Group trips are a lot of fun… in theory. Except, they never happen, because inertia. Yes, there are myriad portals and online travel aggregators that help people book travel, and even ones specialized in group trip planning but you forget to use them (and for the sites, customer acquisition cost is $$$). It’s not like you travel all the time after all, so you end us using a search engine.
99% of the time, when you’re planning travel with friends, you’re already in a conversation, increasingly on Facebook Messenger or some other chat service.
We were inspired to add an expedia travel agent to YOUR existing chat.
What it does
Emilia is a virtual chat agent that coordinates travel plans with your friends. As a complement to the chat, there’s a UNIQUE trip URL that you hit just for your trip. It shows your friends and their booking status, details about where you’re going, flights and hotels. With a bit of imagination, you could see how Expedia could help you book these without even leaving this page.
Facebook in Messenger
Emilia suggesting locations
One of the best features about Emilia as a chat agent is unlike a portal site, she can ‘nag’ you with reminders until you’ve booked. The trip URL provides some gentle peer pressure so you know when one person hasn’t booked.
Emilia helps you book travel
Emilia nags users that are tardy in booking
Since everyone booked using Emilia and she knows about everyone’s flight plans, you can see that all in one place. If someone’s flight is canceled and you need to change plans, you can talk to Emilia and you’ll instantly get a human customer support person from Expedia.
You can invoke Emilia in the chat by simply typing ‘@e ’. Users might take a bit of time getting used to this, but we could experiment with this over time. We chose ‘@‘ because its a preexisting user convention in chat apps like Facebook newsfeed, the Twitter timeline, and business mesaging app Slack.
How we built it
We build the project using a combination of NodeJS, Facebook Messenger, and a Facebook chatbot API. This year, both Google and Facebook are releasing more robust and fully featured chat API’s with richer visual features.
Challenges we ran into
Because we are using Messenger in unconventional ways, the spam prevention service layer at Facebook seemed to kick in, and our Emilia chat bot got “captcha’d” several times. To get around this, we reduced the number of links we used in the chat.
Accomplishments that we're proud of
This thing feels like it can actually work. At least, work WAY more than the normal way of travel planning. It fits most user’s mental models. And we love that we can continue our conversation like nothing happened and Emilia can just be a fly on the wall until we invoke her.
What we learned
We learned this could actually work. People will likely prefer to book travel this way in the near future.
What's next for Emilia
We’ve been interested in this chat technology for a while (previous startup was called Lizi, daughter of “ELIZA”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ELIZA)
I guess the answer is ‘stay tuned’!