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Five months after becoming the first travel company in the world to sell tickets on an Amazon Echo, Virgin Trains says sales are “exceeding expectations” and it’s now mulling its voice strategy moving forward, including the benefits of a dedicated in-house team.

Virgin Trains launched its Alexa Skill in May, allowing passengers to book any Advance Single ticket via Alexa-enabled devices and pay though their Amazon account.

With 32 million customers on the Amazon database – and 2.8m units sold in the UK in 2017 - Virgin says the potential pool of customers that might soon own a device was large enough to warrant the risk of being first to market with the booking option.  

While the travel company is hesitant to reveal specific numbers on how successful it’s been for sales, it’s been buoyed by the steady uptick in people opting to use it as the first port-of-call for questions.

“The average time it takes to book a ticket online is seven minutes […] and we've got the booking time down to two minutes on the Alexa Skill,” said John Sullivan, chief information officer at Virgin Trains.

“We get thousands of people per week using the Skill to ask a question and a percentage go on to make a booking. The conversions have surpassed expectations and that is increasing every week.”

Having gained confidence that the path to purchase for a single ticket is sound, and with awareness of the Skill on the rise, Virgin Trains is now looking at giving potential passengers more ticket type options to buy via the Skill. Sullivan revealed he has set a deadline of “within the next three months” for the expanded offering.

With more ticket options available, Virgin will get access to more data. Sullivan said Amazon has been a “brilliant” partner from the start, opening its Seattle headquarters to the British team as it tried to create a blueprint for how people could buy tickets using just their voice.

"We want to lead and the roadmap we've got is very exciting. We want to be there at the forefront of these things," he adds. 

It's of little surprise. According to the IAB's recent 'Find your Voice' report, it's a major focus for the marketing sector in the coming year, with 79% of the industry body's members saying it will be a key comms channel and 24% citing the development of voice interfaces as a priority for 2018. 

Insight from Amazon

While Amazon has been generous with developer resource and aiding with best practice, it’s stopped short of giving Virgin any more data than it would get with a text-based search query.

“We get back what customers are doing, the type of questions they ask, the number of customers that convert to make a booking, and where they drop off,” said Sullivan of the insight it has. “Really, it’s the same as you would expect from any web technology.”  

Amazon has been equally opaque with advising Virgin on how to plan for the future. Developing a strategy for voice devices has been a virtually impossible task given the lack of insight from Amazon and Google into how they might rank responses to a question.

In a pay-to-play model Virgin may have to stump up budget if it’s to be considered when someone asks Alexa to “find me a cheap train to London” but Sullivan suspects that a more likely alternative, at least in the short term, will be prioritising those with the best content and the most helpful responses to questions.

“There's less visibility than you have with someone like Google on search. Do we know how it's going to work out with voice search? No but we have to try it out and push it. For me the most important thing is the ability to have a conversation,” said Sullivan.

“Where I think voice SEO is going, and where voice will be helpful, is having a conversation and remembering what you've asked previously. I still really scratch my head. It's a journey and we must keep focused on it, learn as we go and in a year's time we'll know more about it.

“Reflecting on some of the conversations we're having with Amazon, the funny thing is that they're also working out what will happen. They haven't said that but after meetings you really think they're on a journey too.”

In-house versus outsourced

Within the next year, Sullivan is also taking stock of how much internal resource it will dedicate to its voice strategy.

Currently, Virgin Trains works exclusively with a third-party tech supplier to manage the Alexa Skill and it’s taken a while to establish the relationship given the relatively nascent knowledge out there (it had to end the contract with its initial supplier when it realised it “wasn’t able to deliver to their commitments”).

“We use a good agency now but one of the things we did early was to make sure they had those skills for voice. We are thinking about how much we need in-house versus all outsourced,” he added. 

“In a year's time we might have an internal team doing these things but still have an external agency to manage the peaks and troughs. That comes down to the agility. We're going to have to move fast and having it internally will help us move quicker.”