Google Takes Soft Step into Tour, Activity Booking

Google’s quiet announcement to roll Reserve with Google into the travel group may signal the company’s longer-term objectives for tours and attractions.

Google has begun notifying connectivity partners of Reserve with Google that the online booking initiative is moving into the Google Travel division. Reserve with Google, or RwG, had been a part of Google Maps, referred to internally as the Geo division within the company.  

The email to partners said the company is “shifting the vertical from the Geo team to the Travel team” to “allow for better alignment with Google’s other Experiences products and partnerships.” The cryptic notice promised no immediate changes to RwG, which enables travelers to book tickets for tours, activities, and attractions inside Google Maps and Search.

With more than 100 connectivity partners, including many reservation systems and online travel agencies in tours, activities, and attractions, RwG has been a substantial undertaking. The move, which Google declined to comment on, may signal the company’s longer-term goals for the sector.

Operators and connectivity partners should not expect immediate change. Still, many industry observers have speculated that Google will build a dedicated search and booking service for tours and experiences, just as it has for flights and hotels. Incorporating RwG into the Travel group would certainly help advance that objective. 

Mixed Views on the News

“I see this as an extremely positive sign for all of us in experiences,” said Melanie Meador, CEO of Redeam, which provides distribution connectivity for operators across multiple channels and is a Reserve with Google partner. She says this demonstrates Google’s commitment to the industry and will improve consumer engagement with tour and attraction products. 

Luuc Elzinga, CEO of Tiqets, an online travel agency for attraction venues and an early RwG partner, agreed. “Moving Reserve to Travel is a clear sign Google is serious about their opportunity in the commercial travel group.”

Rod Cuthbert, the founder of Viator and now a board member of Veltra, the Japanese online travel agency for tours and activities, has long been an outspoken critic of Google’s moves in travel.

“Google’s continued incursions into the travel space are particularly troubling. Google is a monopoly in the search engine space; with monopoly power comes a great responsibility to use that power in a way that doesn’t benefit the monopoly unfairly,” he said.

Noting that the current Reserve product relies on third-party aggregators. He believes their end goal is to remove that step and connect directly to operators. “Within a year or two, they’ll know exactly which operators are getting the clicks, and they’ll bypass. Operators might think that’s a good idea now. Still, when Google inevitably begins to turn the screws on the costs of participation, they’ll realize that a healthy mix of competitors is much, much better than a monopoly.”

Peter Syme, managing director of 1000 Mile Journeys, long an advocate for operators to grow their direct booking capabilities, expressed some optimism with caution. “This is great if it increases direct relationships between the customer and the operators. However, if it develops into yet another pay-to-play channel longer term, then just the big technology players gain, and that does not help small operators.”

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