Travel Marketers Frustrated by the Loss of Third-Party Cookies

Privacy-related changes could set industry back '8-10 years'

an illustration of a beachfront hotel
Getty Images, Google

Key insights:

Advertisers have long leveraged the aspirational aspects of travel to sell vacations, with decades of shirtless sunbathers, cerulean oceans and glowing couples shot in soft light. Since the advent of third-party cookies, travel brands have been able to deliver this messaging through the digital advertising pipes that undergird the internet in ways that are both helpful and useless.

Currently, a user’s interest in a single attraction—say, Walt Disney World—can trigger an avalanche of ads for nearby hotels, airline deals, rental car agencies and a thousand other businesses, making the ability to track the success (or failure) of an ad vital for an ecosystem predicated on data.

Soon, this will no longer be the case. Google announced in January that it will begin phasing out its third-party cookies within two years, effectively killing the lynchpin of digital advertising, and travel marketers are frustrated by the looming disruption to their industry. Without their biggest tool for targeting online audiences, travel marketers are turning to Google for a solution to track and measure their digital audience.

In a way, relying on Google for help is a Faustian bargain. Announced in August, Google’s Privacy Sandbox aims to “develop a set of open standards to fundamentally enhance privacy” online as the cookie crumbles in the face of new regulations of how users’ browsing data is collected and stored. So even though Google explicitly said it wouldn’t phase out cookies without addressing the needs of users, publishers and advertisers, the decision was ultimately made in the name of privacy, not the interest of advertisers.

Turning to Google for help on a decision made by Google to benefit Google seems like a tough sell. Still, the ad-tech industry has been calling on a third-party verification system since before the decision to kill off the cookie was announced.

Google’s Chrome is the most popular browser in the United States, with roughly 60% market share. But it’s actually late to the game in terms of killing the cookie, with Safari and Firefox already beating Google to the punch. According to Skift, the travel industry spends about $16 billion on advertising with Google. So far, Google’s decision has made many marketers want to pull their hair out.

“It is extremely frustrating,” a marketer with one of the largest hospitality brands in the U.S. told Adweek, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities surrounding his company’s marketing approach. “We talk about providing an experience that exceeds what customers expect,” they added. “How do you hyper-personalize when you don’t even know who the customer is?”

Because of cookies, airlines can see that the same person who booked a flight from Los Angeles to New York had watched an airline’s commercial on YouTube only a week before. On the consumer side, if you were planning a Caribbean vacation and had visited resorts’ websites, advertisements for Iberostar and Grand Palladium properties will dot your screen.

As the CMO’s role in the C-suite has expanded—though their tenure has shortened—cookies gave marketers the ability to track their return on investment, shifting digital travel budgets away from brand marketing and toward performance marketing. Now, they’ll have to show those same results with much less information, while justifying how large their budgets should be in the first place.

“That’s going to cause some people some heartburn,” said Tim Peter, a hospitality consultant who focuses on digital marketing. “That’s not a question they’ve had to answer as much in the last decade-plus.”

The hospitality marketer agreed.

“I know there will be questions,” they said. “It’ll make our jobs harder and harder, to justify how the marketing dollars are performing. Once we lose the ability to track who the customer is, it’s very hard for us to go back and explain.”

Recommended articles