This weekend, F1 fans can expect a visually enthralling experience, as custom real-time content tracks across the world’s largest LED screen of the Sphere, as part of the official broadcast for the Las Vegas Grand Prix.
In the lead-up to the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, a highlight of the 2023 Formula One World Championship, Race Week commenced on Wednesday with The Netflix Cup, marking the first live-cued content on the Exosphere, the 1.2 million LED lights on the exterior of the Sphere. This Saturday’s race will continue to see exclusive Sphere Studios content for the race.
Located along the race track, Sphere’s Exosphere will offer unique viewing angles, including an aerial perspective, ensuring an immersive experience for millions of F1 enthusiasts worldwide.
However, as a precautionary measure for drivers, race organizers have reportedly banned red, yellow, and blue from appearing across the Sphere’s exterior. These colors have been identified as distracting for drivers. It is not ideal for Google, whose logo features those exact colors, but the ban applies explicitly while the race is in action.
The integration of technology, sports, and marketing on such a grand scale is set to redefine the Grand Prix experience, according to Joel Fisher, Executive Vice President of Marquee Events and Operations for MSG Entertainment.
Beyond the color block across the 1.2 million LED lights on the exterior of the Sphere, all 20 drivers and their cars will be showcased, along with F1 helmets, creating a backdrop for fan photos. Fans can also look forward to seeing themselves featured on this gigantic screen, according to the organizers.
“This is the inaugural year for both Sphere and the Grand Prix in Las Vegas. We are ready to showcase Sphere to our global audience via F1 – both in person in Las Vegas and watching around the world – demonstrating the unparalleled technological and creative capabilities of the Exosphere,” said Fisher.
Six Flags said Tuesday that it plans to release generative AI tools in partnership with Google Cloud.
The project includes tools meant to enhance visitor experiences and optimize business operations.
The plan is to release AI chatbots on updated versions of the Six Flags mobile app and park websites later this year. Powered by Google Cloud’s Vertex AI Conversation, the company said the virtual assistants will provide personalized recommendations and answer questions as visitors plan their trips, meant to reduce the need for interaction with live agents.
“This partnership signifies a monumental leap in our strategic direction, ushering in a new era of technological empowerment for Six Flags,” said Omar Jacques Omran, chief digital officer of Six Flags, in a statement. “With Google Cloud’s technology, we are committed to not only enhancing park operations, but also creating unparalleled, personalized guest experiences. We will bring an increased level of agility and responsiveness to our operations, redefining the way we serve our guests and setting new benchmarks in the amusement park industry.”
Thomas Kurian, CEO of Google Cloud, added in a statement: “By ingesting and synthesizing information across Six Flags’ extensive park portfolio, generative AI will enable the theme park operator to redefine guest experiences, providing more personalized information about rides, entertainment, dining and more.”
The majority of generative AI partnerships in the travel industry have been with OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT.
Priceline released a tool in partnership with Google Cloud in July. And eDreams Odigeo said in May that it would be partnering with Google Cloud to integrate generative AI into its own technology.
Though generative AI technology is still in early stages, executives of many large travel companies have said they see the potential for disruption and are working on implementing it into their businesses.
Google is starting to release the chatbot Bard, its rival to ChatGPT.
Google made the announcement Tuesday morning in a blog post. Users in the U.S. and the U.K. can join a waitlist for access. The platform will be expanded to other countries and languages later.
Both platforms are powered by generative AI, a model that enables the technology to provide new, original answers in response to a prompt. The technology has big implications for the travel industry, starting with travel planning and marketing. Booking platforms, like Booking.com and Expedia, are among other travel companies exploring how the technology can be used to power the future of travel planning and booking.
The blog described Bard as “an experiment,” and the next step in the process is to gather user feedback.
According to the post, the chatbot appears to operate similarly to ChatGPT, except that it responds to prompts with more than one answer. Bard is connected to Google search, so users can search for items suggested by Bard if they choose. Google also said that Bard gathers current data from the internet to power its answers, while ChatGPT is limited to data from 2021.
The post said the company will be integrating the tech into the search platform in a deeper way in the future.
Google last week said that it was opening access to its generative AI tech to developers so they may integrate it into their own platforms.
The underlying technology of ChatGPT has been open to developers since the chatbot was released in November.
Tripadvisor filled in the blanks, naming two executive appointments to flesh out a reorganization of its core business that the company disclosed during its fourth quarter earnings call a week ago.
Sanjay Raman, who had previous stints at Airbnb, Greylock and Google, starting working in January as chief product officer, a new position within Tripadvisor’s core business segment.
