I’ve been in the tourism industry for more than two decades. In 20+ years in the biz, I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. (If you haven’t – you’re doing something wrong. There’s no reward without risk.) “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” ~ TS Elliot
But what do I consider my biggest faux pas? Not doing enough to protect my destination marketing clients and comrades from the emergence of Online Travel Agents (OTAs). And now Google is making moves to become the ultimate OTA, which means major changes are afoot (more on that later).
So here’s some background with OTAs. Back in the day, SABRE was the software used to book travel, but it was available only to travel providers (airlines, hotels, etc.) and travel agents. Come the late 90s, post dotcom bust and pre 9/11, OTAs got access to SABRE and started making moves to initiate what many in the industry saw as a war on brand and inventory control in tourism. In many ways it felt like OTAs were trying to displace DMOs altogether.
Fast forward to 2004, and I was hopping mad in defense of CVB’s, knowing that both bed tax numbers and official information sources could potentially be threatened by the power of OTAs. A small interest group and a handful of clients joined in this discussion, but unfortunately, it was a late and futile effort to stop the wheels of change.
Of course, the silver lining is the fact that consumer loyalty to the OTAs does increase occupancy and defend the health of many destinations. So there’s that.
Two weeks ago, Google announced its entrance into the world of OTAs. One word: OOF. Hold on to your britches! Just by the announcement alone, we’re three years too late to the party. What Google does best is dominate. And we can probably expect the same to happen with their travel efforts.
But, with some swift understanding of this change and the benefit of historical hindsight, DMOs can gain individual and collective opportunity to supremely benefit from the inevitability of Google providing “travel guides” and “reviews”. In other words, this can help the tourism industry more than hurt us, if we play our cards right.
Here are my recommendations for DMOs:
Recognize the Change.
The private industry is not interested in your civic duty, your board or your last award-winning campaign. They want your travelers’ money. That’s it. By establishing themselves as THE #1 search and technology firm in the world, the industries Google chooses to interrupt are just passive observers in their own demise.
Let’s switch to the travelers’ perspective, for a moment. 85% of them are using the Internet to research and book travel (source: eMarketer, 2013). 55% of those are using mobile to do so. 97% use search first. And, where do they go? Google. If Google can serve information and purchasing in three clicks, what are the chances these travelers will ever see your website/blog/social media?
Now, our OTA brothers and sisters have their own battle to fight, and they have billions riding on it. I gave my advice in an open letter to Travelocity, here.
But, for you, DMO – you have a whole war to win. What are you going to do when the numbers you’ve relied on to report effectiveness disappear or drop like so many hot potatoes?
My mentor taught me an important strategy when faced with any challenge: always lead with a yes. “Why, yes, Google, we absolutely appreciate your willingness and competency to serve the travel industry.”
Be proactive. Make friends. Talk to a Google rep and ask what booking technology is available for your area. Explore partnership opportunities on the hyper-local level, and work on getting in front of the change as much as possible.
Large DMO leaders and state travel directors should start an open conversation. Unite and infiltrate!
Use Your Muscle.
You’ve survived worse. Breathe and find your strength. Let me paint a picture for you: let’s say there are 20,000 destinations in the U.S., bookable online. For giggles, let’s assume each of you sees a minimum of 10K users/month on your website. That’s 200 million travelers per month interested in YOUR destination’s pitch first. That’s 2.5 BILLION potential buyers every year that you control.
Using shrewd negotiation, destinations could pitch their role as a distribution network to Google. That would redefine the impending traveler interruption strategy already in play.
Spread the Wealth
As you sit back and watch your hard-earned digital strategy threatened with oblivion, it’s time to band together. I’m all about competitive marketing, but in this case you can only win by joining forces. To tip the scales and defend your castle, the industry needs to reinvent DMOs online. Create an action committee or a think tank on a regional, niche or state level and share unique ideas that will surely shape the future of doing business online. Then, act on them.
About the Author:
Jennifer Barbee is CEO of Jennifer Barbee, Inc. and Editor-in-Chief of TravelMarketInsider.com. In 2013, she was named the Stevie© Silver Female Entrepreneur of the Year in Advertising, Media and PR for North America and Europe. She is a frequent speaker and advocate of DMOs.