Focus on

“Alexa – upgrade me!”

By Roger Williams

Amazon’s Alexa has become a household virtual assistant around the globe, gradually increasing its usefulness. Newest to its skillset is booking travel tickets, says Roger Williams

In a technological first for the travel industry, UK rail and customer service innovators Virgin Trains and retailing giant Amazon are leading the way in the use of digital voice-tech for rail bookings on the West Coast mainline.

Alexa is already established as tech which can help with music and to-do lists, alarms, streaming, weather, traffic and other real-time data. And now, with one, simple voice-based instruction, passengers looking for advance single tickets can ask Alexa-enabled devices to book them directly onboard a train, with Amazon Pay completing the transaction on their behalf. In a fun launch promotion, anyone who named Alexa is getting a free upgrade to First!

For those yet to experience this kind of technology, Alexa is Amazon’s AI (artificial intelligence) voice service and the brain behind tens of millions of devices. It’s similar to Apple’s Siri.
For both Virgin and Amazon this cutting-edge partnership is the logical step following on from the ‘skill’ developed by Virgin last year to allow customers to browse service information. The word ‘skill’ relates to a capability or ‘skill’ of Alexa to communicate on a particular task – rather like an App on a smart device – and allows customers to personalise their interaction.

Early adopters
Whilst, at this early stage, Richard Branson’s only remaining UK train operating company is unlikely to see amazing growth from such an innovation, it is indicative of the type of ‘can do’ approach that he brings to the organisation, where he is apparently often referred to as ‘Dr Yes’.

Giulio Montemagno, director, Amazon Pay EU, says: “With Alexa and Amazon Pay, Virgin’s customers can search, select and buy train tickets entirely through voice. This is a first-of-a-kind service making it easier than ever to find and book the ticket you want, even when you’re busy doing something else.”

One of a host of digital projects to be introduced on Virgin, John Sullivan, Virgin Trains cio comments: “We’re very excited to be the first travel company in the world to sell tickets through Amazon Alexa; it’s just another example of Virgin Trains leading the way in digital innovation within the rail industry.”

How long before you can also pre-order your onboard meal service this way too?
Certainly no-one can argue with the numbers – ridership last year peaked at 38 million – some 24 million a year more than travelled on the same line in 1997 when he took over.

It’s not clear how many are called Alexa but that’s a different story …