Likewise, Kristen Dalton, who has served in Tripadvisor roles since 2019 as vice president of financial planning and analysis and interim head of the company’s business to consumer group, started serving in January as chief operating officer of the company’s core business. That is a new position, as well.
Core Business Is Distinct From Viator and TheFork
What is Tripadvisor’s core business? Tripadvisor defines it as “Tripadvisor branded hotels, Tripadvisor branded display and platform, Tripadvisor experiences and dining revenue, and other revenue,” including cruise. Tripadvisor recently de-emphasized vacation rentals, flights, car rentals within its “other revenue” category.
Although Tripadvisor experiences and dining revenue are part of the core segment, the separately branded Viator experiences and TheFork dining revenue don’t fall within the core business. That means the January appointees won’t be responsible for Viator and TheFork, which have separate teams.
With the appointments and the reorganization of Tripadvisor’s core segment, Tripadvisor now had functionally led teams in operations (led by Dalton), marketing (John Boris), product (Raman) and engineering (Sugata Mukhopadhyay).
Under the prior structure, the teams were organized along business to consumer and business to business lines.
While Viator reached 171 percent of 2019 revenue levels in 2022, TheFork hit 99 percent, and Tripadvisor’s core business generated only 79 percent of 2019 revenue.
Google has added San Francisco-based startup Whimstay as a vacation rental partner.
Whimstay focuses on booking last-minute vacation rentals and the selling of distressed inventory — or providing discounts on vacation rentals that would otherwise go unoccupied at full retail rates.
Google will now add Whimstay’s 150,000 vacation rental properties to its travel search function. They join properties listed in the U.S. by other vacation rental partners including Uplisting, Futurestay, Eviivo, BookingPal and Bluetent.
“Google’s platform for vacation rentals enables us to leapfrog our already strong outperformance on organic search, thereby increasing conversion in a manner that is far more profitable and capital efficient,” said Whimstay CEO David Weiss.
Whimstay also expects to add an extra 100,000 to 150,000 properties to its platform over the next 12 months.
Google made changes to Google Flights and Hotels related to transparency in hotel reviews and pricing under pressure from the European Commission — but stopped short of making those modifications elsewhere in the world.
At the behest of the European Commission, Google added text in hotel reviews in European Union countries, noting “Reviews aren’t verified.”
Unlike online travel agencies, Google doesn’t take bookings so it would be hard-pressed to verify user reviews. Tripadvisor, likewise, doesn’t verify hotel reviews for the same reason.
Clicking further into Google’s explanatory language about user reviews in Europe, Google states that it accepts reviews from signed-in users — there’s no requirement that they ever stayed at that particular hotel — and licenses reviews from third-parties. “Google doesn’t do any additional filtering for spam or inappropriate language beyond that done by the provider, nor do we verify these reviews,” Google states.
The European Commission stated that Google accepted this disclosure about hotel reviews and additional transparency commitments that other hotel-booking platforms such as Expedia Group and Booking.com agreed to on pricing and availability.
“The commitments made by Google are a step forward in this direction. We call on Google to comply fully with the Geo-blocking Regulation, ensuring that consumers can enjoy the same rights and access the same content, wherever they are in the EU,” European Commission Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders in the announcement statement.
Google agreed to these changes about user reviews, consented to disclose that Google Flights and Google Hotels is merely a middleman, and agreed to provide greater clarity when presenting discounted pricing, explaining that such deals are merely a reference point. But Google decided to make these changes in Europe only — and not in other geographies around the world where regulators were not providing heat.
“As part of our ongoing dialogue with the European Commission and the EU’s Consumer Protection Cooperation Network, we have made changes to our products that provide a clear benefit and protect consumers,” a Google spokesperson stated. “We appreciate the partnership on this topic and are open to constructive dialogue with all consumer associations and regulators.”
Google’s hotel reviews in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world have no added language explaining the reviews are not verified. So travelers might erroneously believe that everyone writing reviews about these hotels actually stayed a night or two there.
Google frequently talks about helping travelers and other consumers to discover information as being one of its top priorities. However, the search engine giant, perhaps in the interests of providing a cleaner user interface that wouldn’t get in the way of users clicking on hotel ads, sacrificed transparency for expediency in the rest of the world.
Google is not alone in doing what regulators demand in one geography, but not expanding it to other regions for the good of consumers. For example, for several years Airbnb has shown the total price of stays, including taxes, up-front in the European Union at the urging of the European Commission. However, it was only this year that Airbnb became displaying the total rate, albeit without taxes included, instead of just the nightly rate without fees at first glance, in other geographies.
