When a Facebook chatbot cruised in
CruiseBe, a new cruise itinerary aggregator, has launched a chatbot for an industry that is lagging the digital times
‘Newly weds’ and the ‘nearly dead’ are terms often used to describe the cruise passenger demographic by a scorning media. Yet numbers from a recent Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) survey cite rising interest from millennials and Gen-Xers, especially for river cruises, as being one of the top industry trends of 2017.
Worth $39.6 billion globally, according to Cruise Market Watch, the industry is clearly pinning its hopes for growth on the wealthy millennial generation, who also happen to be the most tech-savvy.
Rising to this challenge are some big names in cruising. Uniworld, for one, has launched numerous high-tech, millennial friendly activities, while Mediterranean specialist MSC Cruises has partnered with Samsung to provide smart technology and has thrown £20 million at hosting a tech-enhanced Cirque Du Soleil show on board.
But is the industry set to win the digitally connected consumers they are trying to target?
Absolutely not, says Alex Shumayev, the CEO of CruiseBe, a B2C and B2B travel platform, which he founded in 2016 with wife Marina.
“When Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg talk about the possible impact of AI on the future of the world, the cruise industry is сlearly missing the opportunity for digital tools, and certainly not embracing the AI opportunities to attract clients,” says the entrepreneur who left Ukraine for the US after being asked to join the Tech Wildcatters Gauntlet programme.
According to Shumayev, few companies are embracing technology. Yes, on the websites of big market players like MSC and Princess, and some minor ones like Azamara, users can access all the information about an upcoming cruise without leaving the website. “But these companies do not reflect the whole market, which makes you think that others are simply ignoring the possibilities. Clearly, the cruise industry barely uses the magic power of chatbots or AI,” he says.
Clearly, the cruise industry barely uses the magic power of chatbots or AI
It was this that led CruiseBe to launch its first product for the industry – a cruise itinerary aggregator – because there was “a lot of interest from cruisers who were wasting too much time on different websites planning an entire cruise itinerary”.
The logical next step was the Facebook CruiseBe bot. Shumayev believes the industry should be focusing, not just on millennials, but also on the so-called up-and-coming Gen Z who, he believes, “will talk to bots to book a cruise, rather than going to a travel agency or sitting on a website for hours”.
An evangelist of AI driven chatbots, Shumayev wants to harness their ability to understand all aspects of a cruisers travel preferences, adapt to every whim and deliver a pared down selection, all in record time. His own bot would know, for example, that he likes to sit by the window on a plane, his favourite cuisine is Japanese, and he "never chooses hotels that have less than four stars. Voila!"
Voila indeed! But as Stuart Greif, a Microsoft senior executive and travel industry buff, told EyeforTravel earlier this week, “the hype often exceeds the reality”.
We put some questions to CruiseBe’s CEO to find out more about its Facebook bot as well as top tips for small firms thinking about AI.
EFT: So what exactly does the bot purport to do?
AS: Right now, it serves as a virtual cruise itinerary aggregator, helping the user to pick a cruise line, a cruise ship and the desired cruise date. The potential customer just needs to message the CruiseBe page on Facebook or access it via a simple link and the bot will reply with a range of options including everything from cruise planning with an itinerary aggregator to completing cruise quizzes, reading blog posts from others, finding details about every port of call or the ship’s amenities, requesting help from a representative and so on. The bot becomes a tool for both entertaining and informing a client. Through this semi-real communication, the client is helped to plan every aspect of the cruise itinerary without leaving Facebook. There is even an option for the good old cruise countdown for the user share to social networks.
EFT: Why a Facebook chatbot?
AS: Facebook is a good channel to gain traction for our CruiseBe community. Not only do we find loyal friends and cruise lovers on Facebook, it’s also an excellent developer platform, with all the documentation available for a speedy launch. However, we are planning to create a web version, add an AI component and also place it into Telegram messenger (a cloud-based messenger service, which can be used on all devices at the same time).
EFT: What has your investment been to date?
AS: We have our own development team, so it took them around 100 hours to build a bot. It cost us what we paid them. And actually although creating bots or AI is mostly considered a pricey investment in any company, creating such a virtual assistant can pay off in several ways in terms of customer satisfaction, revenue lift, innovation, process automation and more.
Creating such a virtual assistant can pay off in several ways in terms of customer satisfaction, revenue lift, innovation, process automation and more
EFT: How do you access that information?
AS: Using third-party APIs, we can access the dates of 80% of cruises every year. That way we can offer people a daily plan based on the dates of their cruise. So the user gets only the information that is relevant specifically to his cruise, or even better the cruise dates. The user doesn’t have to waste time Googling – our bot will do it for him.
EFT: How do you see the role of your chatbot changing in the future?
AS: In the future, we definitely plan to use AI to complete a full cruise planning cycle with flights, hotels, and transfers. The programme will help plan the ultimate cruise, including leisure choices, while while memorising traveller preferences.
EFT: And the lessons learnt, challenges faced and top tips for others building a chat bot?
AS: There are three main challenges here:
Technophobe users: One of the key issues connected to launching a chatbot might be the unwillingness of some people to talk to a ‘machine’; they may even prefer not to. This is not uncommon, despite the fact that we’re living in the 21st century.
Top tip: Recognise there may still be a need for call centres.
Savage spam: Another issue is that a bot could quickly turn into a savage spammer.
Top tip: To ensure this doesn’t happen, be extra careful when setting up bot subscription options.
Lessons in self-learning: If you decide to launch a real artificial intelligence algorithm and not just a regular bot that has a set of automatic replies to send out to clients, then you must control how it learns.
Top tip: Do this often, even on an hourly basis at first because you wouldn’t want a chatbot to harm your business or client communication.