Cognitive tourism: from connected airports to AI-enabled concierges

By and Lynne Slowey | 4 minute read | December 21, 2016


Fancy scheduling a holiday to beat the post-Christmas blues? I don’t blame you. A little bird told me that more people book a holiday on Boxing Day than any other time of the year. If that’s you, you might be interested to learn about how the IoT is changing the tourism industry, and hopefully improving your experience at every stage: from the flight out, to a virtual concierge in your hotel and personalized recommendations to help you have a good time when you reach your destination.

IoT at the airport

Flying can be a bit of a drag and hanging about the airport isn’t exactly thrilling, even without the additional fee because your suitcase is 3kg heavier than it should be, a long wait in the departure lounge followed by a frantic rush to the gate, and the possibility that you’ll arrive at your destination baggage-less.

The IoT is beginning to change all that, starting with your luggage. Some connected suitcases come with a built-in digital scale, which weighs your bag and sends the result direct to a compatible app on your smartphone. So you can ditch that fifth bottle of sun cream before you leave home and avoid paying an extra fee for too-heavy luggage.

Another nifty feature is remote locking – where your bag automatically locks itself when it detects its removal from your side. And finally there’s GPS tracking, so if it does find its way onto the wrong plane, at least you’ll know about it.

Finding your way at the airport

Miami International Airport, which deals with around 21 million passengers a year, has launched an app to help travelers find their way in the busy terminals. The MIA Airport Official app works alongside a network of 400 beacons around the airport, to guide passengers to where they’re supposed to be, and make sure they get there on time. The app will send passengers a notification when their flight’s gate number is announced, so they don’t accidentally miss it and have a mad dash to board the plane.

Along with personalized directions through the terminal, the app helps passengers find baggage carousels, restaurants and other services based on their location. It can’t yet predict wait times at security, but that capability isn’t far off.

IoT and your hotel: the virtual concierge

The idea of the virtual concierge is very simple: it’s a well-informed robot that understands human speech, can answer questions, recommend unmissable sights and the best times to experience them, and doesn’t mind talking to you at 3am. In short, everything that a fantastic, infinitely patient and available human concierge can do.

These AI-powered concierges actually exist: Hilton is testing an AI-powered robot (named “Connie”, after founder Conrad Hilton) that was developed in partnership with IBM Watson. Thanks to Watson’s natural language processing ability, Connie can understand and respond to questions guests might pose about hotel facilities – what time does breakfast finish? What is there to do around here? And so forth. Handy.

If the total absence of human staff doesn’t give you a ‘70s dystopian horror flick vibe, you might want to check out Japan’s Henn-na Hotel – which is entirely staffed by robots.

Getting to know your destination: a personalized guide

The IoT is a great tool for finding out about your destination, once you get there, and there are some brilliant apps that suggest local activities based on an individual traveller’s personal tastes. Lanzarote’s Center of Arts, Culture and Tourism (CACT) went to great lengths to deliver an enriched experience for tourists when it invited companies to devise an app offering visitors personalized guidance for their stay on the island. IBM Business Partner Skios won the contest and developed an app that works like a personal guide on travellers’ mobile phones. The app is trained to learn your preferences and adapt its recommendations in keeping with them. It can even present information or suggest events based on your job and hobbies: recommending up-coming concerts to music-lovers and little-known nuggets of information on local flora and fauna to natural scientists.

Unlocking doors and experiences: Disney World’s MagicBand

Travelling involves lots of little bits of paper: booking confirmation? Yup. Hotel info? Got it. Attractions pass? Somewhere in this folder of receipts. If you’re a stickler for organization but hate keeping track of individual bookings, then Disney World’s MagicBand will be music to your ears.

The official blurb calls it an ‘all-in-one device’ that works like a wristband and carries your travel choices electronically. Once you’ve chosen (and paid for) the various components of your stay at Disney World (hotel booking, FastPass+, access to particular experiences etc), it stores that information on the device for you. You can touch it to a sensor pad to enter parks, unlock your hotel room and buy food and merchandise. It’s waterproof (natch – presumably Disney World has a log ride somewhere.) A cool feature will surprise you with personalized experiences it thinks you might like – and which aren’t offered to anybody else – throughout the resort. So there you have it: a know-it-all wristband that lets you travel light, and no more panic over losing the hotel room key.

More about the IoT and travel

These are just some examples of how the IoT is impacting travel and tourism. You might also enjoy this post about connected commuting, or this one about connected trains to see how the IoT can make travel more reliable.