By Terry Jones
My first job when I got out of college in 1971 was as a receptionist at a travel agency in Chicago. In those days, believe it or not, we used telegrams to make international reservations.
It’s amazing to think how far travel has come since then—and the role that information technology has played in those changes.
Today, the travel industry is primed for yet another revolution. This time, cognitive computing is the agent of change, and my company, WayBlazer, is one of the industry pioneers.
WayBlazer taps into the power of IBM’s Watson to help Web sites create travel experiences that fit the interests and budgets of individual consumers. It’s a step towards a time in the future when, I believe, computers will serve as truly personal travel advisors—enabling people to do everything from arranging the perfect vacation to making last minute-changes with the minimum of fuss.
Today’s travel sites are very good at helping people purchase flights, hotels, car rentals and travel packages. I should know. I was a founder and the first president of Travelocity.com and a founder and chairman of Kayak, the travel commerce aggregator. Before that, I was chief information officer for The SABRE Group.
The online travel industry has been an amazing success. Travel now represents the largest online market—amounting to $813 million in bookings in the US alone.
What the large travel sites are not good at is giving advice. That’s a huge gap in the market. Sure, there are innumerable travel articles and guides available online, but who has the time and patience to search through that ocean of information? Using WayBlazer search on Web sites, people can discover new travel opportunities and focus in on the services that will be the most useful to them and the experiences that will be the most satisfying.
IBM Watson is at the core of WayBlazer’s search engine. Watson ingests vast amounts of information and serves up insights to people in bite-sized portions—by answering questions they speak or type. Watson learns from its interactions with people, creating a profile of them on the fly based on declared, observed and inferred preferences and goals. The system also takes into account social, cultural and economic data when it makes recommendations.
Our first customer is the Austin Convention & Visitor’s Bureau (ACVB). (WayBlazer is based in Austin). It’s using a prototype version of the WayBlazer search engine with the goal of expanding convention activities, increasing hotel bookings and providing additional marketing opportunities for Austin’s hospitality and entertainment industries.
Say three friends are planning a “guys trip” to Austin. When they visit the ACVB site, WayBlazer will help them quickly focus in on the things that guys typically want to do there—such as take in live music, attend a University of Texas football game or view Formula 1 racing. Once they begin to make plans, the system will advise them about the fastest route to travel to their destinations, how to dress for the weather, or even the best bar to go to if they want to hang out with football or racing fans.
WayBlazer got its start just a few months ago when I teamed up with Manoj Saxena, the former general manager of IBM’s Watson Group. We saw the opportunity to shake up the travel industry once again by creating a company based on the Watson platform. I’m the executive chairman and he’s the acting chief executive.
These are still early days for the cognitive revolution and our company. WayBlazer is embedded in Web sites, but, over time, we expect it to power mobile apps.
You can imagine WayBlazer being put to work by airlines, car rental companies and cruise lines. Or how about a cognitive computing concierge in a hotel lobby? The insights WayBlazer provides will become more personalized as it is fed data from brand loyalty programs, or as people supply additional profile information.
When I graduated from college, and before I took that travel agency job, I bummed around the world with some college friends. I remember one spot we visited like it was yesterday: the Palace of Knossos, on Crete. We had a knowledgeable guide who transformed what’s essentially a pile of rocks into an amazing experience.
Now we can capture some of that magic with the help of cognitive computing. Potentially, everybody can have the best guide who ever lived. They’ll know better where to go and how to travel, and they’ll have a richer and more meaningful experience when they get there.
When my colleagues and I created Travelocity, we reduced the need for live travel agents to handle routine arrangements. But we didn’t address another role that agents fill—as expert advisors. With cognitive computing, we’re putting the intelligence back into travel planning. People can spend less time searching and more time dreaming.
To learn more about the new era of computing, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing.