6 years ago

Applying semantic search and ontology to the travel industry

NB: This is a guest article by Larry Smith, a partner at US-based Thematix.

The TED Conference produces many exceptional ideas and the one by Rory Sutherland explaining “intangible value” could be a beacon for the travel industry.

By coupling his concepts with the recent OpenTravel Alliance semantic and ontology initiative, the industry could use data to drive innovation and profits in a new direction.


Intangible value transforms the known and the normal into the unique and the extraordinary. We know it’s more than a Boeing 737, Ford Focus, Sealy mattress when the brand experiences of Southwest, Avis, and Marriott are added.

And value, both tangible and intangible, must be added and maintained in order to grow, develop loyalty, and increase profitability.

The travel industry has a history of adding value by making the discovery and purchase of its products and services fast and focused. Viewed through the lens of technology, we can see how shopping and buying travel products have changed over the past 40 years.

Large volumes of perishable inventory, with real time purchase and variable pricing was the ideal product to be managed by new and affordable mainframe computers of the 1970’s.

Data was structured and processed, then widely distributed to a highly informed network of professional agents who took the data and enriched it with their personal knowledge and intimate relationship with the traveler.

As we know, the PC and Internet disrupted the ecosystem and helped transform much of the business into a self-service, always on, multiple choice, zero friction vending machine.

The buying process got simplified into the travel troika: time and place differentiate by price.  By presenting countless pages of data structured this way, we have convinced consumers they are buying interchangeable commodities. Even one of the newest search agents, Hipmunk, differentiates by an “agony” rating that reports process issues, not brand value or product difference.

What’s more, this “product attribute troika” is transmogrifying into the product you are buying; in other words the buying event is being uncoupled from the actual product experience.

This is unlike typical purchases such as a restaurant meal, clothing, luxury item where the discovery, purchase and consumption are tightly interwoven into a complete brand experience. In cases such as jewelry and designer fashions, most of the enjoyment is actually in the shopping process.

So when you present this product attribute troika with self-service ease and convenience, then pile on huge volumes of choice, who could resist the belief they’ve made the best buying decision.

But you say it is all about the price, time and place, right? How else would I make a decision?

Semantic technologies and a travel industry ontology can become the enrichment, differentiation, and brand value tools; tools that support and enhance existing structured data.

Semantic technologies are able to add a level of “reasoning” that allow computers to offer solutions better tailored to the travel purpose and search objectives rather than just the search words.

A business trip, family vacation, bereavement fare, and alumni reunion all represent different travel activities with a cascading decision tree and value to different types of travel options.

Unifying these travel options among trading partners and third party entities are efficiently accomplished using a travel ontology; defined at Wikipedia as “a formal representation of knowledge as a set of concepts within a domain, and the relationships between those concepts”.

In other words, the words like “family vacation” have exact and assigned meaning that can be used in precise ways relative to party size, presence of children, types of activities, etc.

An ontology is used to describe a domain as well as reason about the entities within that domain. This ability for a software program to “reason” about relationships can generate huge value to the travelers and providers.

Knowledge and reasoning spawn product differentiation and channel segmentation. Components can be bundled such as “family vacation airfare” with four checked bags included in the price and this data passed to the car rental to ensure a vehicle with sufficient cargo capacity is booked.

The person renting a higher priced mini-van might be “big & tall” and thus be willing to pay extra for premium or exit row seating and a king size bed. These and many other characteristics can be gleaned from behavioral ad targeting, loyalty profiles, data vendors like RapLeaf, or by simply asking that you tick a profile box.

Once collected, this traveler profile can be passed among trading partners using industry standard ontology’s or custom “synthetic” categories defined by two or more companies.

A synthetic category might be “alumni reunion” with certain attributes promoted at certain sites as if it were a package deal; specific details could vary by channel and trading partner with minimal programming or development resources.

In fact, once adopted, the ontological foundation could yield far higher development efficiencies than other types of structured data processes while increasing speed to market.

The end result could be an enriched buying experience driven by customer needs and desires rather than just product time, place and price.

Using semantic technology will permit companies inside and outside the travel industry to talk the same language and have the computers reason a superior and tangible value.

NB: This is a guest article by Larry Smith, a partner at US-based Thematix.

NB2: Here is Sutherland’s presentation from TED.

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A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries. The views expressed are the views and opinions of the author and do not reflect or represent the views of his employer, tnooz, its writers, or partners.



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  3. Greg Abbott

    Just want to say I really like this analogy to describe Larry’s view of the current travel ‘ecosystem’ “a self-service, always on, multiple choice, zero friction vending machine.” I’ll remember that one.


    […] [see this article as published at Tnooz.] […]

  5. Tal

    Evature (www.evature.com) is applying semantic search for the travel industry, enabling users to express their exact wishes, going beyond the traditional drop down menus.
    “From israel to rome on the 2nd week of august, veggie food and an isle seat”.
    “3-4 stars, pet-friendly hotel in an island location with free internet and cable tv in the room. 2 adults and 4 kids”.
    “disneyworld in the summer with my wife”
    Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoNsD_HsY2I

    Disclosure: I am the founder.

    • Bonnie

      Hi Tal,

      Maybe we should talk about Evature participation in OpenTravel.


    • Larry

      Your Evature site and application at flightandhotel.co.uk are very interesting. I was wondering how much semantics were used vs. natural language processing and the parsing of the language into a search string?

      Over time, we’ll be able to understand how the questions are being asked; is it time/Monday-item/Hotel-place/Paris or price/Cheap-item/Air-time/July-place/NYC

      • Tal Weiss

        Hi Larry,

        You are correct – the front end parses the natural language using various NLP algorithms, but that is just when the fun starts. We need to somehow capture the user’s intent into a structured language so that we can converse with the various booking engines. That is actually very tricky: when exactly is “early next monday”? Where is “near the eiffel tower” and how do we translate “somewhere sunny”? This is where we apply lots of semantics and business logic.

        The inputs we receive from people are invaluable (and never what we expect). We are running experiments with two tier-1 customers and are blown away by the search queries people enter (many of which cannot be addressed by the existing menus!). Some samples from today:
        “london 2 adults 6-7/03”
        “maldives double 20 april 3 may”
        “apartments in knightsbridge”
        “romantic adults only hotel not far from milan”
        “5 star hotel, two adults, uk, 5 feb”
        “3 stars comfortable hotel in Zurich city centre, 2 adults and one 11 year old child”
        “ski holiday near Zurich staying in hotel and renting skis”

  6. Tom

    The point is that the standards are emerging, marketers will use them, and existing travel distribution platforms need to accommodate them. Brilliant, thought-provoking piece; brilliant, funny-as-hell video.

  7. Bonnie

    Hi Steve,

    It’s true that there has been fragmentation in the travel industry… but the OpenTravel standard has been widely adopted and this is a great head start for this project.

    And yes, people are working on their own ontologies and classification of products, and one of our goals is to support these initiatives by creating a baseline ontology that supports interaction with OpenTravel xml objects (OpenTravel 2.0) and provides the flexibility (via extension) for adopters to add their own definitions, etc.


  8. Steve

    Given that the travel industry has always failed to agree on standards for data structure and transfer I can’t see them adopting a standard product ontology. People are working on their own ontologies and classification of products in the travel sector right now to give richer search and added intelligence to the product selection and booking process.

    By their very nature ontologies and classification of travel products are in the eye of the beholder meaning that multiple definitions are likely to appear for the same product set anyway. Not really sure ontology standards for something that is essentially an emotive assignment of a category to a product are really feasible.

    Thought provoking though!


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