Under pressure to improve efficiency, travel management companies are working to automate responses to travel planning requests from travelers sent by email.
Contacts of this type make up a significant portion of incoming requests for many TMCs. That figure is 60 percent at Atlanta-based Travel Inc., one of 10 TMCs that has installed Amgine’s technology to route incoming requests and maximize human assets. Beginning two weeks ago, requests to Travel Inc. for air, hotel and/or car bookings first run through Amgine’s artificial intelligence, which determines if it can properly respond or if an agent needs to be brought in. If Amgine can process it, natural language search capabilities detect the intent and the system creates a recommended itinerary. That goes to an agent, who checks it and sends it back to the traveler for acceptance.
In the old way, according to Amgine director of customer success Bryan Fernandez, email requests came to agents who essentially cut and pasted info from a GDS into a message back to the traveler. Oftentimes, back-and-forth communications would ensue. “Now you can effectively click a button and generate an email to a traveler,” Fernandez said. “We’re saying, ‘Touch it once and it’s done.’ “
The idea is to help agencies cut down response times and improve servicing by integrating with agent workflow management and global distribution systems. According to Amgine’s analysis of TMC operations, email usually accounts for 30 percent to 50 percent of inbound requests in North America.
It’s not only about email. Amgine can attempt to handle text, webform entries, chat language, SMS messages or voicemails converted to text. Corporate travelers also can send in screenshots.
“Agencies are looking to streamline and make consistent the experience across all channels,” said Amgine chief revenue officer Greg Apple. “The more automated they can make the process, the more they can get out of agents. It’s doing more with what you’ve got. The value of agents is to help when things go wrong. We and Concur are there for the simple stuff.”
As corporate travel recovered last year, Travel Inc. “capped out” its headcount and turned to technology, according to head of product Eric Almond. “Whether chat or email or in some cases by voice, technology has to drive the engine behind that.”
To make it happen, Travel Inc. re-engineered its Eva omnichannel platform, which already included artificial intelligence and voice capabilities tied to Amazon’s digital assistants. Amgine facilitates shopping and adherence to corporate policies. Workflows connect Eva with the TMC’s back office, extract info from Amgine and send travelers itineraries for review. When travelers accept, the system directs bookings to an approvals process (if the client has one), auto-ticketing or agent fulfillment queue.
Based on simulations, Travel Inc. reckoned that Amgine could help with 65 percent to 80 percent of incoming email travel requests. For those, it can automate on average 80 percent of the workload. For simple air, car and hotel transactions, it could be almost all of it, while for complex multinational itineraries, only parts.
Amgine generally works with larger TMCs (including American Express Global Business Travel) and finds it can handle on average 20 percent to 40 percent of email volume. The higher the online booking adoption among the TMC’s client base, the lower the number. Because Amgine makes money based on the number of requests processed, “we’re not going into an agency with 99 percent adoption and only 1 percent of volume is by email,” Apple said during a briefing this month. He described Travel Inc. as an outlier because so many of its accounts aren’t big OBT users.
Handling simple domestic trips in this way “allows us to focus on complex international, exchanges, all the things that should require an agent,” Almond said during a Feb. 27 phone interview. Travel Inc. is building a trip “cloning” function allowing for an even quicker process for routine, repeat bookings.
Amgine makes agents on average 300 percent more productive, according to Apple. Configuring a simple point-to-point trip might normally take 15 minutes for an agent working within a GDS, he said, whereas with Amgine, that’s reduced to three to five minutes. As much as 90 percent of recommendations sent back convert into bookings because agents, familiar with the travelers, help curate the content.
By working entirely via APIs, as it does with Travel Inc., Amgine is “free from the complexities of working with an agency using” inappropriate our outdated tools for workflow management, Fernandez said. Some TMCs use call center and servicing systems from the likes of Front, Genesys Cloud or Salesforce. Amgine supports those and other collaboration platforms.
Travel Inc. is exploring more use cases for the technology.
Next up are exchanges, refunds, cancelations and other complex transactions. Almond described how triggers from within those requests would allow the system to handle “at least the initial shopping aspect of an exchange. It may not be able to fulfill it, but it still is significant savings for the agent — anything where we can shave off minutes.
“We have pushed Amgine’s engines significantly,” he said. “We are trying to get it as automated as possible. They constantly tweak algorithms to accommodate what we are asking for.”
According to Apple, cancellations and exchanges represent on average 25 percent of a TMC’s incoming email volume. Others could be inquiries about preferred seat assignments, invoices, unused credit or login info. Exchanges are “mind-bogglingly complex,” according to Fernandez.
Another extension of Amgine’s service now in development includes using the AI to rank options based on their profitability for the agency. Responding to travelers with multiple options is another. “That’s a requirement for some agencies,” Fernandez said. “Trying to define in a generic way how we pick three options is the challenge we have.”
A standalone Amgine app for agents is in the works. It would eliminate more manual agency tasks. Apple gave the example of searching for hotel rate options based on the specifics of the cancellation policies. Normally, he said, agents must “manually and cryptically” search for those in GDSs. But with the forthcoming app, “We just added a button for them. They select and boom, the results pop up.”
Another button lets the agent book the itinerary and create a PNR without first getting the traveler’s acceptance. “Travelers become even more demanding,” Fernandez said. If one requests a certain flight at a certain time, they may wonder why an extra back-and-forth is necessary.
Apple said a future enhancement would integrate the Amgine app within the ecosystems of Salesforce, Ring Central or Genesis Cloud. “We are not there yet where we are living in one screen,” he said, “but we are moving in that direction.”
Amgine integrates with Sabre- and Travelport-connected agencies. Compatibility with Amadeus, which works with a similar automation firm, Aimendo, is on the horizon, said Apple.
Currently using Travelport’s Worldspan GDS, Travel Inc. plans to move to the Travelport+ platform.
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