Markus Stumpe, founder of the Hanover-based technology developer, explains why it is rolling out its solutions to the broader travel sector with AIntensify.com having honed its expertise in cruise
Big Interview: How CruiseWatch aims to make AI accessible to all in travel
The meteoric rise of Microsoft partner OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT into public consciousness has offered a glimpse of just the tip of the iceberg of intelligent tech’s potential.
Not only has it forced Google to rush its conversational search engine Bard, it has spotlighted many other AI-powered services gaining in popularity among tech aficionados.
Predictably, this has prompted the latest round of soul-searching about the impact of AI and dystopian predictions about robots putting people out of work and running amok.
A timely opportunity, then, for a B2B travel technology specialist to expand its AI solution to the wider sector having honed its capabilities in cruise over the last six years.
Markus Stumpe, chief executive of CruiseWatch, said AI should handle the mundane manual tasks that agents, quite rightly, complain about leaving them to focus on serving clients.
“We’ve always wanted always to democratise AI,” he says, “so that’s where we started, collecting all this data in the cruise industry and to make analysis of it available to everyone.
“We want to help sales agents be more efficient and increase sales by using AI. Our vision was never to replace agents. No one wants to speak robot all the time. That's not the point.
“I come from a travel background having worked for Tui for 16 years, so I believe in the personal touch, but we’ve always understood data and technology must play a vital role.”
Stumpe said the customer booking experience in cruise, and more broadly in travel, remains sub-optimal because the technology behind it is lacking.
The cruise sector was chosen as the proving ground for AI technology because it is a complex product to sell and there a fewer data protocols or agreed standards.
Selling flights online is a much more formulaic process because every airport, airline and route have internationally recognised identities.
Standardisation in the accommodation sector remains a challenge, but modern hotel and room mapping technologies are increasingly helping retailers to manage the complexity.
Although cruise IT does allow the booking of individual cabins, Stumpe believes the technology, and therefore the sales process, remains a decade behind other travel verticals.
This has been an impediment to the migration of sales online which Stumpe estimates today at “no more than 20%” compared to well over 90% for flights.
“I don't think cruise will ever achieve this high level of 90% online bookings, but it should be maybe 50%, so it's not in the sort of shape online that you feel comfortable as a customer.”
To generate the volume of data it required to build its B2B AI tech, CruiseWatch has operated a B2C OTA in the US market - cruisewatch.com.
As well as providing invaluable real-time insight into how consumers behave, this has given it billions of data points including historical pricing trends for 350,000 cruises.
This rich repository of industry insights is used to provide agents and cruise operators with the intelligence to personalise customer experiences online and through contact centres.
AIntensify.com takes what it learned in cruise and applies that to other travel verticals using text and natural language analytics for a more detailed understanding of customer intent.
Stumpe says AIntensify.com’s mission is to help the travel industry better appreciate what AI can do and work out how it should be deployed to improve businesses performance.
“A lot of companies are struggling to find the right entry point for AI into their businesses,” he says. “It's not an easy-to-access domain sometimes.
“Most companies in travel will have an IT department, but they won’t be purely focussed on AI as we are. We go much deeper into the detail.”
Stumpe acknowledges concerns about the impact of AI which, although not new, have been heightened by the recent hullabaloo in the public domain about ChatGPT.
He says AIntensify.com intends to process with “extreme care”, emphasising the advantages of adopting it while also complying with personal data use regulations like GDPR in Europe.
“ChatGPT is unbelievable. It is extremely good at some things but it has limitations and like every new technology can be used for good or to just disrupt the status quo.
“AI can replace less complex manual tasks like market research, finding the latest price change, writing content or comparing data.
“It can help humans be more efficient, but machines don't have charisma or the personal touch.
“If agents get smart in how to use AI they can provide more personalised experiences because they won't need to do the manual, often unpaid, processes they complain about.
“What has changed is that now we have enough computing power to do whatever we always wanted to do.
“You can process billions gigabytes of data in milliseconds and this leads to more sophisticated solutions.
“It's not that we want AI to replace humans, but we do want to use the advantages of AI while being aware of the disadvantages. It's a synergy between technology and humans.”
AIntensify.com will provide users with a dashboard to monitor and derive insights out of every customer engagement to help agents personalise their recommendations.
Stumpe says many contact centres still have manual call monitoring processes in place that listen to just 10% of calls and summarise the findings in a Google spreadsheet.
But by analysing every single call and email, firms are able to address issues and properly understand consumer sentiment and identify best practice among their sales agents.
Ultimately, the true promise of AI in a B2B setting is that it allows agents to anticipate what to offer to give them the optimal opportunity to convert every customer they engage with.
As well as collaborating with machine learning experts at a local university, Stumpe said CruiseWatch approach is to work collaboratively with travel clients and innovate at speed.
“We know that we are very early mover, we’re not the first, but we’re early so that gives us some kind of first mover advantage, which is good.
“What we’ve learned is we have to cooperate, we work with scientists and we need to work together to deliver results. We have very short innovation cycles.
“And we understand how we need to work together to create innovative products. We understood what is sustainable, how to test data, and how to augment data.
“We can be really flexible and very agile to give our customers a competitive edge, and I think we understand how to innovate. That's maybe the biggest thing.”