Should companies involved in the travel-planning process be concerned about the release last week of Destinations on Google, a mobile format designed to help travelers get from the top of the funnel (when they are still deciding where to go and what to do) to the bottom (booking)?
The stitching together by Google of travel research, imagery, consumer behavior and inventory (linked to third-party and supplier-direct booking engines) has been a long time coming. Google flight- and hotel-search functions have been up and running for years. It owns Zagat Surveys for restaurant reviews. In addition, Google Earth, Google's Art Project, which displays 360-degree views of rooms in major art museums; Google Translate, the Google-owned GPS navigation app Waze; and the panoramic displays of Street View could all be seen as travel-related products.
But until Destinations, it appeared that Google's travel-related projects were being released in a linear, rather than integrated, fashion.
That has puzzled me. A few years ago, I suggested to a Google executive that his company could use Google Earth to zoom into Athens, Street View to bring the user to a hotel, Art Project to show the rooms in the hotel and then perhaps have an avatar take the booking. "Why don't you do that?" I asked.
"Why don't you?" he replied. He said Google had already developed the tools, and there was nothing preventing someone from putting together a product similar to the one I described.
(Well, nothing but technical know-how and funding.)
Google Destinations has a lot of utility, and it presents consumers with multiple options, so trips can be customized to some extent. The Google presenters at the press conference where Destinations was revealed spoke about how many windows would need to be open to keep track of similar information on a laptop. "It's really painful," he said. "We're radically simplifying how to do this."
OK, travel advisers, I can hear what you're thinking: How is this an improvement over outsourcing all this "pain" to a human travel counselor? What could be simpler than letting someone knowledgeable do all the work for you?
If there is one thing we've learned over the 20-odd years that self-booking tools have existed, it's that some people like to do things for themselves for various reasons. They may feel it saves money. That it gives them a greater sense of control. They might have had a bad experience with an agent.
Destinations on Google appears to be an improvement over doing research with multiple laptop windows open. And it might appeal to a new generation that has no experience working with a travel professional.
The day before the Google announcement, I had spoken with Rina Plapler, a partner at the branding consultancy MBLM.
MBLM's specialization is "brand intimacy," which it determines by measuring the intensity (broken into three stages: sharing, bonding and fusing) and prevalence of strong consumer relationships. According to its most recent report, travel-related companies have the least intimate relationships of any of the eight consumer sectors it surveyed.
Less than telecommunications. Less than clothing. Less than (God help us) financial services.
It should be noted that only airlines and hotel companies were measured in the category "travel and leisure." Disney, which did quite well (sixth overall), was classified "Entertainment" (where it was No. 1) and American Express fell under "Financial Services" (where it ranked ninth).
The most intimate travel company, British Airways, ranked 70th out of 200 listed brands.
The authors of the study link intimacy with profitability. The more intimate consumers are with brands, the more
they are willing to spend on its services and products.
Both travel advisers and OTAs are given partial credit (or blame) for travel's underperformance. The study's authors conclude that as intermediaries, they stand in the way of direct relationships that foster intimacy.
Neither OTAs nor offline agency brands were included in the survey, but the implication is that consumer relationships with travel advisers and OTAs might gain intimacy at the expense of hotel and airline brands.
And Google? Google does pretty well in the "technology and telecommunications" category. It ranks third (behind Apple and Samsung), fifth in all categories among consumers earning $75,000 to $100,000 (the top demographic measured), second among those aged 45 to 54 and first among males aged 35 to 44.
Google has had a mixed record when it goes beyond its search-related functions and attempts to create products. As a Google Glass guinea pig, I can testify.
But Destinations pulls in its recommendations from its search capabilities, Google's core competency. It hands off actual booking transactions to partners rather than competing with those advertisers.
I think the fact that travel ranks ninth of nine industries in intimacy has little to do with travel experiences, which can be extraordinarily intimate, and perhaps everything to do, as MBLM suggests, with the fragmented nature of travel purchases. Google's amplified presence in the process can add yet another layer of diffusion, e.g., consumer to Google to OTA to supplier.
Suppliers, and marriage counselors, understand that a lack of intimacy is a major threat to relationships. It's why travel brands are working so hard to build direct sales. But if a less-intimate relationship brings consumers literally into their beds (and seats), hotels and airlines will continue to trade intimacy for the less satisfying, codependent distribution relationships they've lived in for decades.