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Q&A: Avvio’s Frank Reeves on AI’s transformative impact on the hospitality industry

The travel tech entrepreneur is equipping hotels with the tools they need to challenge the dominance of online travel agents – and the benefits for guests could be huge.

In October, Ireland-based travel tech firm Avvio launched a world first: a booking platform powered by artificial intelligence. It’s called Allora and, according to Frank Reeves, Avvio’s Co-founder and CEO, it promises to transform not only hotel bookings, but the hotel experience.  

Frank told us more about how the platform works, how it’s already challenging Booking.com and Expedia’s dominance, and why AI is something to embrace, not fear, for hospitality staff.  

Frank, you launched Allora in October. How does the platform work?

“Allora’s aim is to help hotels increase their direct bookings, by which I mean bookings from their own website. The biggest pain point hotels have right now is the dominance of online travel agents like Booking.com and Expedia – they drive the lion’s share of direct bookings, and take commissions of between 15 and 25% in some cases.

“Our platform, which optimises itself using AI, personalises not just individual guest experiences, but the outcomes of those experiences – so it can do a better job the next time around.

“The beauty of Allora is that it has a lot more information on the customer. If you visited a London hotel’s website from North America a few days ago, the platform will dynamically pick this up.

“It will then crunch data on what this booking might look like. It knows this customer isn’t going to book for tonight if they’re in North America, so it knows what a typical lead-in time will be, and the typical rooms and rates. It will optimise the entire user journey.

“Allora will convey this rich information directly to the hotel. So it’s not just ‘Here’sa booking’, it’s ‘Here’s the customer, and here’s everything we’ve gleaned online – in a GDPR-compliant way – that you need to offer an awesome user experience when they arrive.’”

User experience is presumably a huge deal given that online travel agents are so easy to book with?

“Absolutely. If a booker is getting a better, more personalised user experience on Booking.com, then we’d expect them to use this channel. Beyond price, user experience is a huge driver of user behaviour: think Apple, Samsung, Amazon, Facebook. I think it’s time for hotels to allow AI to improve the brand.com user experience for customers.

“The traditional approach from a hotel’s point of view has been to design a website and plug in a booking engine – and give this combination to every single visitor. This is incredibly frustrating for someone who, say, has already booked and returns to the website with a question. They have to start a conversation from scratch.

“What Allora can do in this scenario is say: ‘Hey Frank, we can’t wait to see you on Friday, here’s everything that you need. Can we help you with anything else? Can we upgrade your room?’ It’s basic stuff, but it’s not currently properly done on the hotel’s side.”

Are hotel bookers moving away from searching and clicking to something that’s more personalised and conversational?

“I’d say so, yes. We will very soon launch Allora’s chatbot functionality with our partners Webio, which will allow our clients to transact live bookings via automated chat on social platforms like Facebook.

“Think about how interesting it becomes when you pull a couple of buddies or colleagues into the chat with a hotel or serviced apartment company. Here it’s not just you interacting with the hotel, it’s you and your partner, your friends, or anyone else you’re travelling with.”

You mentioned GDPR. How much of a consideration is consumers’ privacy?

“Allora is very upfront with the kind of data a hotel is asking of a customer, and how this is stored. But I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that a person’s data allows them to have a more relevant, feature-rich online experience – something done well by the likes of Netflix, YouTube and Spotify.

“So we need to remain grounded in terms of what customers want, and how we can reasonably ask them to share information. But where this gets really interesting for customers is the machine learning that Allora uses, combined with a recommender engine. This allows the platform to recommend specific rooms, rates and extra products – that the hotel wouldn’t be able to do – that are more relevant to them.”

How many hotels are using Allora?

“We have around 30 early adopter clients live on the platform at the moment, with a significant demand from more hotels to come on board. Allora is learning from every single interaction on their websites. Even at an early stage we are already seeing that the rate at which Allora is learning is speeding up, and we can see the improvement in user experience resonating with customers.

“Allora’s benefits build over time, both as a hotel’s own AI data grows but also as the network expands to learn across hundreds of hotels. You can see the networked intelligence for yourself with real-time property information at Allora.ai. Hotels aren’t on their own anymore with a passive website and static booking engine – they’re part of something bigger and more intelligent.”

How do you think AI will affect the guest experience more generally?

“Aspects of it will become mainstream, but what I’d like to see is AI helping hospitality professionals to deliver. For me, the hospitality experience isn’t about automated check-ins and check-outs. At the hotels I visit, I really value the interaction I have with staff.

“AI will, I hope, complement the more mundane tasks that hoteliers, as humans, aren’t very good at, so that the people working on the service side can excel at representing/differentiating their specific brand experience to their customers. IHG, for example, are using AI to improve their recruitment process, and to make sure that the people who work for them can be the best ambassadors for their brands.

“This gives me a lot of confidence, because as a guest you’re thinking that you’re actually going to meet someone who really represents that brand, and get a real experience of that brand when you stay there.”