Review of Google Think Travel 2012 Middle East – World Islands Dubai

The Google team hosted it’s first ever “Think Travel” event here in the Middle East today at the Lebanon Island (World Islands) in Dubai. A well-chosen, buzz-worthy venue, no doubt…most attendees were equally keen about the event as they were to see the state of the (much touted) World Islands. All in all an eventful day with a great mix of insights and industry discussions, garnished liberally with rhetoric.

Mohammad Gawdat, Google’s VP for Emerging Markets (SEEMEA) kicked things off on a nostalgic note, putting the current rise of the Internet in perspective with other media like print, radio and TV. Obviously the internet calls for a new approach to marketing…and the opportunities to offer richer, more personalized experiences are only limited by marketer creativity these days (and budgets!).

Nigel Huddleston, Google’s seasoned Travel Industry head for EMEA followed with a good overview on the state of travel search, aided in part by Google Insights… no surprises here, but the message reinforced what digital marketers have been seeing…mobile taking its rightful place in the marketing arsenal, search queries maturing into more specific terms & phrases and travel shoppers becoming savvier about how, where & when they search + shop.

Abdul Wahed Teffaha, Secretary General of the Arab Air Carriers Organization followed, with a brief overview of the air travel sector here in the Middle East…again, no surprises – two pieces of trivia that stood out for me: (1) The average age of the fleet for Arab owned airlines is approx 7 years, compared to 20+ years in the US and 15+ years in Europe (there are also plans to replace / add up to a 1000 planes over the next 10 years). (2) Despite acknowledging the importance of digital marketing and social media, the average increase in IT related spending by airlines in the region is roughly just 1.5% (given 1/3rd of airline costs are fuel related, this may still represent a significant absolute numeric amount, however it still seems quite miniscule related to the rapid pace of change and innovation in the digital space…not sure if it does justice?)

Damien Viel then took the stage and talked about YouTube and the rise of video…lots of great trivia here e.g. 10 years of video are added to YouTube every day now…plus 300 years of YouTube hosted video are watched globally on Facebook every day. It appears 68% of online shoppers also rely on some form of video when researching travel online…and exposure to 4 screens (e.g. mobile, desktop, etc) results in 24% more brand recall than using just TV to push video marketing content. 90% of instream video ads on YouTube will also likely be skippable, which of course is a great way to encourage the creation of more compelling content. Speaking to Damien over lunch it was clear that education / awareness was still a mountain to climb, with many creators / companies still not getting the basics right (for example…producing video in high definition as a standard for better engagement – many still don’t do this despite no incremental cost involved).

Google is also looking to make the move beyond the US to introducing high-quality content channels in international markets, which is welcome news.

A great low-budget, high-impact viral video from the travel vertical…STA Travel’s “MOVE”

At the other end of the spectrum…the traditional (but experiential) product videos still do the trick too:

Here’s a recent viral that Damien shared to illustrate the immense emotional power of video…(almost 8 million views in the 4 months since it was posted…a tear jerker that even had some men in the audience misty-eyed)

Waseem Sayegh, Google’s Travel Lead here in the Middle East presented the now popular “Life in a Day” experiment conducted a while back with Ridley Scott… this is now being replicated with “Your Film Festival“, with sponsors including Emirates Airlines. This should be a great one to watch in terms of local engagement with video enthusiasts and independent creators.
Diego Lofeudo, Senior Director for Market Management for Expedia then provided an overview of everything the company is involved in and their diverse brands & presence globally…what would have been interesting here is to learn how they’re planning to combat the rise of Booking.com in the region and tapping more aggressively into the local market & Arabic ecommerce, however we’ll just have to wait and find out in time…
Venkat Chandramoleshwar, Regional Manager for ITA provided a much anticipated overview of what the company is engaged in (no controversial discussions or speculation here, though!)…it’s interesting to see just how many airlines and OTAs actually rely on ITA’s flight search software (even Bing Travel uses it!). Emma Burrows from the Engineering team based in Zurich provided a great demo of current testing being done with the Google Flights product, as well as the nifty new local area & travel time search features offered by Google Hotel Finder. Speed is regarded as paramount by the Google team and it shows in the jiffy responses these tools spit out…lots of cool, geeky features being incorporated into these new projects too (super useful though!).
The last presentation was an engaging one, delivered by Guillaume Bacuvier, Director Mobile Sales and Operations in SEEMEA on all things mobile and social. Great insights overall…including the fact that mobile smartphones are mass media too, much like TV..and can be reached through mobile ad networks to cover a significant proportion of the population. Some great new ad formats also emerging on mobile to make content more appealing and native to smartphones. The end game for mobile (perhaps in 5-7 years tops) is to be as contextual, personalized and location based as possible. A common sense approach to mobile includes having a great presence, thinking local, being discoverable and tracking separately (…plus of course constantly testing & improving). The “mobile internet” will soon be just the “internet” as devices evolve and the desktop/mobile lines fade away. A great Google project that offers free stats and data on the mobile space in many countries can be found at: ourmobileplanet.com
On the social media front, Guillaume acknowledged we still have a way to go before social “really” works as it ought to, for example…messages are still rather impersonal, comments just aren’t conversations yet, marketing is still fragmented and recommendations lack staying power on social networks. He then explained how Google+ is aiming to tackle these challenges using Circles, Hang outs, integrating +1 into everything else Google does (including search, as we’ve recently seen)… we’ll have to wait and see if these bets pay off in the long run. An interesting video also showed Fiat’s use of Google+ Hangouts to provide a sneak peek and discussion of a new car launch to fans in the Netherlands:
The event was wrapped up by Mohamad Mourad, Google’s Regional Manager in the Gulf with a few words of inspiration and a call to action…overall quite a well organized event and a good chance to catch up with travel, media and tech industry colleagues. A note of thanks to the Google team in scaling up engagement efforts locally here in the Middle East….looking forward to many more such events!
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Author: Jitendra Jain (JJ)

I have a passion for all things digital, marketing and future related. My day job involves marketing an amazing portfolio of hotels...at play I enjoy blogging, reading, experimenting with technology and learning new things. You can find my marketing blog at http://www.hotelemarketer.com (all views are my own) or connect on Twitter @hotelemarketer

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