Google has added taxes and fees to its hotel searches as part of a series of new features, allowing consumers to see both ‘nightly price’ and ‘nightly total’.
The move came after Booking committed to showing total prices after talks with the European Commission, and the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK warned InterContinental Hotels Group over its pricing in advertisements.
At Google, the search engine also expanded on its predictive pricing offering, with suggestions on the best times to visit or typical hotel prices for specific dates.
In a blog post, Andrew Silverman, director, travel product management, Google, said: “On the ‘When to visit’ tab, you’ll see how weather, crowds and pricing vary across the year. Check out ‘What you’ll pay’ to find out if prices are low, typical or high for the dates you’re considering (grouped by hotels’ star ratings). If you find out prices are much higher than usual due to a conference or sporting event, you may decide to change your dates.”
In Europe, Booking has committed to making a number of changes to its practices by 16 June this year, after talks with the European Commission. These included displaying the total price that consumers would have to pay and clarifying how results are ranked and, whether payments made by the accommodation provider to Booking had influenced its position in the list of results.
Didier Reynders, commissioner for justice and consumers, said: “All companies must meet our high consumer law standards if they want to do business in the EU. As a market leader, it is vital that companies like Booking.com meet their responsibilities in this area, ensuring that online accommodation reservation systems are free from manipulative techniques such as hiding sponsoring in ranking, unduly putting time pressure on users or misrepresenting rebates.”
At IHG, the ASA received a compliant about a listing on its website for the Holiday Inn Express in Nine Elms, seen on 15 May, which included the text “Best Price Guarantee when you book with us” and “Best Price Guarantee. We promise you the lowest available price online, or we’ll match it and give you five times the IHG Rewards Club points, up to a 40,000-point maximum”.
The ASA said that the complainant, who stated that they were able to find a cheaper room but were unable to claim the best price guarantee, challenged whether the advert was misleading.
IHG said that, in order to achieve a qualifying claim, consumers would need to show that they booked at the lowest available rate on the IHG website and that the lower rate on the non-IHG website was available to book at the time of IHG’s own verification, which it would carry out within 24 hours of a guest contacting them about the claim.
It said that it would not accept screenshots from customers to prove that the room was available at a lower rate and said that prices for IHG-branded hotels on third-party websites were set independently by those websites and that they did not have any control over those prices.
The ASA considered that consumers would understand the claim “Best Price Guarantee when you book with us” to mean that they were guaranteed not to pay more by booking the same hotel room on IHG’s website than if they booked it elsewhere.
The ASA upheld the complaint and said: “We were concerned that consumers who booked with IHG instead of taking advantage of a competitor's cheaper offer, on the assumption that they could make use of the best price guarantee to pay the same price, would be disadvantaged if that test booking took place after the room was already booked, and potentially a full day later.
“Due to the very finite nature of hotel rooms at a specific hotel, by making a booking, consumers would reduce the availability of equivalent rooms and affect the price that rooms were sold at.
“By having to make the booking through IHG.com, the specific room would be taken off the market, making it more likely that the rate would no longer be available, and where that room was the last one available, it would make the price promise impossible to honour.
“Because the terms of the offer had not been made sufficiently clear, and because the ad implied consumers were guaranteed not to pay more by booking the same hotel room on IHG's website than if they booked it elsewhere, when that was not the case, we concluded that the ad was misleading.
“We told Intercontinental Hotels Group not to claim or imply that consumers were guaranteed not to pay more by booking the same hotel room on IHG's website than if they booked it elsewhere if that was not the case. We also told them to make sufficiently clear the terms under which they would match the price of an equivalent room.”
An IHG spokesperson told us: “We are confident that booking direct is the best value option for IHG guests. That is why our Best Price Guarantee will match the price and give guests five times the IHG Rewards Club points for their booking should they find a comparable cheaper alternative within 24 hours of booking with us. We recognise that the description and terms and conditions of our Best Price Guarantee could be more prominently displayed on our website and we are working, in conjunction with the ASA, to determine the potential changes to be made to the website.”
Insight: Ye gads the internet is irritating. It all started out so well in the early 1990s, so full of promise, with the idea of knowledge democracies* and chit-chatting over shared scientific papers. Little did we know we were one dial-up tone away from the many adventures of Paris Hilton and the largest department store even John Lewis could conceive.
Away from democracies - if the current displays on Twitter are any indication - and the hotel sector has been trying to get its collective head around How To Sell Rooms Online. With varying success. Now is not the time to go into what occurred with the OTAs - with Expedia still looking for a CEO let’s give them time to regroup before getting stuck in - so let’s look at the latest phase of the dance; the move to greater transparency.
This is currently being driven by legislators, but the cannier amongst those acting online - we’ll call them ‘Google’ - have grasped that this can also be a USP. And, because Google has stacks and stacks of information to hand, it’s cranked up the offering to include whether the price being offered is higher than usual. If it is, they say, “you may decide to change your dates”. And isn’t that just what the sector wants to hear.
For those attending the conferences which are pushing up rates, this information is merely an irritant. For the floating voter, less so.
Elsewhere in the move towards greater transparency, IHG has promised to be more prominent about the terms of its price promises, but the comments from the ASA have not done much for the book direct campaigns on which the global branded operators are leaning. Collecting loyalty points aside (and they appear to be very much of an aside for consumers) booking direct is about re-educating the consumer from the idea that the OTAs are cheaper. Any muddying will not help the cause, particularly when owners are looking gimlet-eyed at the costs of reward programmes.
How to win? Yes, greater transparency. The hotel sector has been too quick to hand over power in its dealings online, not only with the OTAs, but with platforms such as Airbnb. But it has all the power - it has the hotel. IHG, with its nifty new booking system, courtesy of its work with Amadeus, will be able to offer direct bookers not just a cheaper room, but whatever room they want, with a variety of parameters. Guests will know everything they need to know about the room they’re booking, all chosen by them. That’s transparency and the way to see a clear path to online sales.