TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel site — with about 400 million monthly visits, as of early 2017 — saw its margins peak in 2009 and fall every year since.
Several factors drove the margin drop. But one critical factor was that TripAdvisor’s media model did not work as well on increasingly popular mobile websites and apps as it had on desktop browsers.
In response, the company attempted to improve its mobile game by relaunching its hotel shopping experience. First it phased out pop-up ads, then it introduced metasearch, and a couple of years ago began emphasizing Instant Booking over metasearch. Several months ago, though, it re-emphasized metasearch although booking capabilities are still present, too.
The rollout of its instant booking feature had become a weight on the company’s revenue-per-shopper, a key industry metric.
Kaufer’s ambitious approach to Instant Booking may have been a strategic mistake, according to a handful of analysts attending this week’s Skift Global Forum at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.
In May, TripAdvisor launched a redesign of its interface that seems to downplay Instant Booking by giving more preference to metasearch links to partners.
Yet the downward presure on earnings has remained. So analysts currently have a moderately cautious consensus view about the travel giant. As of Thursday, analysts at investment banks have given TripAdvisor’s stock four sell ratings, 17 holds, and three buys.
In recent months, TripAdvisor’s president and CEO Steve Kaufer has elaborated on his response to these critiques. He said that he believes critical drivers for a bright future have been falling into place.
Yet at Skift Global Forum, Mark Mahaney, a research analyst and managing director at RBC Capital Markets, made a sharp critique Tuesday of TripAdvisor’s recent wobbles.
Mahaney said TripAdvisor had executed poorly in innovating its hotel product in recent years and that profits had suffered as a result. He said the company would benefit if a strategic partner — presumably a company like Ctrip, Expedia Inc., or Priceline Group — acquired it. He added that it was unlikely that the Priceline Group would be the buyer, and that Google would be a natural fit, although a Google-TripAdvisor marriage would be unlikely because of antitrust concerns.
On Wednesday at the Forum, Kaufer responded to the overall analyst critiques, which he has heard in variations elsewhere, with a defense of his company’s strategy.
“Travelers are happy with what we’re doing,” he said. “They’re not asking for whiz-bang feature, something here, something there. They’re looking for help planning the trip. And to that, we’ve done a great job helping to build those trip memories.”
He said the company’s expansion into restaurant bookings — which often encourage more usage of the app by consumers than leisure travel does — had set it up to ride long-term secular trends worldwide for steady expansion. He also touted the company’s fast expansion into tours and activities.
Yet analysts note that the commissions on hotels are generally higher than for restaurants and activities.
Kaufer reiterated to the audience: “When we look at innovation, we look at the redesign we’ve done [and launched a few months ago], we have focused on making sure we’re serving the absolute best price possible for hotels, and a new mobile app.”
Kaufer said that increasing mobile adoption is “a headwind and a tailwind” for the company.
“It’s a headwind because people buy less on the phone,” he said, acknowledging that his company’s branding effort to encourage people to think of it not just as a reviews’ site but also as a booking site hasn’t yet been as effective as it could be — though the company only ramped up that brand spending this summer.”
Yet Kaufer said mobile could be a long-term positive for TripAdvisor. He said mobile could be its way of securing the user not just in the planning phase but while they’re on-property and in-destination.
Kaufer noted that his company remains on track for propelling its long-term growth of revenue-per-shopper. He echoed his comments made elsewhere that the company continues to expand its unique number of hotel shoppers — a trend it credits to having built a more compelling user experience.
Nearly a half-year ago, Kayak’s chief executive Steve Hafner predicted that his metasearch competitor TripAdvisor would have to alter the way it handles its Instant Booking effort or risk inviting a change in management or ownership.
In August, TripAdvisor sweetened the incentives for management with juicier exit packages if another entity took control of the company via a merger or sale. Skift has previously reported on the possibility that talks of a sale of the company may have been quietly underway.
Unsurprisingly, Kaufer did not discuss such scenarios on Wednesday.
Trivago and Google have recently been pushing their hotel metasearch products more. Have they been making gains at TripAdvisor’s expense? Kaufer said it’s hard to know the exact math, but if you look at their growth, they probably have taken some customers that would have come to TripAdvisor otherwise.
But he said Trivago has only a narrow product just focused on hotels. “Trivago may have a tremendous brand, but not the breadth of the offer we have,” he said. “When you look at the capabilities that TripAdvisor has to offer and our existing brand awareness globally, you see nobody has anything else comparable.”
“My job is to grow the company,” Kaufer said. “Looking at the size of the addressable market, I believe there are plenty of growth opportunities.”
Side note: Skift Research recently conducted an in-depth interview with TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer as part of our Deep Dive Into TripAdvisor report, which is available to our Research subscribers.