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

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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.”

Marketers at Marriott, the world’s largest hotel brand, were less concerned.

“We take tracking and research very seriously, so this is not something new,” said Mara Hannula, Marriott International’s vice president of global brand marketing. “We have to continue listening and learning and looking at the data and seeing what other ways that we can serve up relevant content. I just don’t think there’s one magic bullet for that; it’s a constant evolution.”

Email is becoming the new tracking cookie

Today, brands like IHG and Marriott know which customers prefer white sandy beaches and all-inclusive resorts, and which ads ultimately led a traveler to book a reservation, all because of cookies. Once they’re gone, without guidance on what technology will replace them, ad-tech companies will be left to work with their clients to predict the future.

“We are actively working with all of our data partners and advertisers to change our integration,” said Dave Goulden, vice president of product at Sojern, an ad-tech company that specializes in the travel industry.

Several marketers told Adweek that if targeting becomes more difficult through Google’s advertising platform, they expect to rely more on email to track consumers. Sojern is advising clients to collect email addresses from brand partners and advertisers.

“In order for [brands] to monetize their data, users are going to have to be logged in and registered with their email,” Goulden said. “From a business practice, we’re changing to say, ‘Hey, we really want this now, this will future-proof what we do.'”

A senior-level marketer in the airline industry echoed similar thoughts, saying that it would be difficult to imagine Google doing away with a product that made their advertising platform so “efficient and highly valuable.”

“I would suspect they will keep some form of tracking, perhaps tied to Gmail,” they speculated. “Without cookies, remarketing becomes dependent on email addresses, so I think you will start to see brands more aggressively obtaining email addresses in order to prepare for that.”

Smaller hotels and travel businesses, which are less likely to rely on cookie-based targeting, may struggle to collect this data as it requires travelers to submit their own information. Other sites that don’t require logging in will probably add the function if they want to benefit from acquiring user data and advertising revenue.

For now, the travel industry will have to take a step back as the ad-tech industry grapples with what will come next.

“We’re going to focus on contextual targeting, which is what was done like eight to 10 years back,” the hospitality marketer said. “One workaround is going back to mathematics and using probabilities. The core principles are still the same. … We’ll find ways to hear the customers.”

@RyanBarwick Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.