How the rise of gatekeepers is disrupting the travel industry – and what to do about it

The way in which consumers access the online world is changing and fragmenting. From the domination of mobile and the proliferation of social networks to the rise of digital assistants, chatbots and voice search, users are increasingly carrying out their online activities through a range of new intermediaries.

This shift is having a profound impact on the travel industry, from the hotel and transport companies that sell directly to consumers to the ‘travel distribution’ market that encompasses brands like Expedia and Bookings.com, pulling in prices and listings from across the web and allowing consumers to compare them to find the best deal.

All of these companies are now facing a new wave of disruption from the rise of ‘gatekeepers’ like Google and Facebook, who are increasingly integrating the services that these companies provide directly into their interface, tailoring them and personalizing them to consumers.

This is great news for consumers, who benefit immensely in terms of convenience and ease of use, but terrible news for travel companies, who are losing traffic, data and opportunities for ad targeting to Google, Facebook et al.

So what forms is this disruption taking, how is it impacting consumers’ travel habits, and how can travel companies reinvent their online presence in order to survive?

Online booking vector concept

Who are the new travel gatekeepers?

Social media websites

Who in this day and age can go away on a trip without sharing the best shots from their expedition to Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat? Even the most infrequent users of social media will usually make an exception for a good vacation photo album. I myself almost never use Instagram unless I’m traveling, as it’s the only time that I have photographs I feel are interesting (and attractive) enough for the platform.

It’s also become common for travelers to share, or search for, other information, on social networks: social media has become a popular method of crowdsourcing recommendations from friends, and Facebook recently encouraged this tendency with the introduction of a dedicated tool for recommendations.

Any status update with the right word combination (such as “I’m looking for nightclubs in New York City”) will trigger the recommendations feature, and when a user responds with what Facebook detects as the name of a business or attraction, its Facebook Page will automatically be included in the comment – making it all the more important for businesses to make sure their Facebook presence is properly optimized.

Any hint of a negative experience will also instantly make its way to social media, prompting travel companies to step up their efforts in social media customer service in order to make sure they respond to complaints in a timely fashion and avert any possibility of negative brand impact.

The way we travel has become inextricably linked with social media, making it necessary for travel companies to be fully present on and up-to-date with major social networks or risk losing out on business and opportunities.

This has laid the groundwork for other, newer shifts in our travel behavior, as if we’re already accessing Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to conduct certain travel-related activities, it makes sense to use them as a platform for others as well.

Instant messaging & chatbots

Some believe that instant messaging is the natural future of customer engagement for travel companies, an extension of the existing trend towards social media customer service and the increasing amounts of time we spend using messaging apps of all kinds.

In the age of the internet, has the traditional travel agent died out, or just taken on a different form? Instant messaging has the potential to be as direct and personal as speaking to a customer service representative, while still managing to be faster and more convenient than using social media for customer service. As Malek Murison writes on Travelshift,

“If information was available as quickly as a response from a friend via a messaging service, plenty more would seek advice from travel agents.”

As an added bonus for travel brands, its closed-channel nature means customers can resolve their complaints without first broadcasting them to the entire online community. However, using instant messengers for customer engagement also means maintaining a presence on even more external platforms – like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and others.

Then there are chatbots. Many believe that chatbots are the next hot thing in customer interaction and engagement, while others say they’re wildly overhyped. But it hasn’t prevented a number of travel brands, including Expedia, Skyscanner, KLM and CheapFlights from experimenting with chatbots on Facebook Messenger.

The travel industry has a uniquely long sales funnel compared to other types of ecommerce: often consumers will set out without any clear idea of what they want to eventually purchase – hence the power of recommendations from friends and family. The complexity of booking different types of trip can also differ wildly, between something like a business trip or short weekend break versus a group vacation with friends or a bridal party traveling abroad.

Chatbots can help to simplify this process by simplifying and distilling the available options for users and giving them a single point of contact to deal with. But they also require travel companies to compete with one another to offer their services through yet another channel – one which belongs to a company like Facebook or Tencent.

Digital and voice assistants

Digital and voice assistants are a still-emerging trend, with much of what they could be capable of yet to be realized. But they are already making waves in the SEO industry as companies scramble to cater to the rise of voice search, and they have immense potential to revolutionize the process of booking travel.

We’ve all wished at one point that we could book our vacation with a simple voice command – “Buy me a flight to the Maldives. Book me a 5-star hotel.” Digital assistants like Siri, Alexa and Allo are on the verge of being able to make that a reality – but it comes with huge risks and potential disruption for the travel industry.

