An outsider might think the U.S. online travel market is already saturated, but Booking.com is proving that there is plenty of room to grow in the U.S., and competitors are feeling the heat.
Booking.com, the world’s largest hotel booking site with 425,000 hotels and other lodging choices, says the U.S. became its largest destination country in 2013, and it is ramping up its efforts stateside.
Expedia is the largest online travel agency in the U.S., but Booking.com is making market share gains, and is hungry for more.
Priceline CEO Darren Huston, speaking during the company’s fourth quarter earnings call February 20, said Booking.com has 1,000 people working in the U.S., staffs offices all over the country and plans on expanding them, and has signed just about all of the U.S.-based hotel chains.
Those 1,000 Booking.com employs account for about 55% of the Priceline Group’s employees in the U.S. Globally Priceline had about 9,500 employees through December 31, 2013.
“There is a lot of growth ahead of us in the United States because it deserves to be significantly larger than it is today,” Huston said.
Huston said Amsterdam-based Booking.com over the years had strong engagement from international customers booking rooms in large cities such as New York and San Francisco, but now it is attracting significantly more American customers.
Booking.com has been making gains with its U.S. advertising campaign, which debuted a little more than a year ago, and you can expect a lot more.
Priceline Group CFO Daniel Finnegan forecast that the company will spend $220 million to $240 million on offline advertising globally in 2014, with a chunk earmarked for the U.S. Booking.com already had TV campaigns running in the U.S. and Australia, and recently mounted a TV blitz in Canada and the UK.
Priceline and sister company Booking.com have long taken a rigorous approach to digital marketing, and Huston said it is also taking a “methodical” approach to offline advertising, as well.
The company calculates such things as the propensity to book direct and the lifetime customer value it achieves from the TV campaigns, as well as how much it contributes to cash flow. All of its ad campaigns are in English-speaking markets, and it basically used the same content for all of them, although it changed the voiceover for its UK campaign.
Huston said he’s constantly surprised how relatively low Booking.com’s brand awareness is in Europe despite the fact that so many Europeans have used the service. He considers the UK TV campaign a test to see if it delivers the “needed impact.”
Huston, who became CEO on January 1 when Jeffery Boyd stepped aside, was asked how his approach will differ from Boyd’s. He said the philosophy, which he had contributed to while heading Booking.com over the last few years, will continue: An emphasis on organic growth, making opportunistic acquisitions, letting the Priceline Group brands operate independently, and focusing on the customer.
“I don’t see any major deviation from that path,” Huston said.
“If anything, you’ll see an increased pace of innovation as the landscape continues to evolve,” he added.
Finnegan noted that Priceline company Kayak notched $55 million in revenue in the fourth quarter, and the various other Priceline brands made strides through an increased presence in Kayak.
However, Huston said the Priceline Group needs to be aware that competitors such as Expedia use Kayak, too.
“We have no intention of making Kayak a Priceline Group-only marketplace,” Huston said.
He also said that Kayak — which has had its troubles with international expansion, particularly in the UK — is now taking a more methodical approach to international expansion “rather than throwing things out there.”
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Photo credit: Darren Huston, now the Priceline CEO, speaking at a World Travel & Tourism Council event in April 2013.