How Google Can Help Simplify Online Travel Planning

Travel planning is currently a red hot segment for online travel startups.  Many are presenting innovative solutions to address a complex challenge.  Clever third generation sites like Gliider, NileGuide Traxo, TripIt, Tripware, YourTour, and Zoombu all take very different approaches to creating, organizing and sharing trip itineraries.

Travel Planning Adventure

photo credit: dionhinchcliffe

A nightmare for online travel planning - the dreaded multi-modal, multi-stop, open jaw, tertiary market, group adventure

Ranging from clipping potential travel options or collecting booked trip components from supplier frequent traveler accounts, to starting with a single trip component, or assembling complete end-to-end sequences, these groups have all realized that managing travel itineraries is an excellent method to:

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  1. Engage the traveler,
  2. Monetize that relationship across multiple suppliers and distribution channels, and
  3. Avoid the investment, interfacing and operating expense associated with booking reservations, processing payments or managing customer care

In addition to the firms above, a gaggle of small teams around the globe are seeking benevolent angel investors with between $500 thousand and $3.5 million in seed funding so their projects can get an opportunity to grow beyond the proof of concept stage. Some are involved in the drive market, others targeting the train & ferries niche, but all are trying to streamline travel planning – increasing transparency and relevance, while reducing the number of steps and touch points.

At the other end of the spectrum looms Google, controlling 70%+ share of US search traffic. While search engines are used more than 50% of the time under nearly every travel planning scenario, travelers are currently sent off to explore a fragmented myriad of sites and options. The ability to efficiently organize and align relevant airline, hotel, car rental, ground transport and activities for travelers into an optimal itinerary represents the holy grail for travel planning. Google is very well positioned to play an important role and simplify the process.

In this, the fourth installment in a series covering How Google Can Help Revolutionize Online Travel, the focus is travel planning innovation as a holistic process; with travelers and professional travel planners attempting to ensure that all arrangements are made to ensure the highest quality and most trouble-free travel experience.  Google can play an important role in resolving challenges confronting the travel planning process by providing tools that can better organize trips for groups or individuals, improve accuracy of travel experience customer expectations and provide highly targeted promotional opportunities for travel sellers throughout a door-to-door itinerary. 

Travel planning challenges facing consumers, as well as travel agents and meeting planners, include creating complete or complex travel itineraries such as:

  * multi-stop or open-jaw air travel
  * multi-modal transport
  * hotel stays or car rental periods that do not align with airline arrival/departure patterns
  * group travelers with different origins or date variations

These challenges become even more pronounced online, as travel website designers typically plan the most efficient navigation methods for the most basic travel booking processes. Tools supporting more complex travel plans typically get deferred to later phases of the product plan. Unfortunately, this postponement can frequently result in difficult ROI analyses for a stand-alone enhancement solving a niche market issue. For this reason, some advanced itinerary planning tools on product roadmaps never make the product plan and remain in an evaluation phase indefinitely. Without a benchmark comparison for complex itineraries, it is very difficult to accurately project the benefit of further enabling traveler choice and flexibility.

For the consumer, complex itineraries often represent insurmountable obstacles. Those confused in the process may select an alternate destination or simply choose not to travel. In the worst-case, they may travel, unaware of errors made in the planning process; encountering wasted time, overspending and reduced satisfaction when the problem surfaces. Many of these errors are avoidable, but with limited prior travel experience, these consumers often vent frustration on the travel suppliers, desperately seeking resolution. Social media sites are littered with low ratings and complaints about issues that may be unrelated to the supplier under review. Much of this wasted energy results directly from planning errors, not actual service or product shortcomings.

Many enlightened consumers seek guidance from professional travel agents, who provide tremendous value in working through challenging travel plans. This is most often an incredibly wise choice. However, these travel agents also need access to tools that will allow them to spend less time building itineraries and more time efficiently cross-selling travel products that will enrich the travel experience.

