Google released their latest labs project called “City Tours” last week. I was quick to jump on the bandwagon and take a look, but I resisted from posting right away because I wanted to think a little more deeply about the implications of the application. Let’s not forget that Google is a powerhouse and, if they wanted to, develop and release ANY travel application they want in any vertical. With a single mouse click they could probably brush Kayak, Fly.com, Bing.com, or anyone else off the on-line travel landscape. Google could have developed a meta-search engine for flights, a hotel comparison application, a packaging engine, or even a review aggregation engine, but they didn’t. Instead, Google focused on local points of interest and in-destination activities and attractions using their wildly popular Google Maps API.
Why City Tours is important to tourism
Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
In my opinion, Google has focused on the right target. This may seem small but think about the data set required to produce City Tours. They have combined their Google Local Search and business listings from partner directories, geo-tagged the data (presumably with street name data and their API), and then mapped them along with suggested itineraries for major cities all around the World. City Tours is totally in line with Google’s mission. The interface seems simple enough and the features are limited at the moment, but the potential impact on in-destination tourism is massive. Think about all the local businesses like guided city tours, tour guides, bike tours, and the like that can (and will) jump in and add their information to Google Local Search so they get listed. But developing City Tours, Google stands to add hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of new data points to their index. Imagine what can be done with that data through various devices.
The Google Revenue Model
Google obviously hasn’t disclosed their revenue model for City Tours, but given their history, it is not unlikely that it will come from sponsored listings. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they sell sponsored listings within the application itself so that suggested itineraries have a set of sponsored businesses at the top of the list. In Vancouver, for example, that might be the big attractions like Grouse Mountain, Capilano Suspension Bridge, and the Vancouver Aquarium. All the other listings would be organic listings based on proximity to the sponsored ones. This is all speculation, but hopefully you can begin to see the opportunity for small business in this space. In very short order, Google has brought location based services on mobile devices one step closer to reality by connecting the critical data and the technology together in a relatively open way.
The Future for Destinations
DMOs (Destination Marketing Organizations) all over the World should be taking a very close look at what Google is doing. Google has just saved many organizations a lot of work (and money) in developing and aggregating the technology together for use by local tourism businesses. Instead of trying to develop totally separate directories and business listings, they should be aggregating this data and feeding it to Google for the purposes of creating richer, more interesting, and more relevant tour experiences. PhoCusWright research has shown that a majority of travel searching begins with Google, so why not make the results more relevant for travelers.
The Future of Booking
If you follow my work, you are probably aware that I am a believer in the four stages of the travel purchasing process (DREAM-PLAN-GO-SHARE). Trip planning sites like TravelMuse.com, Uptake.com, PlanetEye.com, and others have been very good at taking care of the DREAM-PLAN steps. Sites like Expedia.com and Travelocity.com (and many many others) focus on the GO or booking part. Site like Flickr, Youtube, Bootsnall, WorldNomads, and other social sites take care of the SHARE part. Google can begin to bring these disparate pieces together in a way that many others cannot. Currently the map detail provides the name of the attraction, the recommended time to spend at the location, the star rating and the hours of operation. Imagine the details including a short description, integration with Flickr or Panoramio for photos, contact details (phone number), and a BOOK NOW button. Now imagine that detail available on your iPhone so that when City Tours recommends the attraction, you can book tickets in advance so you don’t have to wait in line. For many tour operators this would be a dream come true especially if they are able to drive direct bookings to their own tour or activity booking website instead of having the sale go through an intermediary.
For now it is a bit early to tell what Google will do with City Tours. As a strong proponent and developer of on-line tools and reservation systems for small tourism businesses, this is a great first step. With Google shining a very bright light on local businesses, specifically destination tours and activities, I hope that small operators will begin to realize that they have an impact on tourism and that the travel community (and others) will begin to realize the potential of the tour and activity segment that, for a long time, has been largely ignored.