Travel & Tourism

Booking Holdings Sees Connected Trip Strategy as Critical for Post-Crisis Growth

The world’s travelers may not all be for the taking by Booking Holdings. The $86 billion Connecticut-based conglomerate calls itself the “world’s leading provider of online travel and related services.” But the company still has work to do on its machinery for taking the customers it has and cross-selling them with multiple products — so called connected trips. It also may be running out of first-class mergers and acquisitions to add more traffic.

When Booking Holdings announced its second quarter earnings on Wednesday, most investors and analysts focused on short-term signals. Many analyst questions centered on the uneven pacing of the worldwide recovery from the pandemic and the effect on the travel sector.

On the short-term front, the booking giant’s numbers were promising. In the three months ending June 30, Booking Holdings generated revenue of $2.16 billion. It had a net loss of $167 million. Compare that with the same quarter of 2019 before the pandemic struck, when the company generated net income, a measure of profit, of $979 million off of revenue of $3.9 billion.

“We are encouraged by another quarter of meaningful sequential improvement in booking trends with second quarter room nights increasing 59 percent versus the first quarter of 2021, primarily driven by stronger results in Europe and the U.S.,” said CEO Glenn Fogel. He and other executives signaled they believed pent-up demand for travel would materialize once pandemic-related restrictions lift.

Hear Glenn Fogel Speak at Skift Global Forum in NYC September 21-23

“We are, of course, closely monitoring the impact of the Delta variant on the rising Covid case counts around the world as well as some newly imposed travel restrictions which have led to a modest pullback in our booking trends in the month of July relative to June,” Fogel said.

Booking Holdings reported that consumers booked 157 million room nights through its brands during the second quarter, compared with 213 million room nights booked in the same period in the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

“As travel comes back, Booking Holdings is in a sweet spot because consumers will continue to shift their spending habits to online,” said Brian Yarbrough, a consumer research analyst at Edward Jones, in an interview.

In an update on its rivalry with Airbnb and Vrbo, Booking Holdings said it has 6.6 million listings of homes, apartments, and other “unique places to stay,” up from 6.5 million a few months ago.

Customer acquisition trends have stayed consistent.

“Globally, in the second quarter, Booking.com was the number-one downloaded OTA [online travel agency] app according to a third-party research firm,” Fogel said. “In the U.S. in the second quarter, we were the most downloaded major OTA app. We also saw that U.S. app users in the quarter meaningfully surpassed the prior peak observed before the covid pandemic.”

Booking Holdings’ report on Wednesday was broadly in line with many analysts’ expectations.

Ahead of the call, analysts at Wedbush noted in a report that data from analytics firm SensorTower showed Booking.com having had nearly regained by late June the number of worldwide weekly active users of its sites as it had before the pandemic began. Figures for U.S. weekly active users were about the same, only a percentage point or so shy of 2019 levels.

Executives said on Wednesday that “its monthly active unique customer accounts at Booking.com reached about 90 percent of the level it saw in June 2019.”

Analysts at Truist Securities Research published a report before the call saying they saw “search interest in Booking Holdings’ Priceline and Booking.com brands turn positive in the U.S. versus 2019 levels.” Truist viewed that as a positive indicator for second-half performance.

But what happens to Booking Holdings after the pandemic clouds part? The conglomerate can either grow through cross-selling its existing customers to boost their total transaction value or acquiring new customers by entering growing markets through mergers and acquisitions. Neither path is a worry-free approach.

Where’s the Connected Trip?

In theory, Booking Holdings may not need to grow through acquisitions if it can leverage its existing customer base, cross-selling and upselling them into buying a wider variety of packages.

Fogel continued to push this concept on Wednesday, which he calls the connected trip.

“We continue to execute against our strategic priorities, including our Connected Trip vision, which we believe will further enhance our core accommodation business,” Fogel said.

“The top priority on this front has been to scale up a robust flight platform on Booking.com, which will give us the ability to engage with flight bookers fully in their travel journey and allow us an opportunity to cross-sell our accommodation and other services to these bookers,” Fogel said. “Since our last earnings call, we have launched our flight product in six new markets, and they’re now live in 24 countries.”

But executives have offered scant detail on connected trip mechanics, metrics, or financials, making it hard to track progress.

“Flight tickets booked through Booking.com’s flight offering have continued to meaningfully exceed our expectations,” Fogel said. “However, these still represented a small portion of our total reported air tickets.”

Analysts, including Mark Mahaney from Evercore, were frustrated at the lack of metrics and the lack of a timetable for when the company might provide such metrics.

“It’s too early,” Fogel responded. “But new customers are coming to the site [Booking.com] and we’re seeing an attractive cross-sell as a sign this is the right direction to go in…. But we want to have a lot more data before we come back with attachment rates, or comparison with Priceline, here’s what we see versus the industry, etc.”