Details regarding inventory availability and pricing will be covered in a future post addressing how Google can help improve the booking process. Creating a workable itinerary framework by sequencing essential aspects of the trip and associated geographic proximity represents a significant challenge. Google offers several existing tools that support more efficient travel itinerary planning for individuals and groups. Each of these could also be enhanced or integrated with other Google tools to help travelers better organize trips:

Google Travel Planning Tools

Web Search Features
What it does: The only special web search feature currently provided for the travel industry is for airline searches. For example, entering “Chicago LAX 12/1 Dec 8? into the standard Google search box will return a structured response above the organic listings titled “Flights from Chicago, IL to Los Angeles, CA,” followed by text hyperlinks to seven online travel agencies.
What it can do: This functionality has been in place for several years, surprisingly, without AdWords-enabled paid search responses promoting carriers with service and/or special promotions between the city pairs over the specific dates. While interactive inventory and pricing queries would be a challenge while sustaining the sub-0.5 second response times targeted by Google, the deep linking opportunities based on the initial search query are considerable, especially if users could opt-in to expose certain profile data like frequent flyer relationships. Additional Web Search Features for car rental, hotels and attractions would also be beneficial.

Maps / Local Search
What it does: Google Maps provides the foundation for Google Local Search and all location based advertising and travel applications. Driving (and walking) directions, street views and satellite views help clarify navigation processes. Business pages aggregate content provided by the business owner with content captured from around web including property details, photos, reviews, web pages and user content.
What it can do: By continuing to enhance the content available on local business pages, guests may be able to have a more relevant and informative travel planning experience when compared to many hotel websites. By including content provided by a breadth of expert sources, Wikipedia and user generated content, the Google Maps / Local Search pages may be deemed to be more neutral and credible than supplier or online travel agency websites. Including videos and links to reservation service options would further enhance page utility.

Earth
What it does: Google Earth is Google Maps on steroids. Google Earth lets users explore the world, including a rich database of geocoded textual descriptions, photos, virtual street views, 3-D buildings and videos, including Google Local Search content.
What it can do: Already incorporating text, audio and video annotation through support for the open standard KML programming language, the development of more sophisticated gadgets and map overlays can provide more immersive experiences that can be recorded and replayed. Highly engaging destination guides may be prepared to visually communicate a travel itinerary, including the relative position of hotels, airports, and train stations from restaurants, attractions and points of interest. By integrating video and social media into a location-based construct, these guides can provide invaluable reassurance for individuals and groups planning trips to new destinations or seeking experiences beyond their normal comfort zones.

City Tours
What it does: Building upon the mapping and walking directions capabilities of Google Maps with business / attraction information from Google Local Search, City Tours allows travelers to identify points of interest and plan a sequenced itinerary for multi-day trips. Incorporating stay durations and attraction sequencing, City Tours also presents hours of operation. As stops are added, the schedule and walking times are automatically updated.
What it can do: One can easily envision more robust search capabilities with drag & drop capability to streamline the user interface. Current functionality can also be enhanced significantly by Adwords to create highly targeted date, location & profile sensitive advertising opportunities so any seller of travel related goods or services can potentially turn “point of planning” into “point of sale” as a detailed itineraries are being created. Adding different modes of transportation (car/taxi, mass transit, etc.) would also enable more realistic planning for larger and less foot-friendly destinations. Additionally, integration with consumer generated ratings and reviews through Google Local Search can help travelers identify relevant points of interest, dining options or attractions based on their interests and time availability. Ultimately, by further extending the platform to support multiple cities with flight, rail or driving directions, Google can turn City Tours into a powerful itinerary planning tool that touches all aspects of a multi-modal door-to-door travel itinerary, complete with end-to-end advertising opportunities for travel sellers.

Calendar
What it does: Google Calendar allows consumers to organize and share schedules, but also allows travel sellers to share and publish events and calendars on their website. Customized buttons or integration with Google Docs enables downloading of an organization’s calendars and events to individual user’s Google Calendars.
What it can do: If Google integrates the functionality provided by City Tours with Google Calendar, planning for both leisure and business travelers could be enhanced, especially for group bookings. Not only can Google Calendar be used to publish and share group events, but customized meeting tracks, spouse programs or optional workshops / tours may be more efficiently planned, particularly if multiple venues are involved.

Groups
What it does: Google Groups is a service that supports discussion groups and allows group members to participate through a web interface or by e-mail. Any group member can contribute, comment or view any topic through threaded conversations. The Google tutorial uses the travel-related scenario of planning a reunion, offering examples of budget preparation, site selection and collaboration through group member generated content.
What it can do: Group event planning may be simplified by using Google Groups, particularly those requiring board or committee input in the planning process. Google Docs is suported for collaboration and sharing of word processing, spreadsheets or presentations. Organizations using Google Apps can enhance group collaboration by adding mobile e-mail, calendar and instant messaging access. Google Groups can also benefit individual travelers. One can also envision Google Groups being used by destination resorts in a manner similar to the Cruise Critic Message Boards where guests staying during specific time frames can share recommendations, coordinate excursions, and gain insight into methods to enrich their vacation.

