Disclaimer: My fiancé currently works for TripAdvisor and has previously worked for Google.
Anyone who’s attempted to plan a vacation is familiar with the problem of actually figuring out how to get it all done. You’re looking to book an epic trip around the world – 3 weeks across 3 continents. You check TripAdvisor for reviews of different hotels and then go to Booking.com to grab your hotel. Next you’re on Kayak and Google Flights to determine the optimal multi-city route. Finally, you use OpenTable and your hotel concierge to book dining and the experiences you want. After countless hours a prospective traveler wonders why no company has figured out how to integrate all of these experiences.
This seems to be the holy grail of digital travel platform companies. For example, Expedia’s 10-K states that:
“Expedia, Inc. is an online travel company, empowering business and leisure travelers through technology with the tools and information they need to efficiently research, plan, book and experience travel.” (From December 2015 10-K)
and TripAdvisor’s 10-K reads similarly, stating:
“TripAdvisor, our flagship brand, is the world’s largest travel site, and its mission is to help people around the world plan, book and experience the perfect trip.” (From December 2016 10-K).
Different companies have differed in their approach to building such a platform. Expedia and Priceline have perhaps realized that customers are resigned to acting as their own integrators, and thus has focused on growing revenue by acquiring other booking and reservation sites. Since 2012, Expedia has spent $7.3 billion acquiring brands like Orbitz and HomeAway and Priceline has spent $5.4 billion acquiring Kayak and OpenTable.
TripAdvisor and Google however are focused on building an integrated platform. Think back on your last trip – before you knew what you wanted to book you wanted to figure out where to go and what to do. Indeed, ““According to a commissioned survey conducted by PhoCusWright, more than 50% of [travelers] didn’t want to make a booking until they had read reviews and found out what other travelers thought” (http://marketrealist.com/2016/09/how-does-google-trips-compare-to-tripadvisor/). The emerging competition between these platforms leads me to some interesting questions, findings and predictions.
Google’s Opportunity – Utilizing its Rich Proprietary Apps Environment and Data to Attack the End to End Experience
In October 2016, I visited Google’s offices and attended a presentation by the Product Management team for Google Travel. We heard about the recent launch of the Google Trips app and marveled at a beautiful new app that promised to automate the creation of a personalized travel guide based on deep integration with Search, Maps, Mail, and other Google Services. From a personal perspective, the beautiful app truly seemed like it would take the stress out of planning a trip. From a business perspective, I wondered about the impact of the app on TripAdvisor – indeed TripAdvisor’s stock price was down 3% on the day Google announced its efforts.
TripAdvisor’s Response – Growing Instant Book and Improving the Mobile Experience
While Google’s Trips effort is fairly recent, TripAdvisor has been focused on the integrator question for a few years. This process began in June 2014, when TripAdvisor launched InstantBook to allow partners to move directly from reviews to reservations. InstantBook requires partnerships with reservation partners who hold hotel inventory, and recently the pace of partnerships has accelerated with the addition of Expedia and Hilton in Fall 2016 and Winter 2017. Additionally, TripAdvisor is focused on its mobile platform, recognizing there is a gap since in 2016 less than half of TripAdvisor’s traffic was on mobile. TripAdvisor earnings call on February 16, 2017, the very first question from the audience was about mobile, and CEO Stephen Kaufer admitted they were working on “improving the revenue per shopper on mobile”.
Will the strength of the TripAdvisor’s reviews and brand be enough to stave off competition from Google?
Takeaways and Conclusions
- Changing customer behavior is difficult
- Though the idea of an integrated travel experience makes sense, when I reflect on my travel planning and booking habits I still search across multiple travel sites, using review sites and blogs to research options and then going to both online travel agencies and direct to brand websites to book. I’ve tried to book on TripAdvisor and am always confused when I see multiple prices displayed for booking the same property – why not just offer me the single best price? Google Trips doesn’t even allow me the opportunity to book flights yet through the app and I’ve never trusted Google Reviews.
- Platforms need to find key partners in order to win
- Early on its InstantBook rollout, TripAdvisor signed Priceline’s Booking.com as a partner. It took 2 years for InstantBook to add Expedia, the other main online travel agency. It seems like it’s taking a long time to build partnerships but eventually travel brands are beginning to understand the value proposition and competitive value of having TripAdvisor break the oligopolistic market structure of online bookings being dominated by two companies, Priceline and Expedia. The Skift reported that “For Hilton, TripAdvisor Instant Booking is a way to attract incremental bookings at commission costs that are lower than it has to pay to online travel agencies such as Expedia and the Priceline Group.” (https://skift.com/2017/01/09/tripadvisor-holdout-hilton-joins-its-instant-booking-program/)
- Focus potentially allows TripAdvisor as small incumbent to compete with Google as a large disruptor
- TripAdvisor’s mobile app has 211 reviews and is rated 4 stars on the App Store. Google Trips has 30 reviews and is rated 3 stars.
- TripAdvisor is focused on solving the integration problem while for Google Trips is more likely viewed in a supporting role for the overall Google platform.
- With reviews of the Google Trips claiming it’s “buggy, glitchy, under supported” will Google actually emerge as a disruptor or will TripAdvisor be able to leverage its brand equity and focus to create the first end-to-end platform in travel that’s actually used by customers for the full travel experience?