Google on social, new travel business models and mobile

We managed to grab some time recently with Ali Yilmaz, travel head for South East Asia at Google.
Here follows a Q&A with Yilmaz about various issues including consumer buying patterns and changes, social media and innovation around the travel industry.


What are the most significant shift in travel consumers’ demands and online behaviour? How should travel companies react?

Travel consumers’ demands and online behaviours started to change long before the downturn. The internet was itself a very significant turning point in the travel industry; it was a traveller’s ‘dream’ come true on the computer screen. What we have seen in the recent years is a faster shift towards online and a variety of technologies emerging within.

Travellers’s online behaviours are changing every other day; 20% of all searches in the first 90 days of 2010 were never seen on Google before. Billions of searches were done and still, people find new ways of searching. On the other hand, consumers are adapting mobile technologies rapidly. In 2010, one in four internet minutes were on mobile. In two years, mobile internet users are expected to surpass desktop internet users and in four years time mobile searches are expected to surpass desktop searches.

Travel companies should closely monitor these changes in technology and consumer behaviour, and act quickly. There used to be a time when we were reluctant with new technology and therefore some preferred the “lets wait and see” strategy. Unfortunately we don’t have the time to “wait and see” anymore, it is time to adapt “as quick as possible”.

2010 was a year of disruptive new trends with the emergence of flash sales, the travel auction model and the concept of “social buying” – which, if any, do you think presents the greatest opportunity for growth in 2011?

As long as enterpreneurship lives, there will always be new trends and new opitons for the traveller. These will help make a traveller’s buying process more interactive and offer more choices. Before the internet, friends and family were the biggest single source for travel research and decision. With the Internet, people had the chance to take the matter in their own hands; they had enough material to search through and had more than a few opinions to help them decide. Today, with the information overload, travellers have to decide among tens or hundreds of choices and read tens of reviews for every choice, so it became time consuming. Oh by the way, after going through a few bad experiences as a result of trusting online reviews, now they are even more confused. Who will they trust? I believe this is where social buying is coming into the picture and after searching, travellers will turn to their own social circle to get suggestions from the people with similar taste. This is actually the convergence of how people searched before and after the Internet. The only difference is the convenience of social networks over phone books.

Is social media overhyped? Should the emphasis be on engagement or transactional ROI?

New trends always attract more attention. How these technologies should be used to interact with the consumer is a different story. I think it is rather an “‘and/or” approach than an “either/or” approach. Engagement and transaction can exist together. Many people love to intertact with the brands they admire and it definitely affects the buying cycle.  This engagement can be through display advertising, video sites, social networks, microblogging, location based media or mobile apps. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this and the best way to see is to experiment. Some of these may work very well for certain industries and some may not. Companies should decide to what extent they want to engage with their customers and then try different combinations of these to see which works and which doesn’t.

In your opinion, which game-changing technologies do you predict will re-define the online travel space in the next few years to come and why?

It is becoming harder and harder to make predictions for the long term. New channels of doing business and reaching out to the customers will always keep coming but the game-changing technology for the foreseeable future I believe is the mobile. As mobile devices get smarter and as people get used to doing busines on the move, companies will need to adjust to this technology. This is not a prediction, it is already happening, so they’d better hurry up.

Which travel companies do you most admire/envy?

Rather then giving a name, let me put it this way; any travel company that is innovating for the good of the customer and embracing new technologies right away has a seat reserved in my admired companies list.

NB: This is a guest article by Marco Saio, global events director at EyeforTravel.

NB2: Yilmaz is scheduled to speak at the Travel Distribution Summit Asia 2011, to be held in Singapore on May 18-19th 2011.

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