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Google tackles online travel agencies with vacation-booking tool on mobile

Google is taking the travel industry head-on with the rollout of its newest tool, Destinations on Google, which lets consumers discover and book their next vacation entirely via mobile search – a tactic that could put a dent in online travel agencies’ bookings.

As the hospitality sector continues making a strong play for mobile, Google is edging in on marketers such as Expedia and Orbitz by identifying the best ways to target consumers entering the purchase funnel. Destinations on Google will be able to attract consumers still in the research phase of their vacation-planning process, as well as last-minute travelers wanting to book trips immediately.

“As people increasingly use their mobile devices to research travel, Destinations on Google should give researchers easier access to destination information, including when to go, estimated prices and in-destination ideas,” said Ryan Williams, vice president of travel at Millward Brown Digital. “I doubt this feature will be an OTA killer, but it’s certainly a unique attempt at capturing customers higher in the funnel, at the point of inspiration.

“However, given OTAs also have access to much of the same information, they should be able to replicate some of the features if they see fit. Google has the edge simply given this feature is integrated into mobile search, and search is often the first step in travel research.”

Swinging into travel season
The Google on Destinations solution arrives at the onset of spring, a major travel season for many consumers seeking to take advantage of the warmer weather. Google decided to introduce another booking-related service after experiencing a 50 percent uptick in travel-related questions stemming from smartphones.

The many variables needed in order to effectively plan a trip makes the process challenging for many people, who then turn to OTAs to complete all relevant tasks, such as booking flights and choosing nearby hotels.

Mobile users wanting to leverage Google’s new service must open the Google browser, input the state, country or continent they would like to visit and add the word “destination” to their search query. This will curate a list of easy-to-browse options, thanks to the tool’s integration with Google Flights and Hotel search.

Consumers will be able to view hotel prices and available flights instantly, instead of having to toggle between multiple tabs on their smartphone screen.

If travelers are hoping to book a specific type of vacation, they may input the destination as well as an activity, such as “New Zealand hiking” or “Colorado skiing,” into the search box. Google will then propose locations that match those interests.

The tool also boasts a “Flexible Dates” filter that allows users to refine their results by month, enabling them to determine when fares are lowest within a specific time period.

Once travel fans have chosen a destination, they may click on the “Plan a trip” button to view hotel and flight prices. Results can be customized even further by tapping the pencil icon on the upper right to filter particular flight and hotel preferences.

The estimated price of the trip will then be calculated.

If users are unsure of which locales they would like to visit, they can also browse frequently traveled itineraries to receive more inspiration.

“Google has already disrupted the travel sector and will continue to do so,” Mr. Williams said. “Google now presents a fairly similar search experience in both mobile and desktop, making the transition from one to the other seamless for travelers.

“And, with the aggressive rollout of Rich Lists (a modified Google Maps interface), travel brands have to completely rethink their desktop and mobile search strategies.”

Creating more competition
Google’s decision to focus on consumers beginning their paths to purchase via mobile search is a smart move. Digitally-savvy travelers are looking for the most streamlined services these days, especially ones offering multiple pricing options.

Some OTAs have already begun introducing strategies and shortcuts catering to these types of consumers.

For example, Expedia is ramping up engagement and sales within its app by leveraging 3D Touch, which allows users to search hotels, request directions and share their flight status directly from the brand’s icon on their home screens (see story).

However, Google does have several advantages under its belt – most notably, the fact that consumers can access an entire itinerary and trip suggestions by inputting several words into a search engine.

“People have always said ‘content is king’ so time will tell if consumers actually utilize the new Destinations on Google feature but, if they do, OTAs should be prepared to integrate similar features into their mobile apps,” Mr. Williams said.

“I think the OTAs, given their test and learn culture, are already in tune with travelers’ desires and will continue to enhance their offerings, just as Google continues to do so.”