Up Close with Google’s Industry Director of Travel: Jane Butler




Google's Jane Butler

Google’s acquisition of ITA for $700 million in cash is likely to be one of the biggest online travel stories of the year. ITA is a major player in travel, a highly used software company specializing in organizing airline data, including flight times, availability and prices, and Google says that once it’s completed the acquisition, “we’ll work on creating new flight search tools that will make it easier for you to search for flights, compare flight options and prices and get you quickly to a site where you can buy your ticket.”

And so the search giant is making a an aggressive move with the purchase; however, it’s no secret that Google has always eyed the travel arena as one it wanted to play in, in a big way. 

For that very reason, we caught up with Jane Butler, Google’s Industry Director, Travel, awhile back, to get her thoughts on how online travel is evolving. Butler, who has been with Google for seven years, is the former president of LastMinuteTravel.com; in all, she has worked in the online travel marketing space for 15 years.

In her current role at Google, Butler oversees the company’s travel advertising business in the U.S., helping clients “build and execute measurable, targeted and creative online campaigns.” That dynamic position puts her right in the mix of determining strategy for major online travel agencies as well as car rental companies, airlines, hotel companies and cruise lines.

During our discussion, Butler cited three top trends of the year thus far that relate to consumer behavior:

1. An intensity in online travel research;

2. A shortening of the amount of time between the travel research and the actual travel booking;

3. A demand for more online access on the go (think, mobile).

Consider the increase in travel research intensity. “We are definitely seeing more and more search on all types of sites,” says Butler.  “In terms of travel, more and more sites are being visited, so all that intensity increasing.” Over the past year, Butler says, there has been a 15 percent increase in site visits and a 30 percent spike in search clicks made prior to an online travel booking. “So people are spending more and more time looking for information.”

And there’s more for them to look for. “If you think about the growth of different travel information outlets, such as social networks, video and all of the other review sites, as well as the information provided by online travel agencies and the suppliers themselves, there is this vast amount of information that is growing out there and travelers are spending more and more time researching and visiting these sites,” she adds.

Google is actually also privy as to how these searches take place; where they begin, and where they end. “We work with some third parties that can help us see where someone started the online search process through to where they ended up making the actual purchase. There have been number of steps they are going through, searching one type of thing, landing on one site, going back to their search, searching on another type of thing. It's not a linear process, it’s very zigzag,” says Butler.

So what’s the message for travel marketers who are playing in this zigzag environment? Ensure you’re present at key points in the buying cycle and be ready to provide a unique message at each point, Butler advises.

“You need to really think about how you give the message to the consumer and how you focus on your media mix,” says Butler. That means taking a look at how you reach people in the early stages, when you try to create an awareness of your destination or your product offering and they determine whether it is worthy of their consideration. Then there’s the way you reach them when they’re at the point of purchase.

“A lot of people kind of crowd that fish hole, but the sophisticated marketers are figuring out how to fish in that bigger pond efficiently by setting things like their analytics to determine how consumers reach their websites and in figuring out how to think about either the value that they place on a certain type of click or just being present at a certain point,” says Butler.

Because consumers are visiting so many websites prior to purchase, Google’s Butler advises travel marketers to make their websites as relevant as possible. That means when they click on your ad for a specific hotel or offer, you’d better be sure that the page they click on to has the very information they’re looking for and that they don’t have to dig around for it.

Why? If they don’t find what they’re looking for, they’ll bounce right off your site and go to one of their many other choices.

“So, we definitely encourage our clients to think about where they are leading customers once they click on their ad. They need to make it as relevant as possible. Giving them what they are looking for has very high priority,” Butler says.

Shortened Booking Windows

Consumers are also spending less time between booking and traveling.  “We’ve observed in the past year that the booking window—from research to booking or trip date—has gotten closer. We’ve seen it move about a week closer to a trip date in 2009 than it was in 2008,” says Butler, a practice that doesn’t surprise her. “Much of that is driven by consumers looking for a good value, making sure that they have the money in hand and feeling confident that they can take the trip. There is more last-minute booking going on and we think that this trend will probably last for a while until the economy stabilizes.”

Demand for Mobile Access
Indeed, mobile technology is generating the biggest buzz at all the tech shows this year, and for good reason. Butler predicts it may become the dominant means for accessing the web by as early as 2013.

For this reason, travel providers need to determine quickly and carefully how they will introduce their mobile experience to consumers, she says. This goes beyond merely having a mobile presence; suppliers need to test out exactly what their application is offering and play with it enough to understand what the consumer experience is like using their mobile product. “I think this is the year we will start seeing more and more focus on improving those applications and scaling them as a bigger part of their business,” she says. This is key, she adds, because consumers are “absolutely” conducting searches on their mobile devices, using them just as they would their desktop computers.

In fact, Google’s research shows that consumers are getting more comfortable booking high-end ticket travel items online, beyond the basic components of air and hotels.

“One example we are aware of is cruise bookings being made not just online, but on mobile devices. Imagine two busy people, perhaps a husband and wife, sitting at lunch, comparing calendars and then realizing they can pull the trigger to book a trip. Some of the cruise partners that we work with have seen cruise sales transacted this way.”

Butler says this shift will continue as mobile devices become more sophisticated, such as the iPad and the Nexus One, which will continue to proliferate.

“It is really about wanting the access wherever they are—on the train, or like the couple mentioned earlier, sitting together at lunch, wanting to strike while they’re thinking about a weekend getaway,” she says.

Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment

Butler has a final tip on developing a search strategy—marketers should not be afraid to try different strategies. “If you advertise only your hotel’s property name you are missing out on, for example, things like ‘hotels in Cancun’ or all other variations of types of searches you want to be considered for by people who have not yet exactly decided on your property. There is an economic decision that you need to make about how much you are willing to pay to reach a less qualified audience, so to speak.”

Butler concludes with advice that likely sums up all she has seen over the past 15 years in the online travel market space.

“Don’t be afraid to experiment,” she says. “The web is beautifully designed for experiments. Whether it's mobile or social networking, it's okay not to get it right out of the gate. That’s something we definitely encourage particularly for those that may be coming from a more traditional background.”