Like many other curious folk, UiPath expense reporting manager and travel professional Mihai Dinu has played with the artificial intelligence phenomenon ChatGPT
by asking it some questions. And like most who have tested its capabilities, the
quality of the answers has stunned him.
Here’s what ChatGPT produced for Dinu in less than one minute when he
asked it to complain to an airline about a flight application (page 2 of this article). “Imagine how you can drive savings by applying this at scale,” Dinu says. Here too are the results, produced in a similarly short time, when Dinu requested ten questions on sustainability (page 3 of this article) to include in a global hotel request for proposal.
With output as accomplished as this, it seems no exaggeration to say “the way ChatGPT presents information and the depth of information it has access to are absolutely revolutionary”. That is the view of Groups360 sales vice president for Europe, Dan Humby, who is also co-chair of the Global Business Travel Association’s European meetings & events committee. “Where ChatGPT represents a massive leap forward is the way people can relate to how applicable AI is. It almost humanises it,” Humby adds.
If Generative Pre-trained Transformer technology (of which ChatGPT is just one example of dozens, the vast majority not yet released publicly) truly is revolutionary, then travel managers and the rest of the corporate travel sector need to understand the implications. Naturally, this was another question Dinu asked of ChatGPT by requesting ten possible applications for ChatGPT in the business travel industry – see its response here (page 4 of this article).
Human interviewees asked the same question by BTN Europe gave more far-reaching suggestions, anticipating changes that ranged from accelerated procurement tasks to the end of online booking tools as we know them, to disintermediation of the travel manager from supplier/traveller relationships. Technology this powerful also raises the question of whether it will make travel managers more potent or render them obsolete. Early opinion, buyers may be relieved to learn, is the former.
Just how good is ChatGPT?
AI and robotics have been around corporate travel for a few years, providing services such as answering travellers’ frequently asked questions, speeding up expense reporting and offering personalised recommendations to travellers. But, believes Dinu, evolution has been slow – until now. “ChatGPT is the missing link in adoption of automation,” he says. “It’s the brain. We have a lot of power to automate processes but it couldn’t make decisions. ChatGPT has the potential to solve this problem.”
GPT technology recognises and responds in natural human language, calling on vast reservoirs of knowledge to give relevant, insightful answers. “I live in a world where you automate everything up to the point that you can’t,” says Mat Orrego, CEO of corporate travel tech company Cornerstone Information Systems. Orrego believes GPT moves that point much farther along. Many routine information-sharing tasks no longer need be researched and conveyed by a human – the kind of work which takes up much of a reservation consultant’s day, for example.
Yet, astonishingly capable as GPT technology is, limitations remain, if only because GPT tools can only be as good as the information fed into them. In a recent LinkedIn post, air travel consultant Eric Léopold noted that he asked ChatGPT for hotel recommendations in Geneva and Stockholm. The former, he said, were excellent, but the latter included a property in Helsinki, 395km away.
Search engines regularly provide misleading hotel recommendations too. The crucial difference, and biggest problem with GPT, according to Fox World Travel chief information officer Sam Hilgendorf in a commentary he wrote for BTN Europe sister publication The Beat in January, is that “It sometimes provides answers that are both credible and precise, yet completely wrong.”
GPT’s quality of answers will undoubtedly improve. ChatGPT’s pool of knowledge is entirely historical, based on documentation sourced up to late 2021. That explains why a request from Hilgendorf for security advice on visiting Kyiv yielded no mention of the Ukrainian capital being subject to bombing by Russia.
Microsoft is among those companies looking to connect GPT tech with the Internet. “That is when the real power of ChatGPT will be revealed – when it becomes real-time information, and that is when it will become relevant for our industry,” says Dinu. “Without real-time data it is useless. You cannot rely on old flight schedule information using a flight number which doesn’t exist any more.”
For now at least, the new technology looks far more like a virtual assistant than a virtual manager – an assistant whose work needs to be verified, edited and improved by a knowledgeable human with oversight and responsibility.
Applications of GPT tech in corporate travel
When Dinu asked ChatGPT about its potential applications in the corporate travel industry its answers focused on improvements in information sharing for travellers. Examples included personalised itinerary planning, translation services and advice about restaurants, local events and weather. But human experts can go much further to consider the strategic implications and advanced application of these new capabilities. Here are three examples.
A) A new travel procurement assistant
Suggesting ten questions on sustainability for a hotel RFP is just one example of how GPT tech can speed up and improve the procurement process. It can also help travel buyers avoid having to be part-time lawyers. “In corporate travel there is a lot of management of contracts,” says Orrego. “When you start introducing a complex procurement contract for an airline into ChatGPT, for example, all of a sudden you see more clarity because it’s able to summarise.”
B) Booking tools could disappear
That is the dramatic prediction of Dinu. Or, only slightly less dramatically, “You don’t have any more online booking tool searches,” says Will Tate, a partner at GoldSpring Consulting. “AI reads your texts and your e-mail and your calendar requests and communications, and says ‘Will’s about to need a trip to London. He has a speech at 10am on this particular day. I know all his personal preferences. He doesn’t like to fly overnight, he likes to arrive early, he likes to stay in a particular hotel, he doesn’t like to drive in London’.” The system generates a suggested itinerary and invites the traveller to click to book.
But Dinu warns: “I don’t think this will happen very soon because of the distribution challenges which need to be addressed first. The only way AI can work is if it is given accurate data sets to make decisions on. Since our industry is very fragmented and there is a huge pool of data which is not accurate, it is very challenging.”
C) Suppliers will lure travellers away from the corporate programme
Tate believes GPT tech could weaponise personalised sales and marketing by suppliers to target travellers directly and ostracise travel managers and their managed travel programmes. “They’re going to hit travellers with very targeted sales opportunities that are special to travellers’ preferences but very likely contradict what their organisation’s goals are,” he says.
Tate believes this trend links with radical changes in distribution strategies by some airlines to sell fares outside standard distribution channels for corporate travel. “Airlines think they are providing discounts for share they are going to get anyway,” he says. “They have also declared ‘Anyone between us and the traveller is my enemy.’ It’s going to cause a ton of stress to the system. Because it is so customised and personalised, it [those offers] will do a better job of turning the traveller’s interest into a [personally] permissioned-in supplier than a corporation will in trying to hold you accountable by policy.”
How jobs in corporate travel could be affected
None of the interviewees for this article foresees mass redundancies in managed travel, either on the buyer or service provider side of the sector. On the contrary, they see only positive consequences, one being to plug gaps in a workforce that has remained depleted since Covid.
For TMCs, says Tate, “There’s a labour shortage, so you need to automate. In a ChatGPT delivery-style system you can do that for pennies instead of lots of dollars.”
Both Orrego and Dinu, meanwhile, believe travel managers will see their roles enhanced, not threatened. “AI can become the virtual assistant to the travel manager,” says Orrego. “It extends their capabilities and allows them potentially to focus on more strategic versus tactical matters.”
Dinu goes even further. “Travel managers’ role will change,” he says. “In the past travel managers were only asked to provide some reporting and their role was not very strategic. But, moving forward, travel managers can have conversations with upper management backed by numbers giving a holistic view of the travel programme: explaining the analysis they have done and what that means the company needs to do. Travel managers will finally get a seat at that table.”
Next page: Putting ChatGPT to work in business travel – writing a complaint letter