Wave
What it does: Google Wave revolutionizes the functionality provided by Google Groups and creates a shared, real-time collaboration platform that facilitates conversations with richly formatted documents including text, photos, videos, and maps. Waves are also programmable; they can incorporate robots or gadgets and may even be sequentially replayed – even after extensive editing by multiple collaborators.
What it can do: For travel, Google Wave can provide a completely new way for travel agents or meeting planners to engage clients and collaborate on travel planning activities. By allowing the travelers or decision makers to review, edit and contribute interactively in the planning process, a new degree of clarity will exist, enabling more opportunities to upsell and cross-sell throughout the process. The platform can also revolutionize group travel planning by streamlining progressive edits and decisions among the group leaders, travel planners and the travelers.

Moving Forward

Integrated itinerary management tools are a fundamental requirement to advance the travel planning process and build upon the foundation provided by the existing tool set. A previous installment in this series that looked at Google’s potential impact on the Travel Research phase, recommended that Google provide more highly personalized travel search results. This would be accomplished by adopting a more persona-based search process that addresses the multiple personas each traveler possesses based on the trip purpose. This functionality can efficiently bridge the more general process of researching potential travel options with the more detailed task of itinerary planning. As a result, travel planning can structurally become not only more highly personalized, but also more itinerary-centric.

Managing the daunting number of options available for an end-to-end trip remains a huge travel planning challenge. Selecting wisely among code-sharing air carriers offering multiple departure times and connections through several airports is only the beginning. Hundreds of hotels spanning quality levels with highly variable service levels across a wide range of locations add complexity. Then a traveler may consider destination parking and traffic – would a rental car make more sense than taxis or public transportation? Even before the plane departs, the consumer must evaluate whether airport parking, shared ride or a limo provides the best value in terms of time, comfort and convenience. At this point, the fundamental trip purpose has been overshadowed by logistics. Adding meals, entertainment and for leisure travelers, sightseeing tours or visits to attractions creates an organizational nightmare.

Two brave start-ups Zoombu (currently in invitation-only private beta) and Scopia (currently in invitation-only private alpha) are attacking the multi-modal, door-to-door travel experience. I sincerely hope they both succeed. One can’t help but admire companies with a clear vision of the end-state that avoid the easier of path of iterative marginal improvements.

One key to successful online travel itinerary planning is defining mandatory trip attributes and their timing. This establishes the ground rules governing the trip. A more rules-based approach to travel planning can provide a superior platform to enable travel planning tools that integrate more smoothly with other phases of the travel process.

Currently, online travel agencies and meta-search sites tends to execute wide based searches and present every possible alternative for the traveler to review. In many cases, flights with inappropriate travel times or durations, hotels with undesirable star-ratings or improperly sized rental cars must be subsequently filtered out by the traveler. As many have hypothesized that the killer travel planning application would return a single “best choice” solution for the traveler, there must be rules either explicitly defined (or systematically deduced) to ensure unsuitable alternatives are discarded and the best selections prioritized.

A decade ago, Sabre Business Travel Solutions introduced a one-click car booking process. The traveler profile identified the management tier, so a mid-level manager checking the “Car” box would automatically be confirmed for an intermediate car from a preferred supplier if the pricing was within corporate guidelines. The rules governing rental car selection were relatively simple. A destination wedding with 75 attending? That’s a whole different degree of complexity at this point…

Even as the evolution toward Web 3.0 brings more semantic web technologies, providing the single best travel itinerary for a complex trip may not become a reality until Web 4.0, if then. Fortunately, innovative new tools able to provide highly relevant alternatives that are best suited to the travel party, trip purpose, season, and destination could be available much sooner.

Once all the “must-have” components required to anchor a complex trip plan can be defined and sequenced, the remaining, less critical “nice-to-have” options may be evaluated. This process becomes even more efficient if a trip purpose is identified and aligned with a rich travel persona. Once a travel persona is introduced, collaborative filtering techniques applied against social media ratings can translate various options into prioritized recommendations. This process is possible using Web 2.0 technologies, but the innovation and paradigm shift required to have consumers identify travel personas and/or itinerary rules prior to executing travel searches has not yet occurred.

