Booking.com’s Gillian Tans: ‘AI is the future of travel’

8 Nov 20161290 Shares

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Booking.com is investing in bots, says founder Gillian Tans. Image: John Kennedy

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Machine learning and artificial intelligence are transforming Booking.com as it accelerates its competition against Airbnb, said co-founder Gillian Tans.

Not many people are aware that after Amazon and Alibaba, the third largest e-commerce site on the internet is Booking.com.

Another little known fact is that the company, which employs 14,000 people, is emerging as a competitor to Airbnb in providing apartments, houses and villas to those who wish to shun hotels for more authentic experiences.

‘We are investing in bots and we are testing with a booking assistant that can give customers the best possible experience and take friction out of the process. That is the key’
– GILLIAN TANS

Out of 1m properties with 24m bookable rooms on Booking.com, some 2m are alternative properties like homes and apartments, explained co-founder Gillian Tans who spoke to Siliconrepublic.com at the 2016 Web Summit in Lisbon.

Tans co-founded Booking.com in 2002. “I saw the disruption that was coming with the internet, especially for hotel distribution and I was fascinated. I quit my job and joined Booking.com.”

One of the distinguishing features of Booking.com is how omnipresent the site is and how it dominates hotel and accommodation search online.

This, Tans explains, is down to effective search engine marketing and continual experimentation.

“People think this part is easy but in fact, it is really complex and if you don’t do it right, it could end up costing you loads of money.

“We have very specialised marketing teams who work through lots of data.”

The bots are coming

Tans said that machine learning and AI are now at the heart of the Booking.com experience and that the bots are indeed coming.

“Machine learning is one of the big things at Booking.com and has been for a long time.

“We have AI expertise in all of our teams. All searches and results come through machine learning. There are lots of things on a day-to-day basis where AI brings new technologies and new opportunities to the fore.

“We are investing in bots and we are testing with a booking assistant that can give customers the best possible experience and take friction out of the process. That is the key.”

Tans explained that there are more than 1,000 experiments with live customers every day. “That’s how fast we innovate.”

As well as employing bots, the next battlefield will involve Booking.com locking swords against Airbnb in the private accommodation space.

“We have 24m rooms, and 2m of those are not in hotel categories, and we have a huge supply of apartments, houses and villas.

“The way we can add value is by adding layers of complexity to it. We have a ratings system and increasingly, it is about working with intermediaries who are a big part of the sharing economy,” Tans concluded.

“The big difference between us and Airbnb is they have direct conversations between the property owner and the customer and that is something that we are working on.”

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com