Back to basics: What is a chatbot and does my hotel need one?
By Stuart Dickinson, Freelance journalist, copywriter and media developer
A chat what? While the term chatbot might still be a foreign term for some hotel owners, this technology is quickly gaining momentum in the hospitality and travel industries as more marketing experts begin to harness its potential.
What is a chatbot?
If you're familiar with instant messaging platforms (like Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp and so on) you'll understand the basics behind a chatbot. A chatbot is essentially the next generation of this instant messaging technology that we use every day. Run using artificial intelligence, a chatbot is basically a computer answering your guests, instead of a person.
Talking to a computer may not sound like a very personal experience to offer guests, but with the help of natural language processing, chatbots can expertly mimic a real, human conversation.
According to Chatbot Magazine, there are essentially two types of chatbots:
A chatbot that functions based on rules:
- This bot only responds to very specific commands (it's only as smart as it's programmed to be). If you say something it doesn't understand, it will typically reply with an error message.
A chatbot that functions using machine learning:
- This bot has an artificial brain (artificial intelligence) and gets smarter as it learns from the conversations it has with people. You don't have to be extremely specific when you're talking to it, and it understands language, not just commands.
How can a chatbot help me delight my guests?
So, if we consider that a chatbot is essentially your own messaging app powered by AI, that can plug into larger messaging platforms that you already use – like Facebook Messenger, text messages, etc. – and that no human needs to man it, hotels using chatbots to provide their users or guests with information will help them achieve their goals quicker, making their user experience quick and painless.
Having a chatbot means that your guests can get on-demand information in a natural and conversational way, 24/7 and in just one click, and the chances of losing a guest during the booking journey reduce considerably.
Large hotel companies like Hyatt and Starwood have recently installed chatbots to act as convenient, helpful customer service channels, while Expedia, Skyscanner and Booking.com have also made use of this technology to assist their clients in different ways.
Meet Edward - Edwardian Hotels use a chatbot called Edward to help guests with a variety of things, from online check-in, to letting them know their rooms are ready. In fact, Edward is so good at his job that many guests thought they were dealing with a real person, and praised him with glowing reviews on TripAdvisor.
"Edward kindly secured me a late check out and was keen to help with anything else I needed," wrote one happy TripAdvisor user. A guest even brought an envelope to down reception with a generous tip!
In April 2016, Voyages-sncf.com created a chatbot in Facebook Messenger that interacted with people after they made a booking. The bot handled simple requests, while humans picked up the more complex questions. Thanks to a large tech team, this service has since evolved to allow people to share their train ticket with friends and book together via Messenger.
Weighing up chatbots
Chatbots are still relevantly new to the hospitality industry, with large hotel brands and OTAs mostly taking advantage of them. For independent hotels and smaller chains, human-maintained instant messaging systems are still providing a good, cost-effective alternative while the tech matures.
Below we weigh up some of the pros and cons of implementing your own chatbot system.
- Help enhance guest communication
- They are always on, and provide guests with 24/7 smart communication
- They can be multilingual, catering for international guests
- Bots help move guests along the booking path faster and more efficiently
- Reduce workload of your staff
- Improved profiling of guests to help you later in your efforts to boost loyalty
- When needed, they can't provide that human touch
- The complexities of language
- The best chatbots are expensive
Let's look at these in more detail…
Benefits of using a chatbot
1) Enhanced guest communication
Because the messaging system is managed by AI, chatbots are there for guests 24/7. This promptness can help make them feel special and greatly enhances brand loyalty. Additionally, chatbots can be multilingual, helping international guests feel far more at ease when they deal with your hotel in their own language.
A chatbot can also help guests check in and out on the fly with their mobile device, and provide a seamless platform to ask questions or raise complaints that can be dealt with quickly by staff.
2) Increase booking conversions and reduce abandonment
A chatbot can quickly direct guests down the booking path, and reduces a hotel's dependency on online travel agencies to increase direct, non-commissionable booking revenue. If your bot is always present within popular messaging apps used by millions of people every day, eventually guests will start to use this method as a natural way to book their trips.
3) Reduce workload of your staff
A chatbot frees up staff from the often time-consuming task of responding to hundreds of guest requests. Now they can focus on enhancing hotel functions that only humans can do. And as mentioned above, hotel staff might not be able to give guests the instant satisfaction that only a ChatBot can.
4) Improved profiling of guests
Because a chatbot interacts with guests at most (if not all) stages of their stay, you're able to gather valuable information which can later be used to automate personalised services for current or future stays. This enhanced personalisation also goes a long way towards building brand loyalty.
Considering the negatives
1) Failing to meet expectations
"The expectations of people who use bots are very high," says chief experience officer at travel firm Travelaer Mike Slone. "They think they should operate like something they see in a movie, whereas the reality is that conversational bots are quite immature today."
Certain situations require a human touch, and having a bot reply to a stressful request with an automated response will often only make the situation worse.
2) The complexities of language
Human language is incredibly complex. Words have different meanings in different situations and contexts, and getting artificial intelligence to fully understand that can be massively challenging. Guests will have to understand that to get the most of a chatbot, they should use simple, direct requests.
Multiple languages can also pose a problem. How do you accurately communicate with guests from countries that speak different languages?
3) ChatBots are expensive
It's estimated that building a chatbot from the ground up can cost anywhere between $30,000 and $150,000. It's a complex task to build a friendly, reliable and helpful bot that won't give you headaches along the way, so be prepared to pay the premium.
There are cheaper ways to construct chatbots through pre-built apps, but these are basic shells that will need to be fleshed out further by developers.
All things considered
While chatbots still have room for improvement (and a few complex hurdles to overcome), it's an exciting new technology that has the power to help you improve customer service, increase revenue and drive bookings.
If you have the budget and need to automate the guest interaction process, then a chatbot is definitely something worth considering.