Review: The bot that's 'transforming travel'

When my managing editor told me that he had just attended a marketing conference where the speaker discussed the future of travel, a chatbot that uses artificial intelligence – or AI – to book hotel accommodation, I was terrified.

“Just talk to it like you would a human and it does the rest,” he said. All I could think was that this was the same way the movie Blade Runner began. It was surely now just a matter of days before machines overtook mankind and we were certainly headed for a full-on technology vs the human race Armageddon.

“Let’s road test the technology,” he said casually, as though he wasn’t sending me down a path that could trigger the end of life as we knew it. “We have a conference we need to attend in Port Elizabeth – so why not buy the hotel rooms using HotelBot?”

The first obstacle

I started by heading over to HotelBot’s website and the company’s mission statement seemed fairly innocuous and perhaps even a tad exciting.

“Save precious time booking hotels. As a business traveller you have no time to waste. What if in just 10 seconds flat, you can book your hotel, directly on Facebook Messenger? What if you get up to 40% discounts, and you can cancel reservations and change bookings easily? Say hello to HotelBot.”

But, this was the first snag… I wasn’t sure if I wanted to say “hello” to HotelBot. As I sit in an open-plan office I was concerned that speaking to my laptop would be the final confirmation that my colleagues needed that I had officially lost it. Also – since I’d need to use a credit card to make the booking – I didn’t want to announce the managing editor’s private financial information to the office at large.

So I had to take my laptop off to a private meeting room and logged on to Facebook Messenger with trepidation.

Anyone home? 

The screen opened with a message from HotelBot stating: “HotelBot is a Messenger chatbot that lets you book, cancel, or change dates of your hotel reservation in 10 seconds or less.” Just below it was an image that linked back to the website and, just below it, a blue button with the text ‘Book a Room’.

I realised immediately that talking wouldn’t be part of the process. Already, I was a bit disappointed – but that was nothing compared to the total let down that followed. I clicked the button, and then…. nothing.

“Hello?” I typed. “Greetings!” responded HotelBot.

“I would like to book a room” and again, nothing. “Are you there,” I typed?

“Of course. I am always here,” replied HotelBot (I imagined this being said in a menacing, Replicant-esque monotone).

Despite trying around 10 variations of requesting assistance, each time I was met with either no response, or the message: “I am really sorry, but I can’t understand what you mean.” After 20 minutes (not quite the 10 seconds from start to finish promised on the website), I gave up, hotel-less.

So, for now, it seems my fears of a robot-led apocalypse are unfounded – the future is not here just yet, and travel not quite transformed.

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