Amsterdam-based Booking.com is betting big on digital technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) in its bid to make travel more exciting and personalised for its customers.
A digital travel platform, Booking.com connects travellers with places to stay. Users can book on the website or mobile app that has currently over 28 million total reported listings, and covers more than 147,000 destinations in 228 countries. More than 1.5 million room nights are reserved on the platform every day. “We are a technology company, but our product is travel. At our core is AI and ML, and we want to give the best experience to our customers through technology,” Gillian Tans, CEO of Booking.com, said in a recent interview.
Tans and her team leverage technology at every step of the booking journey to make informed decisions about customer behaviour and preferences and empower users to book travel experiences seamlessly. “Balancing cutting edge technology with a human touch is key” says Ram Papatla, vice-president (Experiences) at Booking.com.
Besides booking accommodation that includes hotels, apartments, vacation homes, and family-run B&Bs, the company is leveraging technology to build connected trips that includes attractions, food, shopping and other such elements. Booking Experiences is one such element. Experiences creates a curated, mobile-led experience by harnessing AI and ML to predict individual traveller intent and create a convenient, personalised experience.
All this has been possible as the company leverages insights from its huge database of travellers about what they liked and didn’t like about various destinations and the experiences they had there. Combining this data with a customer’s previous travel preferences, where that person is at the moment in a specific destination, as well as third-party data like the current waiting time at the most popular museum, the Booking Experiences technology provides a traveller with increasingly personalized, relevant and timely suggestions to personalize the in-destination experience.
AI and ML is also used towards building content moderation, image moderation, automatic detection of high demand properties, personalised elements, recommendations, rankings and content selection. The company has also built an inhouse Booking Assistant that offers chat-based services.
The Booking Assistant leverages natural language processing (NLP) technology to identify the most frequently asked questions from customers, including topics such as payment, transportation, arrival and departure times, date changes, cancellation requests, parking information, extra bed requests, pet policies and Wi-Fi and internet availability.
Technology remains a key driver for the company to grow its markets including India. In India, Booking.com’s current total listings are over 880,000 of which 140,000 are in alternative accommodations that includes homes and apartments. With over 140,000 alternative accommodation listings in India alone, the market is one of the company’s top 20 fastest-growing markets in the alternative accommodation segment. According to company data, Goa, Kerala and Karnataka in India have the highest number of properties in the alternate accommodation segment.
“In India, we have a lot of work to do and I recognise that. We have the supply, now we need to build the brand, and we are doing this by initiatives like influencer marketing,” says Tans.
India, though, may prove to be a tough market for Booking.com considering that there are a number of established local players like Make My Trip, Yatra and Cleartrip besides newer entrants like Paytm, AirBnB and Oyo Rooms. However, the growth opportunities in the Indian hospitality market are immense.
According to a Google-BCG report, the Indian travel market is projected to grow at 11-11.5% to $48 billion by 2020 and with more people coming online and use of digital payments increasing, the report estimates that India’s online hotel market will grow to $4 billion with 31% penetration at a CAGR of 25%. By 2020, one in three hotel rooms will be booked online – a clear indicator of the growing importance of digital in travel research, planning, and booking.
Increasing smartphone penetration has also fuelled growth for Booking.com’s in India as it sees more and more travellers coming from tier 2 and 3 cities. Tans and her team claims that what works to Booking’s advantage is the fact that users don’t need a credit card to book, in fact they don’t need to pay at the time of booking plus cancellations are free. are some of the advantages Booing.com claims over its competitors. On the other hand, partners (hotel owners) are allowed to set their own prices and find the platform a cost-effective channel to build global demand.
Booking.com, meanwhile, is also working on integrating local payment methods like payment apps and wallets on the platform so as to offer a full spectrum of choice to users to help them transact seamlessly.
(The author was in Amsterdam at the invitation of Booking.com)