By all accounts, Priceline Group CEO Darren Huston was performing admirably, or “killing it,” as one former colleague put it, before his tenure at the company came to a crashing close April 27 with revelations that he had an improper relationship with a female employee.
A former Starbucks and Microsoft executive, Huston, a Canadian, moved to Amsterdam and became CEO of the Priceline Group’s flagship business, Booking.com, in September 2011, and then added the Group CEO title on January 1, 2014, succeeding the legendary Jeffery Boyd.
During Huston’s 4.5-year tenure at the company, including the more than two years before Boyd left as CEO and became non-executive chairman, the Group’s room nights booked tripled and from 2011 to 2015 the Priceline Group’s market cap rose 173 percent to $66.34 billion.
The Group’s operating profits increased from $1.4 billion in 2011 to $3.26 billion in 2015 while the employee roster climbed from about 5,000 to more than 15,000 through the end of 2015.
So far in 2016, the Priceline Group’s stock price has risen 7.78 percent to $1,353.74 per share while Expedia, at just one-fourth the market cap of its chief rival, has seen its stock price fall 11 percent so far this year to $121.26.
He Won’t Make Waves?
Vying for supremacy in a $1.4 trillion global travel market, and competing against many other brands, as well, Huston’s Priceline Group and Dara Khosrowshahi’s Expedia have activated dramatically different strategies — and Huston won’t be around to see his through or to modify them.
One of the chief differences over the last two years has been Expedia’s buying binge, including the acquisitions of Wotif, Travelocity, Orbitz Worldwide, and HomeAway, versus Priceline’s largely organic growth strategy — at least to date.
After then-CEO Boyd acquired Kayak in 2013, a move that Huston later didn’t appear to be solidly behind out of a distaste for metasearch, one financial analyst told Skift in early 2014 that when Huston took over he likely wouldn’t rock the boat or make any big moves initially, because he needed to reassure Wall Street about the transition from Boyd to himself.
But Huston jumped right in and in June 2014 announced that Priceline would be acquiring dining reservations platform OpenTable for $2.6 billion. It was a brash move because although restaurants are very much related to travel, they aren’t part of the traditional air, car, hotel, or cruise categories, for example. OpenTable’s growth under Priceline Group ownership, meanwhile, has been slower than anticipated.
While TripAdvisor has been gobbling up restaurant reservations platforms, largely in Europe, Expedia hasn’t followed suit and has stayed out of the dining-platform fray so far.
After OpenTable, the Priceline Group under Huston has made a handful of acquisitions and equity investments, including in China’s Ctrip and Latin America’s Hotel Urbano, but the acquisitions haven’t been jaw-dropping in scope.
Organic Versus Inorganic
Although Priceline’s Booking.com has been strong in building a vacation rental and apartment rental business organically to compete with Airbnb, HomeAway, TripAdvisor, and local players, Huston boasted about not being interested in acquiring HomeAway, as Expedia eventually did, because he said HomeAway was too expensive; Booking.com could build its own vacation rental business, and there were too many properties on HomeAway’s sites that were not online bookable.
While Expedia yesterday backed away from HomeAway’s previously stated goal that 100 percent of its vacation rentals should be online bookable by the end of 2016, a goal opposed by many individual property owners, Huston stuck with his insistence that Booking.com’s DNA as a tech company demands that all its content be instantly confirmable online.
With Expedia’s acquisition tear and its vow to keep it going, and Priceline’s relative abstinence from big mergers and acquisitions in the last two years, this has left a situation where Expedia’s hotel business is growing faster than Priceline’s, although Expedia’s growth is taking place in part inorganically and from a smaller base.
Priceline hasn’t reported first quarter of 2016 earnings yet but Expedia yesterday boasted a 37 percent year over year growth in hotel room nights sold, although 14 percent points of that were attributed to adding brands such as Travelocity, Orbitz Worldwide, and HomeAway to the fold.
Consider the following chart comparing their respective growth spurts in the fourth quarter of 2015:
Priceline and Expedia Q4 2015 Comparisons
|EXPEDIA INC.||% CHANGE||PRICELINE GROUP||% CHANGE|
Source: Expedia Inc. and the Priceline Group
Priceline indeed has a much larger hotel business than Expedia as the Priceline portfolio of companies, including Booking,com, Agoda, and Priceline.com, generated 99.1 million room nights in the fourth quarter of 2015 compared with Expedia’s 52.8 million.
