Google is Making a Move to Disrupt Travel, but That is Good News for Start-ups

Tnooz writes about how Google’s latest travel focused initiatives are causing problems for travel start-ups:

Google is leading the charge on phase four.

Some previously announced projects:

  • City Experts – Google is currently recruiting “Local Insiders” for their City Expert program. These individuals will “have access to fun, exclusive events. Free custom swag. Special online recognition”.
  • Field Trip – A location aware app that tells you interesting things as you walk around a city. Also acts as a geocoded travel blog aggregator with many travel blogs integrated). Give it a go. Hundreds of travel data providers are involved.
  • Helpouts – “Real help from real people in real time”. That’s the tips-from-a-local thing we constantly hear about.

So now Google has experts and a location aware app. Put those two together with its consumer facing traffic streams and you have a insurmountable combination.

For example, imagine you are in a city and you need advice. You could turn on your phone (or Google Glass spectacles), and immediately you are in live video contact with a local city expert. They answer you and you are satisfied.

Let’s face it, this is several travel startups that Google has wiped out, just there. In a flash.

Sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it?  I cannot tell you how many times I pitched PathWrangler to potential investors over the years and heard the question, “What happens if Google decides to get into your space?”  After considering the question, I’d usually say something like, “Well, a there are several options: 1) wet my pants, 2) get mad and write a nasty blog post, and 3) surround Larry Page’s house in the middle of the night with a row of 4×12 cabinets that would make Eddie Van Halen’s ears hurt and jam Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” until his relents and pulls the plug.   Unfortunately, these are all reactionary measures and would likely do little keep big bully Google from crushing my hopes and dreams.

So, what’s happening here?  Google has made some impressive moves here.  They are really good at solving problems that are similar to “boiling the ocean.”  The technology isn’t quite as important as the access to all the data and information that is being shared.   It remains to be seen if Google can gain adoption of these new products, but as we know, these tools are going to be cheap or free as they continue to allow ad-revenue from search to drive monetization.  Travel apps that are in this space have a lot of reason to worry.

Google is attacking an area of the travel tech industry that I think has been taking the easy road, specifically those that are driven by the algorithmic approach to trip planning.  In particular, during the Inspiration Phase.  On the other side are the travel agents who continue to see technology as a competitor to their long-held beliefs that travel is personal and needs live humans see another wave of 1’s and 0’s coming at them.

About a year ago, I wrote a post “Why Tech Companies Suck at Adventure Travel.”   The focus was on how travel tech companies were so heavily focused on automation, that they were in danger of commoditizing a product that travelers want to be far more personalized.  The data backs it up.  The ATTA just released new market research that shows the experiential travel market booming with a growth rate of 65% annually since 2009 to $263 billion.  Because of that, companies that provide travel services such as operators and agents are growing.  However, they’ve greatly lagged behind in adopting technology and view companies with suspicion and fear that they’re going to be put out of business.

The key for travel tech companies who want to compete with Google, while also building a sustainable business model are ones that find a way to humanize their technology.  This doesn’t mean a super advanced algorithm that “acts human.”  It has to automate the parts of travel that don’t require humans, but provides a deeper human touch with the ones who are ultimately the ones responsible for providing travelers with personalized experiences.  The art in solving these ongoing problems is in trying to figure out exactly which is which.  Technology is doing a great job at dividing up the commoditized areas of travel from the personalized ones and there are $263 billion reasons that we can expect the human side of the business to continue and flourish.

The low hanging fruit has been picked.  Tech companies need to shift and find ways to provide value on this side of the equation.  Until, of course, Google starts building clones made from the DNA of Edmund Hillary, Ernest Shackleton and Jacques Cousteau.  Then we’re all in deep trouble.

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