»Alexa! Tell me what I want«

04.01.2019
IT und Touristik

Alexa, what's new?

Every evening for the last week, the Smith family have been sitting around the dinner table together. It’s time to plan next summer’s holiday. The four of them haven’t decided yet where they want to go – but Alexa will help. The Amazon voice assistant inspires them – by telling the parents and children interesting facts about destinations across the world as well as travel offers that might be just perfect for them: “The Spanish island of Majorca is home to the amazing Caves of Drach. These 4 huge cave chambers have millennia-old stalactites and stal­agmites with names like the Buddha or Snowy Mountain. In the last cavern you can take a boat ride on one of the world’s biggest underground lakes, Lake Martel, while musicians provide live music.”

This interaction with the cloud-based Ama­zon service is happening on millions of speakers around the world and in dozens of different languages thanks to what we call “skills” – rather like apps for smart phones or tablets. There are currently about 50,000 of these on the market, most of them specialising in themes like music, news or cinema films. TUI has designed and tested three of these skills for the travel market. The Smiths are using TUI Travel News to find out more about destinations around the globe. And for money-saving inspiration they go to TUI Deals – an application with up-to-date TUI deals, discount codes, and ongoing offers like free kids’ places. These skills are also linked to the Alexa smart phone app, and create special ‘cards’ inside that app, so that the family can read more info, view pictures, and book what Alexa told them about.

Once the family have booked their trip, they can use the TUI Holiday Countdown skill. Every day, as their departure draws closer, they can then get new practical and inspirational advice from Alexa to feel prepared for their holiday and look forward to it even more. “Only six days until your flight to Majorca,” says the voice assistant, as the Smiths relax in the evening, and – after giving them a very practical preparation tip first – surprises them with an inspirational tip for their destination: “You really must try the ensaïmadas, a sweet bun that comes with different fillings. You might like to take some home for your friends afterwards. Up until two days before departure you can still add extra luggage to your flight booing. Find out how to do this on today’s Alexa card.”

Virtual travel advice, inspiration, and of course direct access to the customer. For TUI, Alexa and her sisters are an important step towards the future of travel: “Besides the websites and mobile apps, smart speakers – and voice in general – will be just another channel to reach our customers in a targeted manner,” says   Carin Campanario‍, Technology Innovation Strategist with TUI UK.

She and her team developed the Alexa skills and trialled them for one month only. Over a hundred people used the skills, and the tracked usage data as well as qualitative user feedback are now helping the team to fine-tune the ‘TUI Voice’ strategy. “Customers loved the Holiday Countdown content, but they want a lot more personalisation from Alexa as well as more direct links to buy and book what Alexa mentions,” says Carin Campanario, as she sums up the findings. “For example, they would like tips that are more closely matched to the hotel they have chosen or their hobbies or family situation. In order to meet these customers’ needs, we can let Alexa ask more questions during the one-off skill set-up for now, and hopefully let customers log in to their TUI account securely in the future.”

Blockchain connects partners
Island tours and city walks, rambles and diving courses, desert safaris: the accompanying programme is at least as important to a great holiday these days as the hotel, beach and pool. To identify and perfect these experiences for the customer, TUI Destination Experiences has teamed up with TUI Group’s Blockchain Lab to devise an innovative IT solution based on blockchain technology, which will make it faster and more flexible to use.

TUI Destination Experiences works with thousands of tour guides, sports instructors and entertainment agencies. In the past, their offerings have always been entered manually into the database for the portal gotui.com that customers use for bookings. However, having to perform this stage of the operation has always held things up to some extent. “We aim to achieve real-time operation,” says   Martin Schreck‍, Chief Information Officer for Contracting & Inventory. If the weather forecast looks good, for instance, and a guide decides at short notice to organise a hike the next morning to a scenic spot, he can post that on the supplier platform. “The portal has an interface linking it to the customer booking platform. The hike will appear there automatically, and our customers can spontaneously sign up.”

Blockchain technology has a major advantage here compared with conventional, stationary databases. It is decentralised, and all the information is saved on the computers of all its users and automatically updated. But it is not only customers who will benefit. The new system entails a huge efficiency gain for TUI too, because staff will no longer have to spend a lot of time administering and transmitting data. At the same time, blockchain technology generates transparency between TUI and companies all over the world who organise excursions and events. Both parties have permanent access to the virtual contracts and the latest details, and suppliers can even adapt their products and prices whenever they want. “The pilot project for this new solution was launched in autumn on the Canary Isles,” Martin Schreck reveals. “As soon as the system is running stably we can quickly implement it in other destinations too.”

For holiday makers, blockchain doesn’t change anything. They book their activities the usual way via the website or the TUI app. For suppliers, the system is equally simple: they can register on the platform within minutes and list their tours. Over the next few months and years – Schreck and his team have no doubt – TUI will win over more suppliers to participate in this state-of-the-art, uncomplicated solution. The network will constantly expand – and so too will the diversity of choice available to customers.