Possible Challenges Ahead

The logic of the connected trip isn’t bulletproof.

One key premise is that many consumers prefer a minimalist approach to travel booking and will lean on one brand to do it all. But if these consumers prefer simplicity, doesn’t that open an opportunity to e-commerce names that are even better known and more used, such as Amazon, Google, Grab, Uber, and Walmart — or even travel suppliers themselves such as Accor and AirAsia — to swoop in and use the same connected trip playbook with their larger customer bases?

The second premise of the “connected trip” is that the size of this consumer segment seeking a one-stop-shop for travel is large. Booking Holdings executives have never publicly released an estimate of the scope of this demographic.

Airbnb’s rapid growth belies that premise. Many consumers have seemed to have no trouble adding a new app to their mobile phones to book alternative accommodations.

A third and final premise of the “connected trip” is that Booking Holdings can do a good job of it. Yet its track record on this front is uneven.

The Connected Trip May Be Tough to Connect

Cross-selling has been hard for the conglomerate in the past.

OpenTable is a case in point. Booking Holdings, under its previous company name of Priceline, paid a premium to acquire OpenTable, a restaurant booking reservation site and app, for $2.6 billion. The deal closed in July 2014.

Yet in 2016, Booking Holdings (then Priceline) took a $941 million write-down on OpenTable.

Since then, Booking Holdings hasn’t been touting a remarkable success story of upselling travel buyers on restaurant reservations.

Even Booking.com alone, the group’s biggest brand, has struggled to display vacation rental and short-term rental inventory in the same search display as hotels appear in without confusing consumers or upsetting hoteliers who see their sales drop due to the new competition.

On the consumer education front, Booking.com is continuing to test how to display items that are “comparably different,” so to speak, such as a spacious apartment that’s a vacation rental with little other on-site amenities and a hotel with a restaurant in the lobby and a pool on the top floor.

Booking.com’s ranking team, which oversees the algorithms that decide which travel listings appear at the top of the so-called sort order, has an ideal vision of how things should look. It wants the listings appearing at the top to reflect a data-based judgment of consumer demand that’s semi-personalized based on historical consumer behavior.

Yet commercial deals may toss a wrench in the works. Contracts between Booking.com and hoteliers (especially with larger, longstanding hotel brands) and between Booking.com and vacation rental property managers (who are generally new to online distribution) aren’t likely the same or equally profitable in the near term.

Diplomacy may be necessary to explain to a hotel brand accustomed to a stream of bookings why booking volume drops as homes and apartments gain more prominence.

Booking Holdings Sees Some Gains

Fogel didn’t seem worried on Wednesday.

“Whether an alternative accommodation or an independent hotel or a large global hotel chain, we strive to be a valuable partner to all types of accommodations on our platform,” Fogel said. “Within alternative accommodations in the U.S., Booking.com continued to add targeted new properties in the quarter and also saw encouraging share gains with some of our larger professional managers.”

In its defense, Booking.com has noted it first offered an apartment for rent in the year 2000 and that it has more practice at selling alternative accommodations than some other well-known online travel players. Booking.com has also said that about half of its consumers come directly to it, showing strong brand recognition.

“While it remains early days for Booking.com’s flight product, we are seeing positive data indicating we are getting entirely new customers for Booking.com,” Fogel said. “In addition, we are seeing an encouraging attach rate of accommodation bookings from these new customers. These early data points help demonstrate that our flight offering creates a new funnel to bring incremental customers to the platform, and they cross-sell an accommodation to these new customers.”

Similarly, the group has begun to move, after five years of operating its “genius” loyalty and discount program on Booking.com, to broaden the program to some of the group’s other brands, as Skift was first to report.

“We will continue innovating and adding to the ways we provide value to our Genius customers who have historically had a higher repeat rate and a higher mix of direct bookings when compared to non-Genius customers,” Fogel said.

In another promising advance, the conglomerate announced last month the debut of soon-to-be 400-employee “fintech,” or financial technology, unit, that aims to speed up bookings by making it easier and possibly cheaper for consumers to pay for travel in their preferred currencies. The unit will develop other products, too. One promising area would be the bundling of air ticket and hotel stay sales with higher-margin products such as trip protection and price-insurance of the kind developed by travel startup Hopper and its own fintech unit.

In light of these and other developments, “the connected trip” may still prove to be the winning formula. But the strategy isn’t yet the sure thing that company executives sometimes make it out to be.

The “connected trip” concept is part of Booking Holdings’ argument for why investors should think of it as an Amazon of online travel with infinite growth based on cross-selling, upselling, and scale-based data-crunching opportunities. Yet Booking Holdings also wants regulators worldwide to think of it as a small fish in a big ocean, as Skift has noted before.

