Hotels hold an advantage over tech giants in the quest to forge relationships with travelers because they see them face to face, but that’s not going to stop the Googles of the world from getting as close as possible, tech experts said.
NEW YORK—There are many companies a consumer will interact with throughout their travel journey, and virtually all of those companies want to own the direct connection with travelers, according to a panel of tech executives at the 2019 NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference.
Speaking during “The battle for the customer and the growing influence of ‘Big Tech’” session, Rob Torres, industry leader for Google Travel, said his company is keying in more on the travel sector because it thinks it can improve.
“We think we can simplify how the (booking) experience goes, regardless of whether it’s the top of the funnel or the bottom,” he said. “The whole system needs to be simplified. Nobody wants to scroll through 100 properties to find what they want.”
Both Torres and Cyril Ranque, president of lodging partner services for Expedia Group, said the big opportunity in the travel tech space is personalization via artificial intelligence.
Ranque noted that AI and data will be the arms used in the battle for guests’ hearts and minds.
“Everyone wants that direct relationship, and the only question really is who will be able to get that through data and human touch to offer the most relevant customer experience,” he said. “Hopefully we have a good game plan in the (online travel agency) space.”
While hoteliers might not often associate OTAs with “human touch,” Ranque said that’s what sets his company apart from companies like Google and Amazon because they have thousands of people on the ground across the globe.
“We are a travel agency,” he said. “We talk to 60 million customers per month and have 2.3 billion interactions every day. We have real data on the customer-supplier interaction and 6,000 people in the field talking to our property partners. We learn through real interactions what matters to them and what use cases we need to solve.”
But Lee Pillsbury, managing partner of venture capital firm Thayer Ventures, said hotels still have the strongest advantage in terms of guest interaction, but it’s not clear they’re making the best use of that.
“I think hotels have the upper hand here because hotels are providing the experience,” he said. “They’re in direct contact with the guests, and they’re in the best position to know the most about them. But to date they’ve not done everything they need to take advantage of that.”
He noted that while companies like Google know a lot about consumers, that doesn’t necessarily translate to knowing what they need to optimize the travel experience.
“I think hotels, and in particular the major brands, have the best opportunity here,” he said.
Pillsbury said companies like Marriott International should be using their available capital to beef up their experiential travel options.
“One question I posed to (Marriott President and CEO Arne Sorenson) is ‘Should you be buying Abercrombie & Kent or delving more deeply into all the elements of travel experience,” he said, referring to the “luxury adventure travel” company. “I think hotels need to focus more carefully on that, and I think Google will play a role in that.”
Patrick Bosworth, co-founder and CEO for Duetto, said hotel companies need to do their best to leverage relationships with companies like Google because guests will increasingly rely on them as they simplify booking. He said Google is likely to have an ever-growing presence in the hotel space.
Google’s “mission is to organize the world’s information and make it easier to live your life,” he said. “I don’t think that distribution is the last step. They’ll keep providing a more cohesive experience.”
Asked if other players are catching up with the major OTAs in the distribution space, Ranque said addition of new players will ultimately work out in Expedia’s favor.
“Hopefully we have more shared customer and partner experience versus companies in the hotel space or the search space,” he said. “We play a complimentary role that’s unique because we talk to both sides of the platform.”
Torres said the role of technology is continually evolving in the travel experience and is going to “change the entire journey and how we plan.” He said people often associate Google with the earliest stages of planning, but its usage is growing even during the stay as people look for things to do and places to go while in various destinations.
He said better use of data on the platform will allow Google to “provide better and more personalized experiences.”
If Google is correct in its approach, Torres believes it could be a boon for the entire travel sector.
“If we make it easier for people to travel, our hope is more people will travel,” he said.
He said hotel companies don’t take full advantage of the wealth of data and marketing expertise available with Expedia.
“It takes engagement, and I think that’s something that is missing, especially on the lower end of the market,” he said.