Google has been making a lot of news lately, quietly relaunching its hotel search and booking tools, and most recently, adding vacation rentals to its accommodation’s offering.
Tight-lipped, the online advertising and tech giant hasn’t clearly stated its intentions as a travel booking engine, though some experts wonder if that is in Google’s near-term plans.
Raini Hamdi, in a recent Skift story, wrote that Google’s latest lodging features “make it a convenient one-stop shop to book travel sans encumbrances. Given its dominance in search, hotels and online travel agencies are on another planet if they are not feeling wary.”
Most travel agents aren’t, describing a relationship that wavers between love and hate – or at least annoyance. Agents swear by Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, even some of the travel search tools (Google Flights and Hotels) that publications like Skift believe might, one day, create a travel booking behemoth.
“I love Google,” said Loulu Lima, owner of Book Here, Give Here, in Austin, Texas. Before becoming an agent, Lima worked in IT.
“I’m not happy about their leap into hotel and flight booking, but I don’t see Google as any more of a threat than the [Expedia] gnome,” said Jeni Chaffer, owner of Journeys Travel Inc.
“It’s all about our attitudes. We choose to either be threatened by consumer-driven technology or not,” said Sandra Aaron, owner at Simcha Travel in London, Ontario. “I have certain clients who start off by sending me the prices they find through Google Flights. After a while, when they’ve consistently seen me beat Google’s price or openly admit that my pricing is either on par or only a bit more, it builds trust. I’ve found they eventually don’t check Google Flights as often.”
Like Aaron, Lynda Phillippi, owner of Renaissance Travel and Events in McMinnville, Oregon, loves Google because it helps her screen clients before she gets too vested in working with them.
“Yes. On the one hand, people can shop you. But on the other hand, it helps them be realistic about what things cost, so that you don’t get the people calling and saying, ‘I want to take my four kids and my spouse to Hawaii for four nights, and can we do it for $3,000?’ when that’s what their airfare alone will cost,” Phillipi said.
“If they have searched with Google, they have a better idea of what their budget needs to be, and then, with me, it’s more about finding availability versus haggling over their budget,” she said. “It’s like the famous saying, ‘The internet is for looking. Travel advisors are for booking.’”
Crystal Dyer, owner of Gone Again Travel & Tours, in Chicago, shared the same sentiments: “I actually love Google because it shows me folks have a vested interest in their journey. They call me because of my expertise in the destination. For me to know they have done a bit of research first on Google, it's an easier sales transition and they are not completely in the dark.”
Aaron and other agents who view Google’s positives admit that they didn’t always view Google this way: “When I started out (in 2010), it could be frustrating. You’d invest all of that time, and they would go do more searching through Google, and then book online with an OTA. I’m now at the point where I am not upset about this stuff. Clients are telling me they won’t bother me with the cheap flight trips, but will work with me on the vacations where they can see my value.”
Client confusion increases the value of a good advisor
Almost all of the travel advisors Travel Market Report contacted also noted how Google providing more access to travel pricing and options drives more agent sales, because the internet creates information overload.
“I feel like the internet confuses people because they’re overwhelmed by the amount of information there,” said Margie Lenau', travel consultant at Wonderland Family Vacations.
“A lot of time, the clients come to me because their searching leaves them completely overwhelmed,” said Tammy O'Hara, CTA and owner at Million Miles Travel Agency, in Brooklyn, New York. “That’s my hook. When they go on my website, I have the experience to narrow things down for you.”
But having so much information at a client’s fingertips can cut both ways, some agents said. The terms and conditions, availability and prices that Google searches display may not be clear or complete for the traveler.
On one of its Google Hotels pages, the company states: “In some cases, when you search for hotels on Google and select a hotel to book, you’ll stay on Google to complete the booking process. You can complete the reservation quickly using contact and payment info stored in your Google account.”
At other times, the searcher is being redirected to any number of online travel agencies or direct sites, where additional fees, taxes, etc., will finally be disclosed.
“Google allows people to say, ‘This is what I found online. How come it’s different from what you told me?’” said Lima. “Then I have to go online with them, see what they are looking at, and show them the terms and conditions, and other particulars. It would be nice if Google had some kind of clear disclaimer on their stuff.”
Google’s free assets outweigh the negatives
Many agents Travel Market Report spoke with talked about the full array of Google tools they use to manage their business and serve their clients, with Google Docs and Google Maps being high on their lists.
Lenau’ took live Google training classes through her local chamber, and as a result, she regularly uses Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides for presentations – though she doesn’t use Gmail. “I love everything Google,” said Lenau’, who has a background in computer science.
Understanding how Google ranks web pages has helped Lenau’ increase her search engine optimization (SEO), “and I’m getting many more calls from people who find me on the internet since I finished my Google business profile and learned some tips. I consider Google an asset, because I know that everyone is looking on the internet anyway.”
Aaron recently had a business travel client attending an event at the Charlotte, North Carolina, convention center. “I know they are on a keto diet, so I was able to go into Google Maps, find some restaurants that are keto-friendly, and email those recommendations to them,” she said.
“I use Google Flights a lot for my personal self and my clients,” said O’Hara. “If they come to me and they say, ‘This is my price point,’ I can quickly give them a range based on their parameters and look at how prices are trending.”
Sometimes, that even means turning down the sale, O’Hara said. “I can compare what they’re seeing with my top consolidators, and if they found something lower, tell them they should jump on that. They appreciate that I have that off-the-cuff knowledge and will come back to me next time.”