Google and Amazon loom large at Phocuswright 2018

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Phocuswright research manager Alice Jong interviews TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer at the Phocuswright Conference.
Phocuswright research manager Alice Jong interviews TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer at the Phocuswright Conference. Photo Credit: Michelle McSwain Photography

LOS ANGELES -- At this year's Phocuswright conference, onstage discussions frequently circled back to one crucial question: What will Google and Amazon do next?

"You've got to be concerned about the rise of the gatekeepers," said Jeffrey Katz, founding chairman and CEO of Orbitz and now CEO of Journera, during a panel on the future of corporate travel. "When you look at Google and Amazon, it's pretty frightening in a sense. Travel is something like a trillion-dollar industry, and they can't ignore verticals of that size."

While Amazon hasn't yet made a meaningful move into travel, many believe it's only a matter of time before the e-commerce player stakes its claim, most likely through a bolt-on acquisition.

"Amazon should get into travel," said Brian Nowak, managing director at Morgan Stanley Research. "One, it's a big market. Second, it's an asset-light industry. It's a lot easier to book a hotel and flight than it is to ship a canoe or get someone their bananas in two minutes. It's also an important data set. When you think about Amazon, a lot of what they're trying to do is to create a very personalized and curated experience. Travel is a blind spot for them, and they need that data."

Kayak co-founder and CEO Steve Hafner echoed that sense of inevitability during his time on the Phocuswright stage.

"Google is slow, but when they get their act together, they could make a big difference," he admitted. "Our company hasn't suffered as a result of Google's growth, but I still scratch my head and wonder why people didn't go to OTAs or suppliers directly without going to metasearch first. We've invested very heavily in marketing so that consumers, when they think about travel, go to Kayak directly and bypass Google."

Richard Holden, Google's vice president of product management, demurred on revealing any major strategic plans and denied Google was actively trying to steal OTA share through its Book on Google product.

"We're focused on driving value," Holden said. "We're not about trying to create customer engagement in the OTA space. We're engaged in trying to deliver the customer to that OTA, at the end of the day. ... I think there's been some confusion about the product and some confusion about the name. You could call it 'facilitated booking.' At the end of the day, it's about ultimately getting that consumer through that process more quickly."

Holden did, however, announce that Google would be launching hotel-booking capabilities on its Google Assistant platform later this month, a move in line with the tech giant's slow but steady encroachment on OTA territory. The voice-activated virtual assistant product not only can be used on devices such as Google Home but can also be enabled across a variety of device types, including smartphones.

But while Google is inching closer to becoming an OTA, Booking Holdings, the largest OTA, is looking to take a page out of the traditional travel agent playbook. 

Glenn Fogel, CEO and president of Booking Holdings, told the audience that the company was focused on "re-creating the benefit of the old-style travel agent."

"In the 1970s, when we went on a trip, our agent was a woman in our neighborhood," Fogel said. "We only did it once or twice a year, but my mother went back to that same person every single time. Why? Because that person provided the greatest service in the world. That's what we need to do with our business and our service. And the more we learn about someone, the better we can provide that service to them."

The extensive size and reach of companies like Google and Booking Holdings and their ability to gather a vast amount of consumer data might be their biggest advantage, particularly when it comes to the personalization of search results and service.

"Data is currency," Katz said. "We're getting ready for a world where these companies have a lot of influence on our travel lives. The world where Google is a giant in travel is coming, and brands have to get ready to deal with it."
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Phocuswright is owned by Northstar Travel Group, which also owns Travel Weekly.

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