“Reimagining how we connect and engage with passengers”

keith mercier ecosystem partner advocate leader ibm watson

Keith Mercier, Ecosystem Partner Advocate Leader, IBM Watson: “We need to reimagine the way that we connect, transact and engage with passengers and guests to create brand value. Personalisation has become an essential industry imperative.”

Keith Mercier, Ecosystem Partner Advocate Leader, IBM Watson, interviewed by Ross Falconer.

A wave of start-up activity is driving rapid evolution across the travel sector. Often referred to as ‘disruptors’, many of these start-ups, Uber and Airbnb being two well-known examples across the wider travel sphere, are having a powerful impact, which is being most keenly felt in the way they engage with consumers.

Indeed, Keith Mercier, Ecosystem Partner Advocate Leader, IBM Watson, tells Airport Business that: “Personalisation has become an essential industry imperative. We need to reimagine the way that we connect, transact and engage with passengers and guests to create brand value.”

IBM’s Watson is essentially a technology platform capable of answering questions posed in natural language. It is most famous for competing against two former champions – and winning – on the US quiz show Jeopardy! in 2011. Mercier describes it as a “thinking machine”, explaining that Watson and other cognitive computing systems like it represent “a seismic shift in technology”. This shift is one to machines that can crunch massive amounts of data, continuously learn, and understand natural language – “customers can thereby engage in a conversation with Watson through the platform,” Mercier says.

While the field of big data software may already be somewhat crowded, Watson’s simple, natural-language format is empowering the next generation of big data for travel. By opening up Watson via its Watson Developer Platform, a community of start-ups, entrepreneurs, and established businesses are embedding cognitive computing into brand new apps and services.

One such start-up in the travel sector is WayBlazer, whose app leverages Watson to create a travel concierge, analysing data within the context of the user’s needs to offer personalised travel tips and recommendations. Meanwhile, Go Moment is using Watson to power its mobile guest engagement app, Rev1, which uses Watson’s ability to crunch big data to help hotel concierge and front desk staff quickly address guest needs and inquiries.

wayblazer new travel company terry jones founder of travelocity chairman of kayak.com

WayBlazer – a new travel company launched by Terry Jones, founder of Travelocity and founding chairman of Kayak.com – is the first IBM Watson Ecosystem Partner focused on travel solutions.

“In the travel industry this technology could help with a number of issues from predictive maintenance of equipment, to better targeting travellers with the right offers based on a better understanding of their preferences,” says Mercier. “Having a platform that can think and learn over time creates the foundation for connecting in the right way with customers and augmenting employee decision-making. This is what it means to embrace the transformation to cognitive.”

Having opened Watson up to the world through its Watson Developer Platform, IBM has also allocated $100 million for venture investments to support the community of start-ups and businesses building cognitive applications powered by Watson. WayBlazer, the first IBM Watson Ecosystem Partner focused on travel solutions, is one of five companies to have so far received investment support.

Specifically focusing on air travel, it was recently announced that Etihad Airways has signed a $700 million 10-year technology services agreement with IBM, which will give the airline access to IBM’s Watson cognitive technology. “We are in the early stages, but I can say that we will deliver a range of secure and efficient technology services, allowing Etihad Airways and its partners to transform their IT infrastructure into global, flexible and agile cloud-based platforms,” comments Mercier.

It will be interesting to see how Etihad uses Watson to help achieve its stated desire to “enhance the guest experience, develop world-class infrastructure and security, and improve efficiency”, and how other airlines, airports, and travel industry stakeholders embrace the possibilities of this next generation of big data.

Mercier points to “rapid evolution in the travel industry”, and his challenge to airports is: “What will you do with Watson?”

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