By Brett Thoreson
Google has won the metasearch war, and hotels are looking to the online search powerhouse to drive more direct bookings
Jimmy Wales once said, “If it isn’t on Google, it doesn’t exist.” In many ways, Wales was correct – Google is, after all, often viewed as the ultimate gatekeeper of the internet. If we want to know the answer to a question, the lyrics from a song, the date of an event, the location of a business, the public rating of a restaurant, or the details of a travel destination, we Google it. The platform is as much a noun as a verb. Its utility is inherently baked into our personal and professional habits to the degree that very few technology companies can rival. It is the most viewed website in the world, a hub of consumer data and behavior, an advertising engine, and the digital entity most trusted for its ability to satiate our relentless appetite for information.
Any business leader in any industry understands that Google is synonymous with the internet, and the internet is a catalyst to success in this age of digital connection and e-commerce. The travel and hospitality industry is no exception; to maintain occupancy and drive revenue, hotel brands of all sizes and scale must bend to the rules of online engagement and find the best methods and mediums to advertise their offering. Most trips, whether for business or pleasure, are born from an initial Google search, and with this in mind, hoteliers must constantly consider how Google impacts the hospitality industry.
When looking at 2019 alone, Google launched its travel hub, added flight check-in and hotel booking abilities to Google Assistant, attached lodging listings to its Maps function, created a search site for hotel availability by destination, and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) even launched its own ride-hailing app.
So how has Google impacted the booking journey for travelers, and how should those insights shape hotels’ strategies moving forward as they look to finally put an end to the direct booking tug-of-war with online travel agencies?
The New Online Travel Landscape
Skift Research estimates that the travel industry may have spent as much as $16 billion advertising on Google in 2019, with Booking Holdings and Expedia Group listed as the two largest contributors to that spend. Ipsos research commissioned by Google also revealed that 57% of Americans who took a larger trip in 2021 used an online source to get inspiration or ideas related to their trip, and, on average, those travelers spent 71% of their time researching their trip online. Regarding post-pandemic recovery, April 2021 data also indicated that Google searches for hotels were up 92% compared to January 2021 trends, and hotels have seen record increases in bookings ever since. Despite the unprecedented challenges presented by the pandemic, it appears consumers’ appetite for travel has returned with a vengeance, and, finally, travelers feel confident enough to make booking decisions.
Perhaps more interesting is the sudden halt in online travel agency growth, with 2020 being the first year of decline for OTA’s. Research revealed that OTAs suffered a steep 59% drop in gross bookings in 2020, when gross bookings fell to $32 billion from $79 billion the previous year, while the percentage of U.S. online hotel bookings through hotel websites rose one percentage point in 2020 to 49%. The impact of the pandemic on OTA’s may have also been influenced by the inception of Google Travel in 2019, which saw the search engine giant shift into a competitor to some of its biggest paid advertising clients. “Our goal is to simplify trip planning by helping you quickly find the most useful information and pick up where you left off on any device,” said Google in a press release. “We’ll continue to make planning and taking trips easier with Google Maps, Google Search, and google.com/travel — so you can get out and enjoy the world.” By giving prospective travelers the ability to search for and browse all aspects of their trip (flights, hotels, and trip packages) on Google itself, the platform effectively removed the need for third-party OTA’s. Within that same year, online travel brands like TripAdvisor, Booking.com, and Expedia all reported a slowdown in bookings and, consequently, earnings.
While this may be bad news for OTA’s, it is undeniably positive news for hotels. Could the reign of OTA reliance finally be coming to an end? Perhaps our industry is on the brink of a direct booking era.
Hoteliers – The Cards Are Finally Stacked in Your Favor
So, why exactly did travelers suddenly shift to favor booking direct through hotels instead of OTA’s during the pandemic? The answer is actually quite simple. Due to the fear and uncertainty ushered in by the pandemic, travelers were only willing to book with travel providers that offered extensive COVID policies and best practices and offered the best rates and cancellation opportunities. While Skift notes that dedicated travel metasearch sites like Kayak, Trivago, and Tripadvisor are facing headwinds from the growth of Google Travel, hotels have a unique opportunity to make up lost ground and increase their market share in the bid for direct bookings.
Recognizing this shift, many hotels began to double down on their direct booking campaigns, offering travelers attractive incentives to book direct with their property, including more competitive rates, revised loyalty offerings, and cleanliness guarantees. Moreover, Think With Google research indicates that shoppers are putting their money where their values are now more than ever. They not only want the best price – they want to give their business to the company they most believe in and feel a connection to. With this in mind, hotels should leverage direct booking technology, such as a booking abandonment solution, to generate highly personalized campaigns that present prospective guests with relevant information and the best price. Using booking abandonment technology, hotels can automatically (and seamlessly) drive their direct booking strategy by sending beautifully branded, high-converting reminder emails to visitors who start booking a reservation on their site but leave without completing it.
The last two years were an incredibly challenging time for the travel industry, but the landscape is now primed for both a revival and a reshuffling of traveler preferences and booking behavior. Finally, hotels have been granted a competitive edge, and, with the right reservation recovery solution and strategy, they can capitalize on this moment to attract more guests and drive more revenue.