Kayak Expands to New Platforms as A.I. Assistants Proliferate

Xconomy Boston — 

[Corrected, 3/24/17, 2:37 p.m. See below.] As Kayak attempts to build a better virtual travel agent, the tech firm is expanding beyond its core website and mobile app, and establishing a presence on additional types of technology platforms.

Since mid-2015, Stamford, CT-based Kayak has made its travel-search service available to consumers on Apple Watch, Slack, Facebook Messenger, Microsoft Teams, Apple TV, Amazon Alexa devices, and Google Home.

The integrations with these outside platforms illustrate how businesses are adapting to changing consumer habits and trying to figure out the right ways to interact with users across an array of apps and devices. The moves also speak to the growing emphasis by consumer-focused businesses on deploying products and services powered by artificial intelligence-related technologies, such as chatbots on Facebook Messenger and Slack, and voice-controlled virtual personal assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Apple’s Siri.

“We have to be where the consumer is,” says Giorgos Zacharia, Kayak’s chief technology officer. “The consumer should be able to use Kayak in whatever their platform of choice is.”

I recently met with Zacharia (pictured above) and Kayak chief scientist Matthias Keller at the company’s engineering headquarters in Cambridge, MA, to get an update on the company, which is owned by The Priceline Group (NASDAQ: PCLN). Much of our conversation centered on Kayak’s work to add more features to its mobile app and branch out to these other technology platforms.

These aren’t exactly blockbuster product releases or big shifts in the 550-person company’s business strategy. But that seems to be by design.

“We believe a lot in incremental innovation,” Zacharia says. “We’re becoming more of this complete virtual travel agent.”

Zacharia says some of the integrations with outside technologies are mostly intended for “aspirational exploration” of flights, hotels, and other travel items. The Apple TV app, for example, enables users to browse “featured destinations and getaway themes,” or conduct a specific search by dictating the question to the Siri-enabled remote, Kayak says. With the Amazon Alexa skill, a user might ask the virtual personal assistant to look up cities where he or she can fly to in September on a $500 budget. (Alexa can also track flight status.)

One of the challenges will be making sure Kayak gets the user experience right and makes the new offerings useful enough to keep people coming back. The Apple Watch app lets users get flight notifications, price alerts, and quick access to itineraries. You probably wouldn’t want to use it for flight search—scrolling through dozens of flight options on the tiny screen wouldn’t be convenient. And when searching flights or hotels via the Alexa voice assistant, she only reads off a short list of options that fit your criteria. “We’re not going to give you 2,000 results on Alexa,” Zacharia says.

Currently, with most of these outside platforms, the user must still switch over to Kayak’s website or mobile app to complete the purchase (although Zacharia says the company is working on enabling purchases via the Alexa skill). It’s an extra step to a sale, but Zacharia doesn’t see that as an issue.

“They should be able to access Kayak in the way that is most convenient to them at that particular time,” Zacharia says. “It’s up to Kayak to provide the best user experience. We are learning what it takes to get the user to what they need as fast as possible. … The fact they chose to interact with that platform, it’s a positive.”

Zacharia sees these expanded offerings as new “channels” for enticing users to book trips through Kayak. And with the chatbots, “it’s a more efficient way to provide customer support,” Zacharia says. It’s hard to tell whether these new initiatives are paying off, since it’s still early, and Priceline doesn’t break out Kayak financials in its earnings reports.

Meanwhile, Kayak continues to try to find ways to make its mobile app more useful. It’s a key part of the business: these days, more than a third of travel bookings take place on mobile apps, Zacharia says. The advancements are mostly around making Kayak’s app more “context-aware,” he says.

One example is a feature that provides Kayak users with an estimate of how long it will take to get through security at the airport. Currently, Kayak’s app is gathering that information from the TSA and users who choose to share with Kayak how long they waited in line.

But the company is working on a more sophisticated version that would provide the security wait times by passively collecting in-airport location data from users that agree to share that information, Zacharia says. It would be “built in a Waze-like manner,” he says, referring to the mobile app that provides real-time traffic information from driver-submitted data. (Fun fact: Kayak has tested this feature at the lunch line at its Berlin office, the company says.) [A previous version of this paragraph stated the incorrect office where the feature was tested. We regret the error.]

“Historically the Kayak mobile app has been replicating the desktop experience,” Zacharia says. “But our devices are with us all the time. They know our location. They know much more about us than our desktop browser.”

I was also curious to get Zacharia’s thoughts on whether there will be a shift back toward getting humans more involved in the travel-booking process. Kayak co-founder and former CTO Paul English is working on a new startup called Lola that helps people book trips through a combination of human travel agents and A.I. software. Kayak has also reportedly experimented with a text messaging-based travel service powered by A.I. software and some human involvement, although Kayak CEO Steve Hafner told Skift he didn’t envision the company hiring a large group of travel agents.

Kayak has since stopped working on the texting product and directed its test users to the Facebook Messenger bot. The decision was made to focus on “platforms that could return rich answers easily, without the help of a human,” according to an e-mailed statement attributed to Kate Williams, Kayak’s vice president of global communications.

Zacharia emphasizes that Kayak remains a tech company, as it has been since its founding 13 years ago.

“There are a lot of technical problems to be solved when it comes to travel,” Zacharia says.

[The above photo is courtesy of Kayak, and was taken by Kayak’s Kaijian Gao.]