The company has navigated that twin messaging adroitly so far. But headwinds might form as part of a general backlash against so-called big tech in several countries.

Where’s the M&A?

CEO Glenn Fogel rose to prominence as a corporate development officer who helped it acquire a stable of brands. Booking Holdings established an influential position in online travel by assertively snapping up smaller players. Today it operates travel and related websites such as Agoda, Booking.com, Kayak, and OpenTable.

Yet if you expected the pandemic to present Booking Holdings with a chance for opportunistic mergers and acquisitions to gain customer traffic, you’ve been disappointed.

The prospect of mergers or acquisitions didn’t come up on Wednesday’s call. There may be a reason for that. Other entryways into fast-growing emerging markets appear increasingly blocked.

Fogel has spent years eyeing Asia Pacific and its long-term growth potential. He previous led Booking Holdings’ (under its previous company name of Priceline) acquisition of Agoda, a brand focused on the region.

Yet future entryways into Asia Pacific appear increasingly blocked.

China seems more elusive as a market today than it did in 2014, when Booking Holdings (Priceline) took a half-billion-dollar stake in Ctrip, a Chinese booking giant since renamed Trip.com Group, and than it did in 2017, when the conglomerate invested $450 million in Ctrip’s Chinese rival Meituan-Dianping.

Booking Holdings’ brands don’t seem to have made much of a dent in China’s online travel market, where Trip.com brands Ctrip and Qunar are in a fierce fight with Tencent-backed e-commerce player Meituan and Alibaba’s Fliggy brand.

China, probably the biggest online travel growth market for the next decade, didn’t rate a mention in the Booking Holdings earnings call on Wednesday. Increased nationalism by China’s government may make it less likely for any foreign brands to get a post-pandemic toehold with Chinese outbound travelers.

India is poised to be the next big market in online travel. MakeMyTrip Group is a homegrown player with the largest online market share, above 60 percent before the pandemic by some measures. Yet Trip.com Group bought nearly half the group in 2019. That ownership stake, plus India’s populist pride in homegrown tech companies, all but rules out a Booking Holdings acquisition.

Other growth markets seem unpromising for Booking Holdings as a suitor.

South Korea’s breakout online travel star is Yanolja, a startup Booking Holdings took an approximately 17 percent stake in during an investment round in 2019. Yet Softbank invested $1.7 billion in capital into the company last month in a round Booking Holdings didn’t participate in. Assuming Yanolja goes public in 2023 while maintaining its growth trajectory, the company could hit a valuation too rich for Booking Holdings to justify paying a premium to take private again.

In Indonesia, one of the world’s fastest-growing markets before the pandemic struck, homegrown online travel player Traveloka is entertaining the idea of going public via a blank check company and hasn’t signaled any interest in a Booking Holdings acquisition, regularly choosing to court other potential backers for its investment-seeking efforts in recent years.

Expedia Group also outmaneuvered Booking Holdings (then Priceline) in Australia by buying Wotif, an Australian discounter, in 2014.

Meanwhile in Latin America, another long-term growth market, Argentina-based Despegar is the largest online travel player in most markets. But Expedia Group has a significant stake, all but preventing a Booking Holdings takeover.

As for the short-term rental market, Airbnb has continued to show adroitness in apparently outmaneuvering Booking Holdings in many markets worldwide.

On the price-comparison search, or metasearch front, travel startup HomeToGo appears to have stolen a march on Booking Holdings’ Kayak to the extent as it plans to go public later this year with a $1 billion valuation.

Emerging categories such as tours, activities, and experiences are generating upstarts that have early leads on Booking Holdings, including TripAdvisor’s Viator, GetYourGuide, Airbnb, and Klook.

Similarly, business travel has seemed elusive for Booking Holdings. The rise of companies such as TripActions and TravelPerk in offering business travel to small-and-medium sized companies shows another market segment Booking Holdings has so far neglected, with its Booking.com for Business product still fairly clunky and in testing, as Kayak’s corporate travel offering also missing a trick.

Some analysts dismiss such issues by focusing on what Booking.com and other brands excel at and how they have a long track record of sustained growth momentum.

That said, Fogel’s online-travel mergers-and-acquisitions strategy might need a new roadmap. On the bright side, Booking Holdings’ growth hasn’t stalled despite the pandemic, as Wednesday’s earnings report underscored. But looking long-term, there are some enormous geographic markets and trailblazing product segments to play for that could grow fast once the pandemic subsides. It remains to be seen if Booking Holdings will take its fair share of those opportunities.

“The rebound in travel demand and the connected trip will provide plenty of growth runway for the next three to five years,” said Yarbrough of Edward Jones. “Beyond that, no doubt they may have to expand into international markets or new categories.”

Watch Glenn Fogel Be Interviewed by Registering Now for Skift Global Forum September 21-23

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

forty eight  ⁄    =  twelve