With Amelia, Booking a Flight is as Simple as Having a Conversation
Over time, society has become accustomed to natural language technologies like Siri and Google Now, which allow users to conversationally ask a question and get a verbal response from a device. Amelia, a University of Illinois startup, is applying similar technology to booking enterprise travel, a sizeable market where, in 2015, 455 million business flights were taken in the United States alone.
“Our goal is to reduce the pain of high-frequency flying by eliminating the need to go through a travel agency or another member of the office,” explained team member and CS senior Jay Bensal. “Oftentimes a travel agent is talking to ten or twenty other customers; Amelia will provide a faster, more convenient way to accomplish that goal of reserving a flight. We’re aiming to make the entire process as simple as having a conversation through a text message or chat interface.”
“With our technology, we can interpret what you mean when you say, ‘I want to book a flight’ or ‘I want to get an update on this flight,” added Mechanical Engineering junior Wiley Jones. “Although you’ll be talking to a computer, it will quickly be able to provide the information for you. It will not only be able to understand the basic syntax, but also the intent. For instance, if you say, ‘I’m looking for the cheapest flight,’ we’ll be able to give you results based on your natural language.”
The Amelia team, which also includes CS senior Ali Afridi and CS freshman Niraj Pant, is taking advantage of the intellectual property that already exists in the natural language area and utilizing that same strand to help with travel needs. They are specifically targeting travelers who fly as many as six to eight times per month. Their major competitors are traditional travel agencies and search sites like Expedia, Travelocity, and Kayak.
“The technology already exists. It just hasn’t made its way into travel just yet,” Bensal said. “We want to gear it towards enterprise customers because there are a number of travelers making 100 trips or more each year.”
Customers can sign up for Amelia online, by entering basic information like preferred payment method and flying preferences. After that, a user simply explains in conversation form when and where he or she would like to leave from and fly to and any other requirements. It will text or voice potential options, and then the customer will tell it which one to book. Checking on a flight would be done by a similar method.
Amelia will eventually be available on a multitude of communication platforms, including SMS, Facebook Messenger, and other applications, such as Slack, a rising medium for business communication.
“We will process the incoming message, determine their intent, access their preferences, and send back a few flights that match their criteria,” Afridi explained.
Amelia is one of the projects in the 2016 Cozad New Venture Competition, a program sponsored by the Technology Entrepreneur Center, which encourages students to create new businesses. The competition process offers teams mentors to help guide them through the phases of venture creation; workshops to help with idea validation, pitching skills, customer development, and more; and and courses to enhance their skills and knowledge. Teams that make it to the final round of competition will have the opportunity to meet with venture capitalists, early stage investors and successful entrepreneurs who will serve as judges. The judges will select up to eight finalist teams that will present their ventures at the finals event. Last year, these teams competed for nearly $160,000 in funding and in-kind prizes.
Competing in the Cozad New Venture Competition has helped the Amelia team verify their target market and move more quickly toward a viable product.
“The Cozad New Venture Competition has given us a platform to think through our ideas, test them, ask the right questions, talk to potential customers, and [has] given us deadlines to shoot for,” Afridi said.
“When you’re working by yourself, it’s really easy to feel like your objectives are so far off in the distance, but Cozad provides a sense of community that helps build excitement and keep you motivated,” Jones added.
Although, the Amelia team is hoping to begin beta testing by late spring, they are already developing a roadmap of services and additional features for future iterations. The initial phase includes the ability to use conversation to book flights, get updates on them, edit, and reschedule flights. An option for the future might be the ability to let the service automatically rebook a flight (based on preset preferences) if it gets cancelled, circumventing the need to stand in a long line at the airport.
In future iterations, the customer could also choose to allow Amelia to suggest certain flights based on language used in e-mails or integrations with a personal calendar. It could eventually suggest hotels based on the location of business meetings.
“We’re early in the development stage, so we need to be smart about what we’re building to make sure it meets expectations customers have for a service like this,” Jones said. “As we gather more data, we are going to gain more insights into the behaviors of our potential customers and know what features matter most.”
Those interested in participating in beta testing can visit the Amelia website.