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Can OTAs upstage Google’s travel updates and reclaim mobile customers?

Google’s recent travel updates include consumer-friendly booking tools such as hotel smart filters and enhanced flight price tracking, but threaten to overshadow airlines’ and travel providers’ own mobile platforms unless they leverage more predictive analytics and real-time inventory changes.

The search giant has been angling for a bigger role in the mobile booking sector lately, a notion that may be disconcerting for online travel agencies and airline marketers seeking to garner more sales traffic from smartphones. Google’s latest search iterations – which also extend to the retail sector – indicate that consumers are looking for real-time inventory updates and customized suggestions more than ever before, meaning that predictive analytics will become paramount for travel providers this year.

“The new features launched by Google puts [the company] one step closer toward understanding the modern traveler’s online behavior, helping it own the customer experience and forcing travel providers to become just a service vehicle – taking a backseat on opportunities to own the customer journey, relegated to one part of the process,” said Dave O’Flanagan, CEO of Boxever. “By better understanding the customer, Google and others such as Facebook are able to capitalize on upsell and cross-sell opportunities, estimated to be worth $60 billion for airlines alone in 2015.

“A cross-channel experience is paramount to success, and mobile is key to growing this ancillary revenue model,” he said. “Travel providers are also losing the ability to provide unique customer experiences and eroded loyalty by not knowing their customers as well as they could, opening the door for new stakeholders to jump in.

“Ultimately, customers will be unable to differentiate between carriers/providers other than on price – unless travel providers can start to think more like Google and reclaim their captive customer.”

Easy travel planning on mobile
Per a recent Google blog post, the company decided to revamp its travel tools after seeing the major role mobile plays in consumers’ planning processes. The post reported that individuals’ average time spent in travel Web sessions is shortening, while mobile conversion rates related to travel bookings have grown 10 percent.

Consequently, Google opted to roll out hotel smart filters, which enable search users to sift through results based on specific needs. If a consumer wants to filter by price or star rating, he or she can simply tap a button to adjust the results.

Deal seekers will have an easier time finding lower-priced flights and hotels on Google. Google may place a “Deal” label next to a hotel’s price in the search results if it is lower than usual.

Travelers can also take advantage of the hotel tips feature, which informs users of the best money-saving opportunities. For example, consumers may spot a flagged hotel deal letting them know they could save more than $100 if they adjust their stay dates by several days.

Google Flights also makes it simpler to keep track of flight prices, even among constantly changing fares. Consumers can now accept an opt-in feature that will alert them of fare changes for a specific date and route combination.

If prices significantly increase or decrease, they will get notified via email or Google Now cards, per the blog post.

These types of real-time inventory changes and enhanced search options will likely steal many OTAs’ and airline brands’ thunder on mobile, especially among price-conscious individuals and last-minute decision-makers.

“The problem is that most airlines are still using old legacy systems that have difficulties integrating with newer technology, which is why airlines lag behind companies like Google and Facebook in tracking and understanding their customers,” Mr. O’Flanagan said. “Placing an increased focus on using predictive analytics and tracking changes in real-time is vital for airlines to keep pace with the likes of Google and Facebook.

“The key differentiator is personalization – airlines need to have technology and automated processes in place to get to know their customer in a more nuanced way. By working to understand the wants and needs of customers, airlines can provide personalized options and recommendations to them across each interaction: from research on their trip to arrival at their destination – and everything in between.”

Leveraging available tools
To fend off competition from Google, airlines must focus on familiarizing themselves with analytics platforms, according to Mr. O’Flanagan.

Tapping into predictive marketing and customer intelligence platforms can offer travel providers and airlines more ways of understanding customer behavior and gleaning important data.

Additionally, travel-focused platforms can help marketers analyze and act on real-time customer data – which is arguably one of the most important aspects for driving immediate sales.

“To get really savvy, airlines need to connect the dots between disparate consumer experiences with their brand – between application UX, online search, customer service channels and in-airport experiences,” Mr. O’Flanagan said.

“When a consumer can connect to the airline in a positive, consistent way across these channels, airlines can build a seamless brand experience – one that will attract repeat, loyal customers while in turn increasing their ability to serve those customers better with stronger knowledge of their preferences and behaviors.”