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by Michael Shapiro | June 27, 2017

Michael J. Shapiro, senior editor, Meetings & Conventions magazineChatbots, also known as virtual assistants, are fast becoming a popular showcase for artificial intelligence, in meetings tech and elsewhere. While much of the general public already knows Siri and Alexa, a bevy of other upstart virtual assistants are vying for funding and the opportunity to serve travelers and meeting attendees. Some already are making appearances at events.
 
They’re rife with potential. Chatbots provide a natural, human-like interface: Why navigate the show program on an event app when you can just ask a chatbot where the next session is, or who’s speaking at a given time? Sciensio’s Concierge Eventbot can provide information to attendees via Messenger or SMS text messaging, while Eva, a chatbot available in event2mobile’s app, can provide meeting details, send out polls and even schedule appointments.
 
Eva was launched just four months ago, according to Varun Kashiv, event2mobile’s U.S. director of business solutions, but demand for the bot has been growing — both within the app and outside of it. “The bot is just an interface,” Kashiv explains. “If people don’t want to download the app, they can simply text Eva questions. It’s connected to the same back end as the app, and so it has access to the same information.”
 
Eva has been used at about 10 different shows to date, according to Kashiv. The specific info Eva has access to, and the most popular way to interact with it, has varied by event, as the bot is tailored to a show organizer's specific needs.
 
Johnny Thorsen, vice president of travel strategy and partnership at MeziThe real AI benefit in these bots will be revealed over time, as the virtual assistants become more adept at finding answers and better acquainted with the people who use them. Take, for instance, Mezi — a virtual assistant app that can serve as both travel arranger and personal shopper. “The system looks at your preferences, your past behavior patterns, any guidance from a group or company you belong to, and comes back with options that are designed as most likely to meet your needs,” says Johnny Thorsen, right, vice president of travel strategy and partnership at Mezi.
 
While Mezi can help you shop, the app increasingly is turning its commerce focus to travel, a fact underscored by the recent hiring of Thorsen, a travel-industry veteran with stints at Concur, GetThere and Travelport. The initial questions that Mezi asks users about their travel preferences serve as a starting point for that person’s profile. “The app will then proactively monitor what you actually select when you travel and ask if you’d like to update your profile to match your behavior,” Thorsen says. “Normally, when you enter your data in a travel profile today, it goes into a black hole of static data. Most travel profiles remain unchanged since the day they were created.”
 
Mezi, however, gets to know you based on your behavior, and depending on how you use it, the bot might learn not only about your travel needs but also your restaurant preferences and perhaps even your taste in clothing and suit or dress size. One can begin to see how such knowledge could come in handy at conferences for the frequent business traveler.
 
Mezi has not yet partnered with anyone in the groups and meetings space, but as Thorsen points out, “our technology is ready to go in there, to be embedded in other mobile apps.” And he’s currently talking with clients about how the bot might begin making appearances at meetings.
 
“Meeting managers have always tried to improve the way meetings travel is booked,” Thorsen notes. In this vein, using the bot in conjunction with a meetings microsite, for instance, could help in directing attendees to make the travel decisions desired by the managers, by steering them toward the preferred suppliers and venues. If more attendees book with Mezi, the visibility into attendee travel data would skyrocket. And once the attendee begins making travel decisions with Mezi, AI would kick in, delivering options best suited for each traveler within the context of each meeting.
 
Such conversations are in the early stages now, admits Thorsen. “But I’d be really surprised if in two or three years there isn’t a dramatic improvement in the technology that’s being used for meetings and events travel.”