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China’s largest online travel agency, Ctrip, reported financial results for the third quarter, but some investment analysts listening to the earnings call were most interested in a different Chinese e-commerce platform, Meituan-Dianping.
Two weeks ago, the Priceline Group invested $450 million in Meituan-Dianping, a marketplace that aims to grow its hotel bookings, ride-hailing, and restaurant reservations.
The move surprised some observers. Priceline already had an investment in Ctrip, which it didn’t double down on. Priceline holds 9 percent in equity and convertible debt in the Chinese giant, to quote Skift Research’s A Deep Dive Into Ctrip and the China Online Travel Market 2017 report, published this summer.
A few analysts asking questions on an earnings call Thursday in Shanghai with executives asked about the investment. Their questions were met with generic answers about how Ctrip had confidence in its own product.
One analyst asked if executives have had conversations with the Priceline Group about the investment and where the relationship is in good shape, but a Ctrip executive replied that the company has reiled heavily on organic growth over the years. In a follow-up question, the analyst asked if Priceline might feel worried that Ctrip’s acquisition of flight-search company Skyscanner makes it a strategic threat to Priceline’s metasearch brand Kayak. Again, there was no answer.
Jane Sun, Ctrip CEO, ducked two questions about Ctrip’s strength relative to Meituan-Dianping. She talked instead about the company’s own growth story in a generic way.
It’s a good story. In the third quarter of 2017, Ctrip’s net revenue increased 42 percent, year-on-year, to $1.19 billion. The gains in the period were driven by a 36 percent jump in accommodation bookings to $424 million.
Ctrip’s operating margin for the third quarter of 2017 was 17 percent, which is comparable to Expedia, Inc.’s 18 percent, but well below Priceline’s operating margin, which is close to 36 percent.
Skyscanner Driving Gains
Adding Skyscanner revenue to Ctrip’s totals was the primary reason Ctrip saw its transportation-ticketing revenue jump 41 percent in the third quarter to $515 million.
“The total number of transactions made by direct booking increased almost three-fold since May, the month we launched the engine on Skyscanner, through September,” said CFO Cindy Wang on a call with investors.
Ctrip uses the word “direct” booking to refer to what some in the West call “instant” booking, where the transaction is completed on Ctrip or Skyscanner instead of being handed off to the supplier or the online travel company fulfilling the deal.
Previously, Skyscanner was labeling this “Book on Skyscanner.” But now, while users literally still book on Skyscanner, the advertising displayed on screen calls it “Book on Ctrip.”
An anecdotal search of some flights on Skyscanner’s UK website showed Ctrip deals often featured in search results.
Executives said that the vast majority of bookings Ctrip receives from Skyscanner are done by users remaining within Skyscanner’s interface via this instant, or direct, method. This has uplifted conversions, or the percentage of people who start a search who eventually complete a transaction, by almost 50 percent for Ctrip.
The total volume of air tickets Ctrip sold via Skyscanner in the third quarter grew more than 250 percent, year-over-year, while Skyscanner has helped Ctrip drive “triple digits volume growth” in its international ticket sales, officials said.
James Liang, Ctrip co-founder and executive chairman, said Skyscanner will send more traffic to Ctrip’s platform as time passes.
Investment analysts were instead more interested in the potential impact of an August ruling by Chinese regulators that e-commerce companies like Ctrip can no longer require customers to opt-out of ancillary services such as trip insurance but must nstead adopt an opt-in standard. Executives said only about 5 percent of Ctrip group bookings involved such practices and that the company is complying with the watchdog ruling.
Ctrip.com did not reveal any investments that may have been made through the $400 million fund it created a year ago in partnership with private equity firm General Atlantic. Earlier this year, China restricted companies from sending money overseas.
But, domestically last month Ctrip co-led (along with All-Stars Investment) a $300 million investment round in home-rental booking platform Tujia.com.