Like many other curious folk, UiPath global travel and expense manager Mihai Dinu has played with the new artificial intelligence phenomenon ChatGPT by asking it some questions. And like most who have tried this experiment, the quality of the answers has stunned him.
Here’s what ChatGPT produced for Dinu in less than one minute when he asked it to complain to an airline about a flight cancellation. “Imagine how you can drive savings by applying this at scale,” Dinu said. Here too are the results, produced in a similarly short time, when Dinu requested 10 questions on sustainability to include in a global hotel request for proposals.
With output as accomplished as this, it seems no exaggeration to say that “the way ChatGPT presents information and the depth of information it has access to are absolutely revolutionary,” as Groups360 sales vice president for Europe Dan Humby, who is also co-chair of the Global Business Travel Association’s European meetings and events committee, told BTN. “Where ChatGPT represents a massive leap forward is the way people can relate to how applicable AI is. It almost humanizes it,” Humby added.
If Generative Pre-trained Transformer technology (of which ChatGPT is just one example of dozens, the vast majority not yet released publicly) truly is revolutionary, then travel managers and the rest of the corporate travel sector need to understand the implications. Naturally, this was another question Dinu asked of ChatGPT by requesting 10 possible applications for ChatGPT in the business travel industry. (See ChatGPT's answer here.)
Human interviewees asked the same question by BTN Europe gave more far-reaching suggestions, anticipating changes ranging from accelerated procurement tasks to the end of online booking tools as we know them to disintermediation of the travel manager from supplier/traveler relationships. Technology this powerful also raises the question of whether it will make travel managers more potent or render them obsolete. Early opinion, buyers may be relieved to learn, is the former.
Just How Good is ChatGPT?
AI and robotics have been around corporate travel for a few years, providing services such as answering travelers' frequently asked questions, speeding up expense reporting and offering personalized recommendations to travelers. But, said Dinu, evolution has been slow—until now. “ChatGPT is the missing link in adoption of automation,” he said. “It’s the brain. We have a lot of power to automate processes, but it couldn’t make decisions. ChatGPT has the potential to solve this problem.”
GPT technology recognizes and responds in natural human language, calling on vast reservoirs of knowledge to give relevant, insightful answers. “I live in a world where you automate everything up to the point that you can’t,” said Mat Orrego, CEO of corporate travel tech company Cornerstone Information Systems. Orrego said GPT moves that point much farther along. Many routine information-sharing tasks no longer need to be researched and conveyed by a human, the kind of work that takes up much of a reservation consultant’s day, for example.
Yet, astonishingly capable as GPT technology is, limitations remain, if only because GPT tools can only be as good as the information fed into them. In a LinkedIn post, air travel consultant Eric Léopold noted that he asked ChatGPT for hotel recommendations in Geneva and Stockholm. The former, he said, were excellent, but the latter included a property in Helsinki, 245 miles away.
Search engines regularly provide misleading hotel recommendations too. The crucial difference, and biggest problem with GPT, according to Fox World Travel chief information officer Sam Hilgendorf in a commentary he wrote for BTN portfolio mate The Beat in January, is that “it sometimes provides answers that are both credible and precise, yet completely wrong.”
GPT’s quality of answers undoubtedly will improve. ChatGPT’s pool of knowledge is entirely historical, based on documentation sourced up to late 2021. That explains why a request from Hilgendorf for security advice on visiting Kyiv yielded no mention the Ukrainian capital is subject to bombing by Russia.
Microsoft is among those companies looking to connect GPT tech with the Internet. “That is when the real power of ChatGPT will be revealed: when it becomes real-time information, and that is when it will become relevant for our industry,” said Dinu. “Without real-time data, it is useless. You cannot rely on old flight schedule information using a flight number which doesn’t exist anymore.”
For now at least, the new technology looks far more like a virtual assistant than a virtual manager—an assistant whose work needs to be verified, edited and improved by a knowledgeable human with oversight and responsibility.
Applications of GPT Tech for Corporate Travel
ChatGPT’s own answer, when Dinu asked it about potential applications, focused on improvements in information sharing for travelers. Examples included personalized itinerary planning, translation services and advice about restaurants, local events and weather. Expert humans can go much further to consider the strategic implications and advanced application of these new capabilities. Here are three examples.
A New Travel Procurement Assistant
Suggesting 10 questions on sustainability for a hotel RFP is just one example of how GPT tech can speed and improve the procurement process. It can also help travel buyers avoid having to be part-time lawyers. “In corporate travel there is a lot of management of contracts,” said Orrego. “When you start introducing a complex procurement contract for an airline into ChatGPT for example, all of a sudden you see more clarity because it’s able to summarize.”
Booking Tools will Disappear
That is the dramatic prediction of Dinu. Or, only slightly less dramatically, “You don’t have any more online booking tool searches,” said Will Tate, a partner at GoldSpring Consulting. “AI reads your texts and your e-mail and your calendar requests and communications and says, ‘Will’s about to need a trip to London. He has a speech at 10 a.m. on this particular day. I know all his personal preferences. He doesn’t like to fly overnight, he likes to arrive early, he likes to stay in a particular hotel, he doesn’t like to drive in London.’” The system generates a suggested itinerary and invites the traveler to click to book.
But Dinu warns: “I don’t think this will happen very soon because of the distribution challenges which need to be addressed first. The only way AI can work is if it is given accurate data sets to make decisions on. Since our industry is very fragmented and there is a huge pool of data which is not accurate, it is very challenging.”
Suppliers will Lure Travelers Away from the Corporate Program
Tate believes GPT tech could weaponize personalized sales and marketing by suppliers to target travelers directly and ostracize travel managers and their managed travel programs. “They’re going to hit travelers with very targeted sales opportunities that are special to travelers preferences but very likely contradict what their organization's goals are,” he said.
Tate said this trend links with radical changes in distribution strategies by some airlines to sell fares outside standard distribution channels for corporate travel. “Airlines think they are providing discounts for share they are going to get anyway,” he said. “They have also declared, ‘Anyone between us and the traveler is my enemy.’ It’s going to cause a ton of stress to the system. Because it is so customized and personalized, that will do a better job of turning the traveler's interest into a [nonpreferred] supplier than a corporation will in trying to hold you accountable by policy.”
How Jobs in Corporate Travel Could be Affected
None of the interviewees for this article projected mass redundancies in managed travel, either on the buyer or service provider side of the sector. On the contrary, they see only positive consequences, one being to plug gaps in a workforce that has remained depleted since Covid.
For TMCs, said Tate, “There’s a labor shortage, so you need to automate. In a ChatGPT delivery-style system you can do that for pennies instead of lots of dollars.”
Both Orrego and Dinu, meanwhile, believe travel managers will see their roles enhanced, not threatened. “AI can become the virtual assistant to the travel manager,” said Orrego. “It extends their capabilities and allows them potentially to focus on more strategic versus tactical matters.”
Dinu went even further. “Travel managers’ role will change,” he said. “In the past travel managers were only asked to provide some reporting and their role was not very strategic. But, moving forward, travel managers can have conversations with upper management backed by numbers giving a holistic view of the travel program: explaining the analysis they have done and what that means the company needs to do. Travel managers will finally get a seat at that table.”