Back in May, Booking.com launched a ‘Booking Messages Interface’ which promised to ‘empower customers to personalise their stay’ by using only their smartphone. In a further bid to improve guest communication, the giant of the OTA world has also promised to offer full integration with Facebook Messenger’s emerging ‘chat bot’ technology.
These new services intend to replace the previous method used by guests to contact hotels, which utilised a pop-up box on the Booking.com website that resulted in an email sent to the hotel in question. Unfortunately, given the communication channel employed, this meant that responses were often delayed by up to 48 hours.
Booking.com’s new messaging service utilises their existing Pulse app which is currently used by hotel staff to view bookings and daily lists of arrivals and departures. The addition of guest messaging within Pulse makes this particular app a fascinating tool for hoteliers and front desk teams.
Instant messaging is a great step forward, but in this post, we’re going to focus on chat bots, because we can guarantee the mere mention of them in the first paragraph will have raised one of your eyebrows, and we think they could prove rather useful for hotels.
What is a chat bot?
If you’ve ever said “Hello, Google” or “Hey, Siri” to your mobile phone, you’ve engaged in light conversation with a piece of software. Chat bots follow the same principal by bringing automated customer service to businesses and consumers. Basic questions can now be answered by clever algorithms that rely on a standard set of responses and a healthy dose of artificial intelligence (AI).
Chat bots, like Siri and search engines, are able to respond to natural questioning, thus negating the need to type in specific queries in order to obtain the right answer. They understand inference and are becoming increasingly adept at detecting regional dialect and slang. It is - almost - like talking to a human being.
Facebook? What have they got to do with chat bots?
Chances are either yourself or someone in your household uses Facebook Messenger. It is estimated to have one billion active users globally, who rely on it daily to communicate with friends and relatives. Messenger exists as an app in its own right, separate to that of the standard Facebook service.
The team at Facebook were quick to spot the opportunity to extend Messenger’s capability by enabling third parties to tap into its communication channel. As a result, the concept of chat bots was born, and following extensive development, these virtual assistants are now being pitched by the social networking giant to businesses who want to more easily ‘reach people on mobile’.
Facebook’s Messenger chat bots enable customers to ask businesses questions and receive human-like answers instantly, by using an app they already have installed on their smartphone and with which they are completely familiar.
Consider the application in retail, where a consumer might ask their favourite shoe shop which running trainers they have available for under £80. Almost instantly, they’ll receive a rich response that features images and links to appropriate products. With a chat bot, such a conversation can be conducted from within Facebook Messenger, negating the need to pick up the phone or install a separate app.
But what about hospitality?
Benefits of chat bots for hotels
This all sounds great, but why should you consider using chat bots at your hotel?
Here’s why we think they might eventually trump the more traditional forms of communication, such as telephone or email:
- Guests can explore accommodation options at their own pace, without fear of wasting someone’s time on the phone (no matter how nice or patient that person appears to be)
- Chat bots don’t sleep, and can therefore be quizzed whenever the need strikes
- People are intrinsically used to messaging services, given the prevalence of SMS in every day life - dealing with a chat bot is just like sending instant messages to friends and therefore instantly familiar and convenient
- Conversations are rarely lost with chat bots thanks to notifications which can be instigated to remind a waylaid user that they are halfway through a discussion
How hotels could use chat bots
Think of the regular conversations your front desk staff have with guests. How much is a double room on X date? Do you allow dogs? Is WiFi free? Having to deal with repetitive questions has long been a part of hotel life, but regardless of how determined you are to put on a friendly face when asked them for the eighteen-thousandth time, we now live in a society that communicates in vastly different ways - and those ways that can be leveraged to take the load off your front desk.
A chat bot could conceivably be used by guests to find out the following types of hotel information with some very natural questioning:
- “Do you have any rooms free tonight?”
- “I’ve got a very well-behaved dog. Can I bring her with me when we stay in September?”
- “Do you offer conference facilities and, if so, how much would your largest room be for a three day conference?”
- “I’ll need transport to the airport on the day I leave - can you help?”
- “I’d like to book a room with a jacuzzi. Please let me know if you have any and when they are free next week.”
Clearly, hotel booking system providers will need to get in on the act and start integrating their systems with chat bot services to ensure the answers delivered to guests are accurate and extend to enable booking, but imagine how slick such a service would be…
It certainly gets us excited.
Facebook’s Messenger chat bot functionality is still believed to be in beta, but it represents a fascinating opportunity for hotels to connect with guests more regularly without having to invest significant time in doing so.
We’ll be keeping a close eye on chat bots and will of course keep you updated as they develop, but if you have any thoughts on this emerging technology, please let us know in the comments below.