Will Google Replace Travel Agents?

by James Shillinglaw
Will Google Replace Travel Agents?

What is Google doing in travel? Is Google trying to replace traditional travel agents? Will Google seek to buy a large travel agency group?

Those were some of the questions travel advisors were asking last week at the annual Virtuoso Symposium, held in Cape Town, South Africa, as Dave Pavelko, partnerships director for Travel Google Inc., took the stage to provide an update on what the search-engine giant is doing in the travel industry. He also offered suggestions on what travel agents and suppliers should do to meet the complex new challenges of a digital world.

Pavelko appeared at a time when the media is replete with stories speculating about what the search engine giant is doing in travel and whether its goal is to automate the function travel agents now serve.

But I have to admit I didn’t come away with the idea that Google is doing that—or even wants to do that. Indeed, Google may very well view travel agents as customers for its own services instead of as competitors. Many travel agencies today are firmly linked into the digital world and are already using Google tools and products to boost their business.

Digital doesn’t do it all
Pavelko began by admitting that the digital world doesn’t solve every travel challenge. And he even wondered aloud what an online digital guy like himself could tell travel agents and suppliers about their business to help them. On the other hand, Pavelko has held executive posts at Cendant, which at the time was the parent of such diverse travel companies as Avis, Budget, Wyndham, and Galileo, so he should know a little bit about how travel agents work. (And he also acknowledged he recently used a travel advisor to book a vacation to Greece.)

Google has been focused on what Pavelko called the “new travel consumer journey,” which breaks down into “micro-moments,” meaning every step that the consumer takes in the process of planning, buying, and experiencing travel, especially the digital interactions. He used his own trip-planning experience with a travel advisor as an example, where he communicated by email and exchanged links to websites to narrow down the hotels to be booked and develop unique local experiences.

Pavelko described micro-moments as ones where we reflexively turn to a device to act on a need—for example, the moment we want to book something or know something, as well as how we shop and interact. And Google is in a rather unique position to measure all of its users’ digital moments throughout the various travel phases and across a number of platforms and products.

What Google offers so far
Pavelko noted that mobile notifications are significantly changing the way people travel. For example, Google Now, an intelligent personal assistant developed for mobile applications, can proactively deliver information that it predicts users may want, such as whether a flight has been cancelled, so they are able to rebook sooner. Google also offers translation services, currency converters, and suggestions on where to go. “This is where mobile and digital is really changing our lives,” he said.

Given that 59% of travelers are always planning their next vacation, according to Pavelko, there is an enormous opportunity in the digital space for products that can help them do just that. Indeed, it’s why Google began in travel by buying ITA Software to develop a flight search tool, Google Flights, which is deeply integrated into the overall Google search function.

Google then developed a Google Hotels product, again fully integrated into Google overall search, to help consumers find the right property in the right location, especially through mobile devices. That has led to a major increase in hotel bookings through the Google tool. “Our goal is to facilitate the transaction,” Pavelko said. “We are reacting to what we’ve seen in the marketplace, and we are testing more hotel offers to drive more clicks and conversions.”

Google also introduced Destinations on Google, a travel-planning tool that can suggest places travelers might want to visit. “53% of travelers want to explore somewhere they’ve never been on their next vacations,” Pavelko said. “And 37% want to visit an off-the-beaten path destination.” With this new tool, Google has seen a 45% growth in destination-related searches on mobile devices through its search engine.

A scary scenario for agents?
Sounds pretty scary if you’re a travel advisor, right? Well, don’t despair! Pavelko said traditional travel advisors still have differentiators that set them apart from these digital travel products. For example, advisors can offer preferred rates and value-added bundles that are not easy to find in the traditional online world, which is still much more focused on price. Pavelko also suggested that the digital world could actually help travel advisors by providing on-demand support to travel advisors and their clients. Live travel advisors also could just be a click away for consumers to call directly. 

In his closing comments, Pavelko suggested that travel advisors stay abreast of the rapid changes in travel technology and also consider how to reach and assist travelers during those “micro-moments.” He said advisors should reinforce their value-add to consumers and leverage and refer them to digital tools when appropriate. He suggested that the online and offline travel worlds are starting to come together. “Everything has changed while nothing has changed,” he said.

So was that reassuring? Maybe not, but Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch told me later, using a quote from Simon Sinek, an author and consultant who speaks on leadership and management: "The future is only scary if you try to avoid it."

Or a resource for agents?
Upchurch pointed out all the things that were supposed to put travel advisors out of business in the past but haven’t. He also said everything Google has built is also an incredibly valuable resource for a travel advisor who deals with that subject on a daily basis. Indeed, Upchurch pointed to Pavelko’s own experience with a travel advisor. “His conversation with that advisor only took about 15 to 20 minutes, because they had sent links back and forth to each other. They used those online resources to actually make their interactions more valuable.”

Upchurch also said that any travel advisor who says he is in the travel-booking business has lost before even getting started. “Literally dozens of new ways of booking travel are being invented every day—supplier direct, OTAs, etc. Everybody is getting better at it. Do not think of yourself as somebody who is there to book travel. Booking travel is the outcome of the way in which you interact in higher- value relationships.”

Upchurch noted that Google is moving from “being just an answer machine to being more of a suggestion platform, providing context and helping you make more intelligent decisions, and pointing you in the right direction with suggestions. That’s what great travel agents do, so I could see why you would be threatened by that. But at the end of the day you also have relationships…and you need to ask yourself, where is the higher value of what I do?”

So admittedly the title of this column is a “grabber.” Like Upchurch, I don’t believe for a minute that Google can replace travel agents. But you need to figure out how to use Google’s digital tools to your benefit, as well as how to communicate the value you truly offer to your customers that Google can’t replace.

I invite you to follow me on Facebook, on Twitter @traveljames and on Instagram at jmshillinglaw.

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