Although some advertisers reined in their budgets for some Google products, the company’s travel and retail verticals led Google’s search and other revenues in the third quarter.
Parent company Alphabet recently reported that its search and other revenue categories grew 4 percent during the third quarter to $40 billion, spearheaded by travel and retail.
The company declined, during an earnings call with analysts last month about the quarter that ended September 30, to provide additional detail on the performance of its various verticals.
“In challenging times like these, advertisers are carefully evaluating the effectiveness of their budgets,” said Chief Business Officer Philipp Schindler. “Search tends to do relatively well in such an environment, given its strong measurability and focus on delivering ROI (Return on Investment). It’s also well-suited to quickly adjust to changes in consumer behavior.”
Travel’s strength in Google search — notice the company mentioned travel first, before retail — came as a variety of travel businesses posted strong third quarters based on consumers still wanting to board flights despite the cancellation crapshoot over the summer.
Alphabet’s net income for the third quarter fell 26 percent to $13.9 billion on $69 billion in revenue, a 6 percent increase.
Google announced it will shut Book on Google for flights for users outside the U.S. at the end of September, and told Skift it will likewise end the feature in the U.S. sometime after March 31.
It turns out, a declining number of users were booking their flights on Google, which acknowledged that travelers would rather book their flights with online travel agencies or directly with airlines.
To be clear, Google Flights is not shutting down, but will continue to enable travelers to click on airline and online travel agency links to book their flights, as they have done for years for the vast majority of flights. What changes is that Google will no longer take a small share of bookings on Google channels, but will refer all users to partners for bookings.
Eliminating the feature likewise doesn’t hurt Google’s case to beat back regulatory efforts to diminish its power on antitrust grounds.
With the Book on Google feature for flights, travelers can book on Google, but Google was just facilitating the booking for that airline or online travel agency, and the latter provided the customer service function. Google wasn’t charging airlines for the feature.
“Over the next 12 months, we plan to phase out the Book on Google feature for Flights,” Google stated. “We originally offered this functionality to give people a simpler way to buy their tickets and to help our partner airlines and OTAs receive more bookings. However, we’ve found over time that people actually want to book directly on partner websites, and we always strive to meet user preferences whenever possible.”
Some pundits saw Book on Google as the company creeping toward becoming an online travel agency, but that never appeared to be the intent. Google makes too much money on travel advertising to want to directly compete with its biggest partners. Google also has no interest in dealing with flight changes and cancellations, or in providing customer service to stranded travelers.
Google launched Book on Google in 2015 as a way to facilitate bookings for airlines and online travel agencies in an era when many of their mobile websites weren’t particularly sophisticated.
But partners’ mobile capabilities have improved in the interim, and Google said it saw a declining share of flight bookings coming from the Book on Google feature.
Many metasearch sites over the years have tried these types of facilitated bookings for partner airlines and hotels, but with a few exceptions, such as HomeToGo in Germany, this type of feature has been waning for years.
Ted Clements, FareHarbor’s acting CEO who served as chief operating officer for the last three years, will step down from these positions in September, Skift has learned.
Staff was informed of the move Tuesday, and no replacement has been named. Clements plans to stay in Amsterdam, headquarters for sister company Booking.com, and may pursue new opportunities, according to the announcement.
Rob Ransom, senior vice president, global strategy and business development for Booking Holdings, made the internal announcement, and said he would play a more active role in FareHarbor.
FareHarbor more than doubled its revenue during the years Clements served as chief operating officer, according to the announcement.
Tours and activities are key to Booking Holdings’ connected trip strategy, which aims to provide a hassle-free travel experience throughout the journey.
FareHarbor co-founders Lawrence Hester and brother Zachary Hester left Booking Holdings in July 2021. Max Valverde, who served as FareHarbor CEO from 2019 to 2021, likewise left Booking at that time.
FareHarbor’s strategy has evolved over the last few years, evolving from an exclusively build-your-own strategy model in the early days under Booking Holdings to include FareHarbor outsourcing some of that work to partners such as TUI’s Musement and Viator in recent years.
The changing of the guard at FareHarbor comes as Google is getting more aggressive in building its own “things to do” business with an emphasis on big attractions. Booking engines such as FareHarbor and Peek participate in Google’s offering.
“Google will kill Airbnb,” tweeted Nick Huber, who writes about business and real estate, owns a self-storage company, and has 247,000 followers on Twitter.
Two people independently messaged me about the tweet, which has generated a few thousand “likes,” and hundreds of retweets since Sunday.