Much like chatbots, voice assistants give the user a single point of contact through which to book their trip, acting as their gateway to the world of travel. This vastly narrows down the options for which companies consumers can encounter and interact with using voice, and often relies on brands partnering with the likes of Amazon or Google to offer their services via Alexa and Home ‘skills’.

For example, Skyscanner, EasyJet, Expedia and Uber are all travel companies which have partnered with Amazon to offer their services through Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant, allowing users to book flights or call a cab through their Amazon Echo. But this severely narrows the field of choice down from dozens or even hundreds of possible services to just a handful of options for consumers.

Even when users are simply using voice to search the web (e.g. for travel information), the way in which voice search works tends to promote the idea of a single, definitive answer to a query, giving disproportionate emphasis to companies are able to earn a Featured Snippet or Quick Answer on Google or Bing.

What can travel companies do about the rise of gatekeepers?

Consumer behavior has changed, and will continue to change, whether travel companies like it or not – the only question remains how they should adapt to it. Much like when the world wide web and online purchasing began to change the travel industry in the 1990s, the travel companies who manage to get it right early on will stand to profit the most, and lead the way as trendsetters.

But should travel companies try to work with gatekeepers like Google and Facebook, or try to outcompete them? Neither seems like a particularly attractive option on the face of things.

Catering to the infrastructures that search engines and social networks have put in place – using their chatbot software and their platforms, and optimizing for their virtual assistants – might seem like the easier solution. But it means ceding a huge amount of insight and control over customer data and interactions, knowing that at any time, the companies who own the infrastructure could radically change the rules, choosing to charge for data that was previously freely available, or redesign their interface.

This is not unlike the battle that publishers have been locked into with Facebook, Google, Apple and others over their website traffic and publishing platforms – trying to decide whether to distribute content via each of their platforms for the sake of gaining readership, or retain control over what they publish and risk being condemned to irrelevance.

But the alternative is to try and out-compete mega-giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon, who already hold so much sway over users’ online browsing, social and shopping habits, as well as having access to vast resources and huge amounts of data. This can seem like an even more unthinkable task.

It’s not impossible, however. One advantage that companies which specialize in one type of task – like travel bookings, or job searches – have over a behemoth like Google is that they can concentrate on that one thing, and do it really, really well. Travel companies don’t need to be better than Google at everything that Google does – just at finding and selling consumers an attractive travel deal.

At a recent Content Marketing Association Digital Breakfast, Steven Kenwright of Branded3 pointed out that websites’ internal search engines can compete with Google if they have a good enough user experience. He used Skyscanner as an example of this, saying that “50 million people Google for flights on Skyscanner every month” – rather than on Google itself.

A graph showing interest over time for the Google search term “Cheap flights” versus “Skyscanner”

Bigger is better?

It may seem as though large travel companies have the advantage in all of this, as they’re the ones with the funds and resources, as well as the name recognition, to either successfully pivot to a new way of working, or to build an offering that can compete with the tech giants. As Dennis Schaal of Skift wrote of Expedia’s experiments with Amazon Echo,

“When it comes to new tech platforms and technologies such as voice-activated search with Amazon Alexa, the advantage, in the short term, goes to the big travel tech and marketing companies, because they have the engineering staff and other resources to address these disruptions.”

However, it’s important to remember that larger companies can also be weighed down by legacy systems which make it difficult to adapt very rapidly. Smaller companies and start-ups, on the other hand, have the flexibility to reposition themselves, and to specialize in doing one thing extremely well.

An excellent early case study of digital transformation in the travel industry is that of Southwest Airlines. Southwest was a small domestic airline that managed to blaze a trail in the digital world in the 1990s with a focus on customer satisfaction, and a pioneering format for booking tickets online – and is now the largest domestic airline in the USA.

There is also leeway for smaller companies to join forces in order to work around the gatekeepers. For example, there is a bevy of startups creating digital travel assistants which could rival the likes of Siri, Alexa, and Facebook Messenger chatbots by – again – being highly specialized, while also offering more autonomy and control to the brands who partner with them.

There have been successes on both sides. KLM Airlines made waves by allowing customers to request their boarding pass within Facebook Messenger, while Iceland Air went further in allowing them to book tickets. Meanwhile, Expedia is said to be developing its own AI-powered chat tool – alongside its existing integrations with Facebook Messenger and Amazon Echo.

Whether you ultimately decide to work with or against the gatekeepers, the biggest deciding factor will be the execution. If travel brands can provide a great user experience – particularly if they specialize in doing one thing really well – they stand a strong chance of competing regardless of how or where it’s delivered.

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