Partnerships are the way to fight scale, BTO audience told

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When execs from Priceline, Booking.com, Expedia and Google take it turns to speak at a travel conference, the audience can become blinded (if not terrified) by the numbers bandied about.

At last week’s Buy Tourism Online (BTO) conference in Italy, the audience of independent hoteliers, tech providers and destinations were left in no doubt just how huge these businesses are.

The David/Goliath disconnect is compounded in Italy where there are even more independent and non-chain hotels than in most major European tourism markets, while regional and national policies create a fragmented destination marketing environment.

But while Priceline Group’s market capitalization of $75 billion, often referenced by moderator-in-chief Philip Wolf, is perhaps so stratospheric it becomes meaningless, some other numbers hit closer to home for the audience.

A figure that kept coming up during the keynotes was “$3 billion”, the amount Priceline Group allegedly spends on Google every year. Glenn Fogel, its head of worldwide strategy and planning (as well as its executive vice president of corporate development) was asked about  its Google spend, and noted that “we don’t disclose it but I’ll go with it…”

And that eye-watering amount could easily be higher.

“Any channel that gives us a good return on investment we will consider spending more on,” he said.

He noted the “interesting conflict” that exists around Google. “Travel companies pay Google to get customers but seem to resent in a way that doesn’t seem to apply to say, newspaper advertising. Maybe it is Google’s dominance – you know you have to pay – and maybe it’s the requirement that causes the angst”.

The angst felt by smaller hoteliers in terms is how they can compete with booking.com – a business which many observers insist has become the market leading by working out how to optimise its Google spend – is understandable and real.

But from a top-view corporate perspective, Fogel tried to console the audience by saying that the success of booking.com – currently handling 1.2 million room nights every 24 hours – “shows how a little company can grow….by concentrating on its core competencies [and by] setting up the company to be flexible and agile.”

Fogel, as head of corporate strategy, gets a lot of cold call emails from businesses wanting to be acquired. On the one hand this sounds good for some small tech companies – Hotel Ninjas came to the group’s attention this way.

But the example of Qlicka – a mobile marketing segmentation technology firm which Priceline bought in 2014 – works the other way. Priceline not only spends loads of money on Google it can buy a business which will help it optimise (if not dominate) Google.

Javier Delgado Muerza, Google’s head of travel search for southern Europe, was on stage later, and was very insistent that the widely-referenced “Priceline spends $3 billion on Google” has never been disclosed and was unable to confirm or comment on that specific figure. His observation was that Google’s auction marketplace for hotel placement is neutral but acknowledged that it might also be intimidating for smaller businesses.

The fragmented nature of Italy’s hotel market is driving a dynamic ecosystem of technology firms with whom independent hoteliers and destinations could partner with in order to have access to the Google audience. His argument, similar to what Fogel said when talking about if hoteliers need to add artificial intelligence and voice search to their “to do” list, is that partnerships allow hoteliers to concentrate on what they are good at – being an hotelier.

So the answer for small firms in this sector appears to be partnerships – but one truth for hoteliers (and the wider hospitality tech industry) is that is the OTAs themselves that are increasingly the partners. The B2B offerings – from BTO speakers booking.com and Expedia – pull in the data and analytics from the consumer traffic and create a circle where there is little distinction between B2B and B2C.

Whether that circle is virtuous or vicious remains under discussion.

So take Expedia, represented by its market manager for southern Europe, Walter Lo Faro. He talked up the various options available to subscribers to its Expedia Partner Central (EPC) extranet, from the revenue management possibilities gleaned by looking at the future bookings of up to 20 competitors to the real-time reputation management benefits of linking up guests on-property with the hotel operations team.

Rev+, a specific revenue management tool which went live in the US in September, will be launching soon in Europe, he said.

So businesses who sell via Expedia Inc’s OTAs have access to these B2B tools to help them make the most of the OTA channel. Never mind those Web1.0 conversations about owning the customer, the question is now who owns the hotel?

Another huge number thrown out by Faro was “$400 billion” – the value of the global meetings, incentives, conference and events (MICE) market. Expedia is clearly putting a lot of attention on this sector via its Meetings Market by Expedia brand.

Meetings Markets was quietly launched in Germany earlier this year and made its biggest move to date last week, with Best Western’s German properties signing up for a white-labelled version of the platform. Meetings Market offers a one-stop booking portal for meetings of between 20-30 people – booking the rooms, the catering, the AV equipment and more. There are potential commercial synergies with Expedia Inc’s corporate travel agency Egencia and synergies with the hotel partners already engrossed in Expedia Inc’s B2C and B2B world. The potential is vast.

Peter Verhoeven, director general of Booking.com, was not to be outdone in the big number stakes, although it’s all relative – 1,000 is huge when it refers to the number of tests booking.com carries out on a daily basis across its desktop, mobile, apps and email messaging.

Verhoeven noted that small teams within his organisation had sufficient autonomy to test on an almost constant basis, and that while the majority of these tests did not result in any material improvement, it was part of its corporate culture. “We are always looking for the next big innovation but small steps are hugely important as well.”

He added that this inbuilt encouragement of experimentation was also applied to its hotel partners, who are “encouraged to experiment [with our B2B tools] like we do with our consumer site.”

The landscape is difficult for small hotel operators and others which do not have the scale and resources of these global behemoths. Whether the on-message presentations about the partnership opportunities are reassuring for the independents is a difficult call, but the reality of how things have turned out is that partnerships – and the costs associated – could be the lesser of two evils.

NB1: The author’s travel and accommodation costs were supported by BTO as part of its media partnership with Tnooz.

NB2: Image by Akhuani/BigStock.

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