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Booking.com, the largest travel company in the world, will tomorrow announce a chat communication service that allows its millions of users to interact more easily with the hotels before and after their stays.

The move comes during a wave of excitement surrounding the potential of chat technology, which many businesses say is more efficient for engaging people than email, phone, or native appa. That enthusiasm was stoked even more by Facebook’s launch last month of its chatbot platform for Messenger, which kicked off thousands more experiments by brands to reach their users with this new chat format.

Booking.com’s messaging service is a part of this trend, and is sure to be one of the most ambitious attempts in the travel vertical. Booking.com is owned by Priceline Group, the largest travel company in the world. Booking has said it has more than 30 million unique visitors a month. It makes up by far the majority of the Priceline Group’s revenue, and serves 895,000 hotels and accommodations in 224 countries.

Users can use the chat service in two ways. First, they can start by asking a question of their host from within their Booking.com account on any device. That includes messaging directly from the desktop, mobile web, or within Booking.com apps on iOS or Android. Users can initiate any kind of conversation they’d like with the accommodation.

Alternatively, a chat can be initiated from the host’s side. A hotel can send a notification to the user’s phone, which pulls the user into a conversation within the Booking.com messaging service.

Chatbot platforms like Facebook aren’t enough

The Booking.com service is significant because it shows how a brand like Booking.com wants to customize its service beyond what, say, Facebook allows with its chatbot platform. To be sure, Booking.com plans to integrate with Facebook Messenger and other chat platforms (Booking.com is already testing implementation on Facebook, for example), to make sure it engages with users wherever they are. But Booking.com still needs its own service because of specific needs that other platforms can’t support, said David Vismans, Booking.com’s chief product officer, in an interview with VentureBeat.

For instance, Facebook’s chat platform can’t connect the two parties inherent in any Booking.com relationship: the customer and the hotel they’re staying with. Facebook only supports conversations a user has directly with Booking.com’s chatbot, which is best for customer service-related topics. Facebook can’t yet introduce a third party (i.e., the hotel) into the conversation. And that’s a big, gaping hole for a company like Booking.com.

(Facebook, for its part, says the limitations it has put on its beta chatbot platform are for control reasons, but says that it is studying ways to be more flexible in future releases.)

The inability to customize and optimize other specific UI elements — for example, different visual experiences or transactional experiences — means Booking.com needs to have more control than Facebook can give it, Vismans says. “I think it’s a fundamental limitation,” Vismans said of Facebook’s need to limit its UI building blocks so that bots can scale on its platform.

Templates avoid the ‘translation problem’

Booking is offering specific support for some frequent customer questions with templates that are automatically pre-translated into 42 languages. This includes templates for questions like whether there’s parking at a hotel, check-in and check-out times, and bed preferences. So for example, if a Chinese hotel wants to know when an English-speaking traveler is expecting to arrive, the Chinese manager doesn’t need to type in an English query. They simply click on a template question, and Booking.com provides the question to the traveler in their own language. This allows hosts to quickly manage the most common user interactions in just a few taps, without having to worry about translation. See images below.

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Looking out two years from now, Vismans says, he sees how every step in a customer’s journey — from when they first research where they are going, to pre-booking, to booking and stay – can be mapped out nicely in a conversational thread. And, he asks, wouldn’t it be nice if other service providers, such as ticket services or museums in the city you are visiting, could be introduced into that thread?

Booking.com plans to develop text translation in the future. Existing text translation services, such as the one offered by Google or IBM Watson, aren’t perfect, though, so Booking.com is developing its own technology in-house.

By tracking what types of conversations flow through its apps and messaging platform, Booking.com is collecting massive amounts of information about what things are relevant for travelers, Vismans says. That travel-specific domain knowledge and data will give Booking.com what it needs to build a translation service that is much more accurate, he says. Booking.com has been using machine learning for years, according to Vismans, and is researching how it might apply deep neural network technology.

Booking.com said 75 percent of its customers prefer self-service options to handle simple requests.

Booking.com said the chat technology is now available to all travel customers, but that it’s being rolled out to Booking.com’s accommodation partners (hotels, etc.) in phases, to allow for integration within Booking.com’s current Pulse app, the separate app accommodation partners use. Full rollout of the chat interface to partners is expected over the coming months.

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