You cannot consume travel as much as books or shoes. It is perishable – if you don’t travel it is gone.”
Although AI may only just be entering the business travel departures area, in other sectors it has already arrived and begun to unpack its bags (see box, p60). Both the legal and health sectors report that AI is helping those sectors automate tasks, such as paralegal research or analysis of MRI scans, which not only reduces the time these tasks take, but more importantly, reduces the error rate. As repetitive tasks, often handed to less well-trained members of staff, both sectors report error rates can be cut by AI.
The hype created by pictures of white robots neatly ignores the fact that AI is necessary due to the sheer amount of data that the travel sector has to deal with.
“In the past 20 years we have all lived digital lives and the data that has been created is the fuel for AI,” Mesnage says. Burgess adds: “With AI you can never have too much data, the challenge is making sense of it all.”
“You have an obligation to ingest customer data and understand it end to end,” says Ian Cohen, group chief information officer at Addison Lee. “It’s not yours anyway, it’s entrusted to you by your customers so how dare you not make the effort to understand its end-to-end value and provenance.”
As Cohen points out, travel buyers must now look past the headlines and figure out how to leverage AI to make the most of the increasing amount of data coming their way.
“Organisations need to ensure that they have good tools operating on good data, otherwise they are just wading in a ‘data swamp’,” he says.
The other secTors racing ahead with AI
Travel companies should look outside the sector for inspiration. For example, energy services company Mitie is using AI tools to monitor the buildings environment for the Red Bull Aston Martin formula one team. Mitie surveyed 270 staff to establish which conditions helped them work best, then developed a “comfort policy” around temperature, air quality, lighting, humidity and noise. It added 400 sensors around the building to collect data and, combined with the company’s own productivity measures, created perfect working conditions. Technology services business Nutanix is using AI sales automation tools to improve the value and productivity of its sales teams. In the legal sector, some of the world’s largest legal services firms are using AI and machine learning to digest and analyse case law to direct professionals to the most useful information when forming a legal argument. In the NHS, trials are being conducted on using machine learning to analyse oncology scans and direct clinicians to the cases that require specialist analysis.
Michael McSperrin: Building a bot
“The way AI and technology is going, it will help us from a wellbeing perspective,” says Michael McSperrin (left), head of global facilities and support services at Alexander Mann Solutions. “We are using predictive analytics for suggesting hotels the traveller should book based on messages such as: ‘52 per cent of your colleagues have stayed there’. This provides reassurance and improves wellbeing when they travel.” McSperrin hopes that eventually they can enable employees to see each other’s travel plans and find further opportunities to meet peers and collaborate, which again can increase the wellbeing of the traveller by not travelling alone, which benefits the organisation.