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Business travel-oriented companies, including American Express, Carlson Wagonlit Travel, BCD Travel and HRG, are not as large as leisure-oriented Expedia and Priceline, but the business travel agencies are entrenched near the top of the heap, and they aren't going anywhere in the short term.

Despite all of the merger and acquisition activity and changing alliances in travel over the last year, rankings of the top ten booking sites and companies that did at least 15% of their business in the U.S. in 2013 remained remarkably stable.

Examining the top ten booking companies by their sales, or gross bookings, in 2013, Expedia Inc. hung on and barely edged out the Priceline Group for the first-place position, although Priceline moved up to second place, growing its sales 37.5% to $39.2 billion, displacing American Express, which fell to third from the second slot in 2012.

Among the Top 10, the only booking company that came close to the Priceline Group’s growth pace was Fareportal, which operates CheapOair. Fareportal’s gross bookings climbed 37.2% to $3.5 billion in 2013 compared with the previous year.

Apart from the Priceline Group and American Express, which got hit by a downsizing push in 2013, swapping positions, and Fareportal moving into the Top 10 from the #11 slot a year earlier, the remaining top ten by 2013 sales, namely Carlson Wagonlit Travel (4), BCD Travel (5), HRG North America (6), FC USA (7), Orbitz Worldwide (8), and AAA Travel (9) occupied the same ranks in 2013 as they did in 2012.

Two of the four travel management companies in the Top 10, namely Carlson Wagonlit Travel and HRG North America, saw their sales decline 2.88% or showed no growth, respectively, in 2013.

The only other company in the Top 10 to produce a sales decline in 2013 versus 2012 was FC USA, which primarily does leisure travel and saw sales decline 3.6%.

The top ten rankings were part of Travel Weekly’s 2014 Power List, which actually includes  the top 58 companies. Some of the sales numbers are taken from public disclosures, and some were self-reported. Here are the top ten.

Top 10 Booking Companies by Sales in 2013

Company Sales 2013 Sales 2012 Percent Change 2014 Ranking 2013 Ranking
Expedia Inc. $39.4 B $33.9 B 16.20% 1 1
The Priceline Group $39.2 B $28.5 B 37.50% 2 3
American Express $30.3 B $29.2 B 3.70% 3 2
Carlson Wagonlit Travel $26.9 B $27.7 B (-2.88%) 4 4
BCD Travel $22.4 B $21.2 B 5.60% 5 5
HRG North America $16 B $16 B same 6 6
FC USA (Flight Centre) $13.1 B $13.6 B (-3.6%) 7 7
Orbitz Worldwide $11.4 B $11.2 B 1.80% 8 8
AAA Travel $3.8 B $3.7 B 2.70% 9 9
Fareportal (CheapOair) $3.5 B $2.55 B 37.20% 10 11

Source: Travel Weekly’s 2014 Power List

The rankings do not include large booking sites such as China’s Ctrip, which doesn’t do business in the U.S., and Travelocity, which outsourced its North America operations to Expedia Inc. in 2013, and declined to participate in the survey.

The Expedia-Travelocity deal will punch up Expedia’s sales numbers in 2014, as will the Priceline Group’s $2.6 billion acquisition of OpenTable, which is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2014.

If these rankings had been compiled based on revenue and not sales, they would have been different.

For example, the Priceline Group’s 2013 revenue was nearly $6.8 billion compared with Expedia Inc.’s $4.8 billion so by this measure Priceline would have been the top dog.

Thus, revenue would be a more meaningful metric than gross bookings, but some companies are less willing disclose their actual revenue. For example, if does a $500 sale of an airline ticket, the lion’s share of that goes right to the airline, and that portion doesn’t benefit Expedia’s top line revenue. Online travel agencies for which hotels are a larger part of the business will take home a bigger chunk of the gross bookings.

It’s also helpful to compare the gross booking numbers with traffic to booking and metasearch sites to see which sites can direct traffic to the consumer booking sites. TripAdvisor sites see two and a half more visitors than Expedia in a month, whereas metasearch players like Kayak outrank Orbitz. Both of those get referral fees along the way, too.

So the top ten rankings show that the globe’s top players, most of which have global footprints, are fairly well-entrenched as there were not wild gyrations in their relative positions.

It is also interesting to point out that among the top ten in 2013, six of them, including Expedia, Priceline, FC USA, Orbitz Worldwide, AAA, and Fareportal (CheapOair) did the majority of their business in leisure travel.

Still, among the top six booking companies in 2013, those involved primarily in business travel, namely American Express (3), Carlson Wagonlit Travel (4), BCD Travel (5) and HRG (6), occupied four of the top six positions.

In other words, these travel management companies, which have considerable offline presences, are among the biggest, most powerful travel agencies in the world. They thus dominate the highest ranking although they were shut out of the top two positions.

It is also noteworthy that the top ten are not peers in terms of size.

For instance, there was a huge differential between Orbitz Worldwide’s (8) $11.4 billion in 2013 sales versus AAA Travel’s (9) $3.8 billion.

With 2014 already characterized by a slew of merger and acquisition activity involving the world’s travel companies, there will undoubtedly be ranking changes — but the extent of the jockeying for position remains to be seen.

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Tags: american express, business travel, expedia, priceline

Photo credit: Expedia President and CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. Expedia narrowly topped Priceline by gross bookings.

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