We’ve been talking (pun intended) about voice for quite a few years now at Travelport Digital - heck, I even posed the question at an internal meeting way back in 2015! But with the release of 'Speak Now' by easyJet last week it feels like the perfect time to chat (I’ll stop now!) about it once again because like a teenage choirboy, voice is changing.
Go where the customer is
This phrase has been a rather overused mantra in travel over the past three years by early trailblazers like KLM, TripIt, United et al, who have spread themselves across every third-party voice and messaging platform they could think of in order to be where their users are. Getting your boarding pass on Assistant, asking Cortana about your loyalty tier status or even listening to Alexa telling you which aisle seat you’re sitting in - functionality previously limited to typing these requests outs - has become so commonplace on these channels in the last few years that voice in travel doesn’t even feel that unusual now.
However, what we’ve seen over the past 12 months is a clear shift in the market away from those aforementioned third-party platforms to first-party. 2019 has been the year where travel brands have started to look at ‘where their mobile customer already is’.
Image source - Google Blog
Even more surprising is the fact that it’s been travel verticals like hotels, airports and OTAs, historically not known for being leading lights of innovation, that have shown us the way.
- Accor Hotel’s bot ‘Phil’ is not new, it has been on Facebook Messenger & Google Assistant since 2017 but on those channels he just answered common questions about their hotels, i.e. on-site parking, meeting rooms, location etc. Now Phil is a full voice search companion inside the Accor app allowing users to ask him about the best hotels in Venice.
- If you’re in Miami International Airport you can now ‘talk to Mia’ in their airport app about where is best to get coffee or how long will it take you to get to gate 2A from security – from where you’re actually standing!
- In India, where voice search has grown 270% YoY you can ask Yatra’s app to show SpiceJet flights to Mumbai next Thursday and unbelievably it’ll do just that!
That’s what is most interesting about this shift. Whereas the voice experiments of the last few years on Messenger, Alexa and others provided no more than just fancy FAQs with automated canned responses, we are now seeing voice search recognise natural sounding language and understand previously complex requests like ‘Heathrow, a week on Wednesday’. Most importantly of all though, we’re seeing all this happen INSIDE a brand’s own app.
It’s not just first-party apps that are opening up to this shift of where the customer already is, operating systems are also bypassing apps altogether.
Assistant is now built into every Android Go phone, reaching millions of low end devices in emerging voice first markets like LATAM and Africa. KaiOS, the world’s third biggest OS now supports ‘voice typing’ allowing users to dictate text messages, perform web searches and pretty much do anything you would previously use a text box for before, by just speaking it instead.
Finally, it may be much maligned but Apple now allows brands to pull app functionality like flight status, loyalty tiers or even their whole itinerary into Siri with just a ‘show me my next trip’ vocal request. Why go to Facebook Messenger when I can just speak to my phone without even unlocking it?
As ever though, it’s easyJet that are skating to where the puck is going and not where it’s been (with the recent launch of Speak Now).
Developed by Travelport in collaboration with Google Cloud Speak Now will enable millions of easyJet passengers to use their voice to search for flights. However, it’s not just the simple 'question and answer' switch that airlines like Aeroflot and Garuda Indonesia have pioneered in the past few months.
This new functionality, powered by Google’s natural language understanding tool, Dialogflow, means that easyJet are the first airline in the world to launch conversational voice search. So, as well as simply saying “‘I want a flight from Edinburgh to Amsterdam for one adult going out on the 14th October coming back on the 19th October” passengers can engage in conversation with the easyJet app too, for a more natural search experience.
Like all innovation driven by easyJet, Speak Now is not functionality created just to garner press and plaudits, it’s rooted in a company-wide desire to deliver the best user experience possible at every digital step of the journey for ALL their passengers. As Dan Young, Head of Digital Experience at easyJet said recently of the feature.
“We are continually striving to make booking a flight more accessible for customers, especially those who are visually impaired, and Speak Now helps us achieve this objective”
Make no mistake though, flight search is just the beginning for this world first initiative from easyJet. Don’t be surprised if you’re not choosing your seats, adding bags and ultimately paying for it all using just your voice in the not too distant future.
Talking of search…
Search is dead!
You might think this ending is all about the clickbait and maybe ‘search is dead’ is a bit too strong… but the search of ‘now’ is certainly ready to shuffle off this mortal coil in the next five years.
As I said earlier this year search is changing. We’re no longer just typing into search engines, we huff and puff when we see a form field on a mobile device without a camera icon next to it (“you mean I have to TYPE this number out?”) and the idea that you ever had to pick a destination airport or passenger type from a drop down list on a website will be as alien to tomorrows teens as a VHS video is to ones today - in fact, even going to a travel website to book a trip in the first place... don’t get me started on ‘Shoppable Social’, that’s a whole other blog!
Don’t believe me? Then listen to what the industry is saying.
- KLM ‘Providing the option to search for flights using voice commands in multiple languages is the next strategic step’
- Expedia ‘Without a doubt, voice is our future’
- Google ‘In these fast-growing countries like India, Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico, voice is often the primary way users interact with their devices because it's natural, universal, and the most accessible input method for people who are starting to engage with technology for the first time in their lives’
As Google says, the next billion users of the internet are going to look very different to the last but is the travel industry ready for this future (and it’s a very near future at that!) where touch is no longer the primary input, where we move beyond simple text and type and new ways of searching like voice or visual become the norm for Gen Y and Z travelers? As I said, search may not be dead but the keyboard certainly is!
There I said it.
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