The world is quickly heading toward an era where artificial intelligence (AI) can take requests for flights, hotels, dinner reservations, and activities and turn them into customized itineraries.
One powerful tool that is making headlines is OpenAI’s “ChatGPT,” a natural language chatbot that is shaking up industries – travel and tourism included – with automated functions.
Don’t worry if this all sounds like alphabet soup. ChatGPT (short for “Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer”) only debuted last November, and right now, it’s available for free because it’s still in its research and feedback-collecting stage (there’s also a newer model for paid subscribers).
But in a very short period of time, this software, which assists users with tasks like writing emails, essays, code (and even sonnets) in a human-like way, is disrupting the technology landscape (and labour market) in eye-popping ways.
Why all the buzz? ChatGPT is “generative,” which means it analyzes and summarizes content from a vast set of information, from books to web pages, and uses that data to create original responses.
It’s been praised for its detailed answers across many domains of knowledge.
This is not a new concept (cough, Google). However, the breakthrough here is that ChatGPT is said to be more accurate because it understands nuances, generating responses to questions, and solving problems, that are more personalized.
Even Google is feeling the heat. Just this past week, the popular search engine announced its own artificial intelligence software, called Bard.
These chatbots, in general, appear to make sense of things. But critics are also sounding the alarm, warning that this new tech can be unreliable at times and is only exacerbating the spread of fake news and misinformation.
This is something to consider. While upgrades to ChatGPT are ongoing, improving the bot’s accuracy, the bot (currently) only has access to information up to September 2021.
There’s also discourse over how this tool will impact some jobs.
New research from Goldman Sachs says that generative artificial intelligence systems, like ChatGPT, could affect some 300 million full-time roles globally as it is capable of substituting a good fraction of tasks.
Administrative and legal roles, for example, are among the most at-risk professions, Goldman Sachs reports.
“The potential is tremendous"
The travel industry also fits into the picture. AI-powered applications have been used in the sector for years, from airlines using chatbots to answer customer inquiries (although these are sometimes more of a headache than a convenience) to companies developing self-help tools for travel advisors.
But platforms like ChatGPT could be a serious game changer, says one digital marketing expert who specializes in travel and tourism.
“The potential is tremendous,” says Frederic Gonzalo of Montreal-based Gonzo Marketing. “It’s incredible what these tools will churn out.”
ChatGPT, despite being less than six months old, is already infiltrating travel booking systems.
Expedia Group (owner of Expedia.com, Hotels.com and Vrbo) recently announced a collaboration with OpenAI to simplify trip planning for ChatGPT users.
Until now, ChatGPT could identify what to do and where to stay, but it couldn’t help users book a trip.
Now, with a new plug-in, users can bring a trip itinerary in ChatGPT to life – how to get there, where to stay, and what to see and do – all powered by Expedia’s own data.
Once a user is ready to book, they’ll be sent to Expedia, where they can access their member discounts and rewards.
Expedia says its platform capabilities, like fraud, service and sort, are all now all powered by AI. The company’s virtual agent, it says, has powered more than 30 million virtual conversations, saving 8 million hours in agent time.
It’s also working to ensure that its customers are seeing the most relevant information.
So hang on, does this mean ChatGPT will one day replace human travel advisors? It may be too soon to tell, but according to Gonzalo, “most likely not.”
After all, travel advisors continued to exist after the arrival of the internet, which many, back in the day, predicted as an end to the profession.
“These tools are not made to replace humans,” Gonzalo said. “However, they will be tremendous for replacing monotonous chores that don’t add value, like creating an itinerary.”
“These tools can help travel agents do their job faster.”
“Plan me a vacation”
ChatGPT interacts in a conversational way – it’s like chatting with a friend who’s a big know-it-all.
And it’s simple to use. All you do is type in text and receive information back.
The trick is to be creative and see how ChatGPT responds to different prompts. If you don’t get the result you want, you can tweak your question or give the bot more instructions.
The format also makes it possible for ChatGPT to answer follow-up questions, admit mistakes, challenge incorrect ideas, and reject inappropriate requests.
PAX put ChatGPT to the test by inputting a generic travel request: “Plan me a vacation to Europe.”
The bot responded by saying that Europe has a lot to offer, and that it would require more details to proceed in planning an itinerary, such as my travel dates and trip duration, budget, interests, if I was travelling alone (or with others) or if there were any specific countries I wanted to see.
I kept things basic, stating “this July” as my preferred travel period.
The program then generated a two-week itinerary, starting in London, England, noting landmarks I could visit there, such as the Tower Bridge, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, and other activities, like visiting the British Museum and taking a stroll in Hyde Park.
It then said I should take the Eurostar train to Paris, France, noting similar points of interest, including a day trip to the Palace of Versailles, and then head to Amsterdam, Netherlands, Berlin, Germany, and Rome, Italy, citing must-sees along the way.
I then tried to throw the bot a curve ball by saying that I identify as a gay traveller. It responded with a detailed list of travel trips and online resources for LGBTQ+ friendly accommodations, restaurants, and activities.
Then, I typed that I was interested in luxury. The bot, in less than 10 seconds, revised the entire two-week itinerary, switching the starting point to Paris, France.
It recommended hotels like The Ritz Paris or the Four Seasons Hotel George V, Michelin-starred restaurants, like L'Ambroisie or Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée, and activities in greater France, like taking a private helicopter or luxury train to the Bordeaux wine region and staying at a chateau like Château de la Dauphine or Château Margaux.
For week two, it suggested similar upscale adventures along the Italian Riviera and Santorini, Greece.
In all cases, the bot said my itinerary could be customized based on interests and budget, and that flights and transfers would need to be booked in advance.
It also reminded me to research visa requirements and any travel restrictions due to COVID-19 before booking the trip.
This appears to cover some of the work that a human travel advisor would do. The research is impressive.
But where ChatGPT presents limitations is that it doesn’t have one-to-one relationships with local suppliers (like a travel pro would) and there’s the risk of it suggesting venues (like restaurants) that could potentially be closed.
And, if and when sh*t hits the fan during a trip – like if a strike shuts down an airport or if borders of a country suddenly close – an AI-generated tool can’t help navigate the situation like a travel advisor can.
But this is something ChatGPT also seems to understand.
I asked the bot if I should use a travel advisor to plan my trip and it told me to consider several factors, such as time and convenience, my own expertise, the added cost and my personal preference.
“If you enjoy the planning process and feel confident in your ability to research and book everything on your own, you might prefer to do so. However, if you'd rather have someone else handle the details, a travel agent could be a good option,” the bot wrote.
It also outlined the value of using a travel agent.
“A good travel agent can provide insider knowledge and recommendations that you might not find through online research,” the program said. “They can also help you navigate any challenges or unexpected issues that might arise during your trip.”
So, is ChatGPT an enemy…or an ally?
Gonzalo believes travel advisors who don’t, at the very least, explore the new technology to better understand its benefits are the ones at risk of becoming obsolete.
“The travel agents who let this slide, who think it’s just a fad, are the ones in danger,” he said.
He used an example of a travel agent that has received 10 itinerary requests.
“That’s a lot of work. Do you want to work until 11 p.m., or use a tool like ChatGPT? The travel agents that use it adequately will have faster responses and better service.”
Of course, there’s something to be said about the accuracy and customization that a human travel advisor brings to the equation. Which is why Gonzalo isn’t suggesting that ChatGPT replace all customer-facing content.
“It’s a brainstorming tool,” he said. “It can be used strictly in the backend to quicken up aspects of the planning process."
His advice to travel advisors is to “be curious” about AI technology.
“You have to be curious about the platform, whether you decide to use it or not,” he said. “I’m baffled by how many agents have yet to try ChatGPT. Why wouldn’t you go into that goldmine of information that you may not have had before?”
“Take a half an hour, fiddle with it and make a self-educated opinion."
To learn more about ChatGPT, click here.