One Skift colleague said of the tweet: “Everything this guy says in his tweet thread is wrong.”
Conversely, a superhost in Europe messaged me about Huber’s tweet: “I would have to agree. Everybody loves a direct booking (both hosts and guests), with no whopping service charges.”
Hosts Just Need to Put Links to Properties in Google … Hmmm
If only it were that simple.
Huber argues that hosts and guests can avoid Airbnb’s substantial fees, and both can save money with direct bookings. Actually, he claimed that Airbnb takes 25 percent of the transaction, mostly from guests, in the form of fees, which seems excessively off the mark.
After this story posted, travel industry veteran Drew Patterson tweeted that Airbnb revenue was only 13 percent of gross bookings in 2021.
One of the silliest things Huber tweets is, “All it takes is folks putting a little link to their software in the Google listing. Management co manages that directly. Way more revenue to owner and less cost to guests.”
Alas, graveyards full of startup companies from Palo Alto to Madrid and Mexico City are testimony to the fact that you can’t merely put a link on a Google business listing, and expect millions upon millions of customers to discover it, and then use it. It takes a mammoth amount of resources to attract direct bookings and for a vacation rental business to build their own brands.
Hey, direct bookings would be mostly great for hosts and, to a lesser extent, guests, but how can property owners and managers attract them?
If you look at the global hotel industry, it has done an admirable job over the last few years, spending huge sums in advertising to urge customers to book directly on their own websites, where they have the lowest rates, instead of using online travel agencies.
Hotel direct bookings haven’t killed Expedia or Booking.com. Travel, it is often said, isn’t a zero-sum game. There is ample room for multiple winners.
Property owners use Airbnb for a reason: Airbnb has a great brand, and attracts legions of guests who start searching for places to stay on Airbnb instead of beginning their trip-planning on Google.
How does the host with one or a handful of properties compete with that kind of market power?
Direct Bookings Have Risks, Too
And although guests can avoid Airbnb’s fees by booking direct with the host, they run the risk of having no one to turn to if the host or property turn out to be a nightmare. Whether or not they work as well as advertised, Airbnb has some insurance protections in place for both hosts and guests.
Airbnb critics will be quick to say that Airbnb’s customer service for guests can be challenging, but it’s often better than dealing with hosts who have no brand or track record to stand behind them.
In fact, Google’s travel vertical has a vacation rentals feature, and it hasn’t really distinguished itself or put much of a dent in Airbnb’s growth precisely because Airbnb, and other big vacation rental brands, have shunned offering their homes and apartments through Google vacation rentals. So Google is hardly usurping Airbnb on that front.
Google has certainly damaged the businesses of innumerable travel companies because of its near-monopoly in search and the way it preferences its own travel advertising features. Curiously, although most of the far-out theories about Google taking over the travel industry tend to say that Google will transition from an advertising to a booking platform and would become an online travel agency — a switch that Google has shown little appetite for — Huber isn’t even making that argument.
Instead, he’s arguing that Google will serve as a listing platform, and build advertising around it, and that hosts, with an assist perhaps from property managers, would see direct bookings flow like lava down a hillside because these offers are inherently the best and cheapest deals for both hosts and guests.
Both Google and Airbnb Face Headwinds
Google killing Airbnb begs the question of which of the two has momentum versus the other. Both face big antitrust or regulatory challenges, and it’s hard to choose which one has the more daunting obstacles.
A little deeper into his twitter thread, Huber retreats a bit from his Google killing Airbnb opener, and pleads for “nuance.”
“Of course Airbnb will always have users,” he tweeted. “But over time many guests will go on google, find a vacation rental in an ideal location, click through to that website & book w/o paying hundreds in fees. 20 yrs from now ABNB will be a glorified lead generator.”
When it comes to predicting the future of companies two decades from now, I’ll pass on that one, considering it is difficult to look even two or three years ahead to see what the business world would look like.
So, alas, in Huber’s view, his talk of Airbnb’s death was apparently bombast.
When a twitter user tells Huber he downplayed the importance of factors like trust and reliability when considering direct bookings versus reservations through Airbnb, Huber retreats a bit further, tweeting:
“I think there will be an increased number of guests going directly. You can do all of those things without giving a huge chunk to Airbnb.”
Finally, that’s something we can agree with: There are many hosts doing everything they can to generate direct bookings, and they’ll likely have a degree of success. But I don’t believe “Google will kill Airbnb,” or that Airbnb will close shop anytime soon.
Note:This story has been updated to include additional information on Airbnb’s take rate. It also clarified Google’s role in the travel industry.