Travel personas and basic itinerary rules alone are not sufficient to generate a single best result for a travel plan. Another critical consideration – hard & soft filtering – is necessary to provide a highly personalized and efficient travel plan that contemplates the trade-offs that may be required to solve potential proximity, time, budget or product quality/content conflicts. This filtering process represents the secret sauce for simplifying the travel planning process and sets the stage for creating the most relevant, actionable itineraries.

Hard filters are used today by a wide variety of websites. Check boxes, multi-selection lists and Kayak’s graduated filters (those slider-things) are the best examples. They work a lot like light switches: For any parameter, if the comparison returns “False” as a result, the subject product is eliminated from the list. The slider is a nice enhancement – it allows the traveler to set a range within minimum / maximum boundaries. While this capability is now featured on most best-practices lists for travel user interfaces, it still requires the user to engage in an iterative process when compromises are required. Hard filters adequately cover unilateral “Require / Exclude” criteria, but experienced travelers understand that making minor compromises can sometimes yield exceptional values.

Soft filters address the “Nice to Have” features that are either desirable, or perhaps only tolerable, depending on the bundle of other features and attributes for a product or itinerary.

A good example would be a family of three seeking a 4-star hotel in Midtown Manhattan with two double beds and a swimming pool on a $300 per night budget for a weekend stay. If the only available 4-star hotels with pools are:

  • Le Parker Meridien in Midtown (2 double beds) at $419 per night [too expensive]
  • The Empire on the Upper West Side (1 queen bed) at $280 per night [wrong bed type]
  • Millennium Hilton Downtown on Church Street (2 double beds) at $259 per night [poor location]

the travel party will need determine what facet of their request will require compromise.

However, if the star-rating and swimming pool were soft filtered, the family might also see the following alternatives listed:

  • 4-star Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers (2 double beds) at $255 per night [no pool]
  • 3-star Holiday Inn Midtown (2 double beds) at $192 per night [lower star rating]

If all of the criteria were hard filtered, none of the above alternatives would have been listed in the search results.

The family’s decision is very personal and does not necessarily lend itself to an empirical analysis. They could just as easily elect to surpass their budget by 40% to stay at Le Meridien or decide to save 36% and step down to a 3-star property. Of course, if this stay with Hilton would qualify a parent for Diamond-tier HHonors status, they could elect to stay Downtown. In this example, the interaction of the hard and soft filters juxtaposes location, quality, features, bed type, brand and price. The ultimate decision is highly personal, but based on history with similar decisions over time framed by an individual’s trip-type travel persona, either experiential analysis or collaborative filtering could help to isolate a choice that would have the highest probability of being selected.

By enabling data to be captured in a structure that reveals multiple travel personas and trip-centric preferences, as Web 3.0 emerges the promise of a semantic environment, enhanced profile information will provide valuable context for future travel product recommendations.

By continuing to enhance the geo-functionality associated with Google Maps, Earth & Local Search, as well as update the Calendar, Groups and Wave platforms with more travel-supportive capabilities, Google can substantially improve and simplify online (and offline) travel planning. Additionally, Google Profiles can be extended to support trip-centric travel personas. Associating those advanced profiles with additional travel-related Web Search Features with customizable hard & soft filtering rules will advance the ability to provide more highly targeted travel search results and context sensitive advertising. Finally, by enhancing the functionality of City Tours to support drag & drop sequencing, various transport modes and multiple destinations, Google can move closer to providing an end-to-end travel itinerary.

BREAKING: Earlier today, Google Friend Connect was upgraded to incorporate customized interests that enable a higher degree of personalization. This personalization will be exposed to allow AdSense to match ad units more precisely with site content and personal preferences.

The next installment in this series will focus on the fifth step of the seven-step travel process: Validating.

Google provides many tools that contribute additional value to most phases of the online travel experience

[Note: This is the fourth of eight articles contemplating how Google can help revolutionize online travel by improving the organization and accessibility of hospitality, travel and tourism related information. The radical democratization of travel information, a process Google has initiated through its search and advertising technologies, can increase commerce throughout the travel industry by fostering fair competition among hotels, airlines, destinations, attractions, and online travel companies - regardless of size or geography. - RKC]

Background:

Why Google Will Radically Democratize Online Travel

Other articles in the series:
How Google Can Help Revolutionize Online Travel (part 1)
How Google Can Help Facilitate Travel Inspiration (part 2)
How Google Can Help Enhance Online Travel Research (part 3)

Related posts:

  1. How Google Can Help Revolutionize Online Travel
  2. How Google Can Help Enhance Online Travel Research
  3. How Google Can Help Facilitate Travel Inspiration