Why search for travel on one site when you can search a bunch all at once? That’s the concept behind travel metasearch companies, which take your query for a hotel in Paris, for example, and give you the chance to book it across multiple sites.
Skift had the leaders of several metasearch companies speak in April at Skift Forum Europe in London. They included Trivago managing director Johannes Thomas, Kayak co-founder and CEO Steve Hafner, Momondo Group CEO Hugo Burge, and Skyscanner co-founder and CEO Gareth Williams.
Each of those executives also sat down with News Editor and podcast host Hannah Sampson behind the scenes in the Skift Take Studio.
The companies all had newsy developments recently: Trivago went public late last year, Kayak parent company Priceline Group announced plans to buy Momondo Group earlier this year, and Chinese travel firm Ctrip acquired Skyscanner at the end of 2016 for more than $1.7 billion dollars.
Our discussions were wide-ranging and touched on advertising strategies, competition in the metasearch space, evolving customer behavior, the emergence of natural language and voice search, and how to get users to love the product.
This mini-episode is one of several conversations we’re bringing you from backstage at Skift Forum Europe.
Here are five takeaways from the conversation:
Trivago TV Advertising Strategy Based on Data
In its earliest days, Trivago, which was founded in 2005, was 90 percent dependent on Google for organic traffic and wanted to diversify to put less reliance on a single outlet. Today, the hotel-search site focuses a lot on TV advertising and also does digital marketing. The company selects their Trivago guys and women actors to match the local market. In Japan, for example, the Trivago woman is of European descent and speaks fluent Japanese.
It is easy to track performance in digital marketing but Trivago also does lots of testing of TV advertising and has used data to fine-tune its approach in each market.
“From the beginning, we have been extremely data driven [in] how we do things because you could be easily spending a hundred million on TV,” said Thomas. “The big question is, how much is coming back? Is 20 cents a euro coming back? 40 cents?”
“If you remember the first spots about that Trivago guy, it was low-budget on all ends basically. It still turned out to work very well. We had very good response. I think the format we changed, our spots became less emotional, but more explanatory, educational,” said Thomas. “We build everything in-house. We buy media in-house. We produce our spots in-house.”
That being said, putting a spokesperson on TV isn’t for everyone.
“We don’t employ a spokesperson, which I think is the right way to go,” said Kayak’s Hafner. “It allows us to customize our marketing by market. God forbid that guy ever does something he shouldn’t be doing. It would impact the Trivago brand… We spend a tremendous amount of money on marketing. Not Trivago-like levels, but very close to it.”
“Their strategy is much more about marketing and advertising. Ours starts with building a great product first,” said Hafner.
Momondo’s Burge echoed that sentiment: “UX (user experience) is at the core of what we do. We really focus on making a beautiful user experience and put advertising and forms of monetization second.”
Qualitative Data on Users and Hotels Is Golden
Being able to personalize hotels to users, who can be leisure travelings taking a trip with family at one moment and a business traveler heading solo to an important meeting another day is a key problem that no one has solved yet.
Using qualitative data to pinpoint the best hotel for each traveler is the elusive holy grail. There might be just a brief moment in which to make the right hotel suggestion to capture that customer.
Trivago, for example, analyzes and profiles hotels and users as much as possible to refine its search results.
“When you ask your bot, your voice search, ‘Trivago, find me a hotel in London close to Piccadilly Circus and I would love to have great breakfast,’ or whatever,” said Thomas, citing one scenario. “Converting this into meaningful results, in terms of showing you the right hotel, you only have very little space to show. We need to give you the right hotel in this moment,” said Thomas.
Rival TripAdvisor likewise touts its abilities in this area. TripAdvisor’s current tagline is: “Find the lowest price on the right hotel for you.”
Metasearch Is All About Streamlining
The whole purpose of metasearch is to lift the burden of comparison shopping by having one website sort through a mass of information scattered across the Internet. But if the metasearch site doesn’t present its tailored findings in an easy-to-skim manner, the effort is wasted.
“The first thing is you have to present the consumer a comprehensive list of options, right?” said Kayak’s Hafner. “You have to actually do the work to go search everything. You have to make sure that it’s comprehensive, it’s accurate, and it’s available to book.
“The second thing you have to do is you have to present the goods to the consumer… Your store itself has to be well-organized, well-designed. You don’t want to walk into a mall and see everything. It’s overwhelming.”
Burge of Momondo, which would become part of the Priceline Group and Kayak if regulators approve the deal, said comprehensiveness is vital.
“The beauty of metasearch is that it gives the most comprehensive view possible of the marketplace. One of the first things that we do is put value proposition first. We make sure that we work with the broadest range of providers and offer the broadest range of content,” said Burge.
There’s Still Room for Differentiation
The growing quantity of travel metasearch sites can be seen just by looking around the room at Skift Global Forum. But metasearch is also now a standard method of shopping, so these sites must find their niches, and those niches do exist.
“A lot of what is differentiating is which markets you focus on. I think if you try to focus on markets with our other big players, I think it’s much harder,” said Burge. “Momondo showed us that there are overlooked markets in the Nordics and Scandinavia that, while small individually, could add up to be a very material business.”
“What blew us away was that over 200 million people watched a five-minute video,” said Burge. “It was shared in enormous amounts. I think it really did resonate. I think it’s a powerful message, but it’s an even more powerful message in the face of disturbing populism, and antagonism, and heated political debate around division… we were really proud of the fact that we were able to create that out of a time of uncertainty and discord,” said Burge. “Purpose-driven companies are the way forward.”
Voice Recognition Is Doable But Better Data Needed
Voice recognition is available today, but there’s a big difference between a device understanding spoken words and a device making lots of accurate, instant, useful calculations.
“The technology’s there now to definitely do it. There’s no question that you can do a pretty good job, a very good job, of interpreting travel queries,” said Skyscanner’s Williams.
“The difficulty is, do you have the data in the format that’s needed to answer the question? If I say ‘a holiday somewhere hot,’ you can’t drill down by country. North of France is cold and South of France is hot. You have to be able to drill, partition the data in a way that makes sense to the query. I think that will be the main source of the challenge.”
Hafner agreed that we’re still a few steps away from voice search being fully embraced. He said a customer might might “to find a cheap flight to Paris for less than $300 from Nice,” and then might she or he might keep adding details “with a spoken voice.”
“That takes a lot of computing power to actually figure out the right answer for you. That’s why more data helps,” said Hafner.
And then there are some really futuristic ideas that go beyond voice recognition into something that feels like sci-fi.
“I read something in the paper that are temporary tattoos with electronics built in, so that you could make gestures on your forearm to control a computing interface,” said Williams.