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Thu 2 Jan 2020 11:15 AM

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Applying AI in the Middle East's travel industry

The Middle East is positioning itself to be a world leader in artificial intelligence. Ciaran Kelly, Managing Director at FCM Travel Solutions, explains how the world of business travel is embracing this innovative technology

Applying AI in the Middle East's travel industry

Ciaran Kelly, Managing Director at FCM Travel Solutions

The next time you travel to meet investors, visit your most valued client or attend a thought leadership conference, it is likely that some part of your journey will have been touched by artificial intelligence (AI).

AI is becoming integral to an increasing number of business processes.

A recent survey by McKinsey shows that 47 percent of companies have embedded at least one AI function in their business processes, up from 20 percent in 2017.

Spending on artificial intelligence (AI) in the Middle East and Africa will reach more than $500m by 2022, according to market research company IDC.

The region is already at the forefront of AI. In October 2017, the UAE signalled its intention to be a world leader in AI by becoming the first country in the world to appoint a dedicated AI minister, Omar Bin Sultan Al Olama.

In 2020, the world’s first university dedicated to AI will open in Abu Dhabi while Saudi Arabia will host the region’s first Global AI Summit in Riyadh. Business travel is one of the sectors ahead of the curve in AI implementation in the Middle East.

In Dubai, AI is being trialled for handling baggage, managing air traffic and even replacing immigration officials. In Abu Dhabi, Etihad has partnered with Microsoft to launch an in-house AI Academy which will be used to fast-track business ideas proposed by the airline’s workforce.

In Saudi Arabia’s futuristic Neom Bay airport, AI will power robotic cars, help make cargo loading more efficient and guide passengers around the airport more smoothly.

AI is already changing business travel in the Middle East. We think this will continue in 2020 as more and more applications for this innovative tech are discovered.

Our company, FCM Travel Solutions, is heavily focused on technology. We are working together with companies that have innovative solutions to problems, helping them commercialise those solutions and bringing them to the Middle East consumer.

Our technology offering, coupled with our human touch, has had an exceptional influence on our success with retaining and gaining clients in the region and winning awards – we have been named the Middle East’s leading travel management company for eight consecutive years in the World Travel Awards.

Innovative technology is at the heart of helping our clients in the Middle East spend less on business travel and make the experience of business travellers smoother and less stressful.

FCM Travel Solutions has been a pioneer in the use of AI. Earlier this year, we launched a chatbot called Sam (Smart Assistant for Mobile) in the Middle East. Sam is a hybrid, bringing together sophisticated AI and the expert knowledge of FCM’s travel consultants.

One of the key advantages of chatbots like Sam is that it helps remove friction in the travel experience, whether at the booking, planning or the actual travel stage. Rather than having to wait for an email response or for someone to pick up the phone, queries can be resolved by the chatbot in real time.

Travellers in the region want to have access to information all the time, be it human or AI as a form of reassurance that someone is there to help in the event of emergencies. Travellers in the Middle East travel to some high-risk destinations and want as seamless an experience as possible.

Sam takes the wealth of information out there – the context of your booking, where you are and your profile, the check-in time for the flight, any delays, security alerts for example – and gives you something more personalised.

Automated customer support assistants like Sam are set to be at the forefront of AI implementation in the Middle East and Africa, according to IDC, which says they will see growth of more than 25 percent a year until 2022. While most companies are using AI in customer-facing roles, a growing number of companies are starting to use the technology in managing their supply chains, according to the McKinsey research.

For the past two years, FCM has been embedding AI technology in its processes to optimise airfares and hotel rates after booking.

We are also using AI within our online booking tool to filter search results. We take a blend of traveller preferences – if they want to fly at certain times perhaps – and corporate travel policy. The booking tool can take these rules and use AI to determine if something matches both criteria.

Further ahead, we are looking at how to build AI into our end-to-end workflows. When someone calls in or emails us, AI can determine whether it is a support issue, an urgent flight change request or a regular flight enquiry and offer up information to our travel consultants to provide an even better level of service.

Deep learning algorithms can help get the most out of customer data and provide the best possible value to them, enabling us to provide better service to travellers. Companies in the UAE and across the region deserve this type of information to add more value to their business. Inevitably, business travel suppliers, such as airlines and hotel groups, are also looking to AI to improve their operations and are already investing heavily. One area which is attracting a lot of investment is revenue management which has traditionally used historical statistics for its models.

I believe we are on the verge of an AI-powered revolution and anyone who travels on business can already see the shape of that future.