While Expedia has sucked all of the air out of the room, Huston protested that the Priceline Group crunches twice as many hotel bookings as Expedia, and Booking.com’s technical prowess in search engine marketing and breadth of content give Booking.com “a competitive moat.”
Priceline has long talked about the prospect of its room night growth eventually decelerating because of the law of large numbers and that indeed has been happening. The company noted in its 10-K report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission February 17: “… for the year ended December 31, 2015, our accommodation room night reservation growth was 25%, a deceleration from 28% in 2014, 37% in 2013 and 40% in 2012. Given the size of our hotel reservation business, we expect that our year-over-year growth rates will continue to decelerate, though the rate of deceleration may fluctuate.”
Some 15 percentage points of Expedia’s 39 percent growth in room nights, from half the base of Priceline’s, was tied to acquisitions. The Priceline Group’s room nights grew organically at a slower pace, 26.6 percent, than Expedia’s in the fourth quarter.
Sustainable Or Not?
So which strategy will win? Expedia’s growth through acquisition or Priceline/Booking.com’s emphasis on organic growth.
While there isn’t a definitive answer, it’s possible that both will prevail — or perhaps Huston would have steered the Priceline Group toward a mammoth acquisition or two in the next year or two.
There is a huge fallacy that Expedia and Priceline mainly compete against one another but in the massive $1.4 trillion global travel industry there is plenty of room for both to succeed, and they have many other competitors, including hotel websites and offline travel agencies.
Another divergent point between the two companies is that Expedia Inc. is a full-service travel agency, selling airline tickets, tours and activities, cruises and cars in addition to hotels to both leisure travelers and corporate accounts while Priceline’s Booking.com unit has focused solely on accommodations, mostly in the leisure sphere.
Booking.com has certainly been one of the greatest success stories —if not the greatest success story — in the history of online travel. But as it begins to ratchet up a fledgling corporate travel business, the fact that it doesn’t sell airline tickets is almost a nonstarter.
The Business Side of the Hotel Arena
During Huston’s time in the dual Group and Booking.com CEO posts, Booking.com sought to get heavily involved in the business-to-business side of the hotel business with its launch of marketing and booking engine services for the hotel industry in the form of BookingSuite.
It seems as though many of the major players, including Expedia, its Trivago unit and TripAdvisor, are following Booking.com’s and Huston’s lead in getting more heavily involved in providing business services to the hotel industry.
It’s a shame — apart from a poor decision regarding an improper relationship with an employee, which Huston has apologized for — that he won’t be around to choreograph sticking with the course he led the Priceline Group on or tweaking it as competitive dynamics changed.
Huston’s reliance on organic growth, his insistence that all properties sold on Booking.com be online bookable and instantly confirmable, and the strategy to keep Booking.com solely focused on the hotel business all set his tenure apart from those of his peers at Expedia.
The Priceline Group board will conduct an executive search to find a permanent CEO to replace Huston while Boyd has regained the CEO title on an interim basis.
There could be some internal candidates, including Glenn Fogel, head of the Group’s worldwide strategy and planning; Kayak CEO Steve Hafner; Rentalcars.com CEO Ian Brown, as well as former managers at Booking.com.
Several industry veterans who don’t work for Priceline companies think the board will settle on someone externally for the next Priceline Group CEO and very possibly from outside the travel industry. Perhaps the new CEO will come from Amazon or Google, some travel industry insiders speculate.
One financial industry analyst argued that Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer would be a good fit as Priceline Group CEO although the former Google official’s track record leading Yahoo leads much to be desired.
Observers floated other names — some less plausible than others — including former Orbitz Worldwide CEO Barney Harford; Michelle Peluso, former CEO at both Gilt and Travelocity; Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff, and even former Expedia CEO and Zillow founder and chairman Rich Barton.
It isn’t clear at all whether the Priceline Group board would opt for someone with or without travel industry experience. Huston had been groomed for the role for more than two years before he took over as CEO, and the company might want a new chief executive who could take over the post without having to deal with a momentous learning curve.
Huston felt the Priceline Group got short shrift and that the $66 billion online travel power should be viewed in the same light as leading e-commerce players such as Amazon and Alibaba, for example.
It will be up to a new CEO — whomever that turns out to be — to make that happen.