Blockchain has already been put to extremely effective use in a different project: since 2016 TUI has been exchanging bed quotas between subsidiaries in different markets using an application that stores all these transactions in the blockchain. Occupancy rates have risen considerably ever since. If TUI Germany, for example, has some free capacity in a hotel on Majorca, our company in the UK can tap into it and offer its own customers the rooms they are looking for. In the old days, it was not that easy to transfer unoccupied beds to a different company – with the bizarre consequence that customers were unable to book a hotel even though it still had free capacity.

At present, only TUI staff can access the blockchain to exchange bed quotas, but the project at TUI Destination Experiences is now allowing external partners onto the decentralised platform. This is an absolute first in the industry, and while it opens up plenty of opportunities, it also presents TUI with enormous challenges: “We have to treat our partners’ data in strict confidence and make sure that critical business process are unseen,” says Martin Schreck. “Although on blockchain everyone can tell which supplier is organising which excursion on TUI’s behalf, the confidential details are only ever visible to the two contracting parties.”

For TUI, the next step towards a big, decentralised network is to acquire experience. Then these smart contracts – which are blockchain transactions – will also be used for working with hotels and airlines. “This is still a very young technology and we learn more from every project,” comments Martin Schreck. “But the idea for the future is to let all this grow into a self-expanding tourism network.”

Experiences for every taste
The latest arrival in the TUI family is a significant new component alongside flights, hotels and excursions: in autumn TUI Group acquired the Italian technology start-up  Musement. Musement offers 35,000 experiences in 1,100 places around the world, ranging from concerts and sporting fixtures via food and drink to museums and cultural events. If you are visiting Rome, for example, you can pick up a VIP ticket for the Vatican Museums complete with a guide in your own language, then take a culinary tour around the city to try out Italian cuisine, and for the next day you can book a trip to the Amalfi Coast.

“Musement is not only a perfect addition to our portfolio, it has also expanded and broadened our offering of excursions and experiences considerably,” says   David García Hernando‍, IT Director with TUI Destination Services. “But at the same time the cutting-edge technology behind the platform is a huge gain: it allows the customer to design a highly individual holiday experience. Besides, people don’t have to wait until they reach their destination to book. They can do it online before they leave home.”

Initially the start-up will remain an independent entity within TUI Destination Experiences. TUI is already using the Musement website and app as additional distribution channels for tours and excursions in Majorca, Crete and other holiday resorts, building the foundations with its customer base of over 20 million people. Musement, on the other hand, will be given an interface this spring linking it to the TUI app and will be integrated as fast as possible into the company blockchain solutions.

Over the next three to five years, the two companies will build a new, standardised platform for holiday experiences. “We will design the new platform by combining the competence and best features of both systems. That will make it even easier for customers to identify and book the experiences that are perfect for them,” explains David Garcia. TUI’s goal is to be the leading fully digitalised provider for excursions and activities. In doing this, TUI is also performing ground-breaking work, because this platform will be completely open: to all providers of excursions and events, and to all users. In future, travellers who booked their holiday with our competitors will likewise be able to plan their excursions and tours with TUI from their destination.

 

Blockchain, voice assistants, smart contracts – does a tourism company really need all that?
Definitely! We don’t see those technologies as an end in themselves. Digitalisation is aimed at personalising the product and further enhancing the service. If we want to offer our customers fantastic, individual holiday experiences, we must get to know them better and understand what they want from us both before and during the trip. And the new technologies help us to do that.

What kind of things are we talking about?
Take a customer who has signed up for a golf course on all his recent holidays. Next time he books we can offer him a luggage upgrade for his golf clubs. He might have looked for that upgrade himself, but now he’s happy because we saved him the trouble. With other customers we might offer them excursions or courses in sport so they can register in good time. We look after our customers from the booking process until the journey home: they travel on our aircraft and cruise liners, live in our hotels. We learn a lot about them while they are doing that. That information needs to be evaluated and put to good use. Our customers should have the feeling: I can get anything I need from TUI, they understand me and know what I want.

How will digitalisation help to improve the service even more?
Right now, for example, we are looking at voice recognition. When customers phone our service centre or the hotel reception, their questions are often very simple: When is the bus leaving for the airport? Can I book a table for dinner? A chatbot could give them quick answers, and then the holiday maker doesn’t have to waste any time in a loop. We want to be a tech company with knowledge that serves our customers.

Will the effort reap rewards for TUI as well?
We are focusing on the long term, but we can already see how positively our customers are responding. So both sides stand to gain. In the situation just described, our employees save time that they can use instead to look after our customers personally or for other tasks. Another example: we still have separate IT platforms in every country. We would like to standardise them so customers find them easier to navigate. At the same time, we will be more efficient ourselves because new IT solutions can be implemented everywhere at once.

 

Sarah