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There’s been a changing of the guard at the top echelons of online travel leadership, and the CEOs of the three largest companies are reorienting their companies to meet head-on what they perceive to be challenges of today and tomorrow.
Until relatively recently, Jane Sun had been Ctrip’s co-president, Glenn Fogel had headed the Priceline Group’s worldwide strategy and planning, and Mark Okerstrom had been Expedia Inc.’s longtime chief financial officer. But in a rapid-fire series of events starting in late 2016, all three ascended to the CEO slot at their respective companies.
To a great extent, the three are starting to shape the companies in their own images.
Arguably the biggest changes to date have come from Fogel at the Priceline Group and Sun at Ctrip.
In a stunner, Fogel recently told investors and analysts that the Priceline Group, which is Google’s largest travel advertiser and grew into its current size nurtured on digital advertising, is rethinking its online advertising strategy and plans to put more emphasis on brand advertising — meaning TV commercials.
There are myriad reasons for Fogel’s strategy shift.
Fogel said it’s in the company’s interest to develop one-on-one relationships with its customers so they can come direct to Booking.com or sister brand Agoda.com, for example. Fogel would also love to see customers downloading and repeatedly using Booking.com’s and Kayak’s apps, for example, so these subsidiaries don’t have to keep paying Google or others to reacquire users over and over again.
It isn’t a case of the Priceline Group abandoning digital advertising; instead, the company plans to deemphasize it to a degree in favor of TV. Prodding customers to visit Booking.com directly or to download its apps would improve the subsidiary’s return on investment “once we get to the optimal level of spend” on TV, Chief Financial Officer Daniel Finnegan said during a recent earnings call.
In a related strategy tweak, Fogel said the Priceline Group will ratchet back its advertising spend in unspecified third-party marketing channels because some of these companies — presumably including Trivago, TripAdvisor, and Google — use the revenue to compete against Priceline. Fogel’s company has definitely trimmed its advertising through Expedia’s Trivago, and TripAdvisor has publicly noted that some of its advertising partners are reducing their spending in TripAdvisor.
Over at China’s Ctrip, Sun is expanding the country’s largest online travel company beyond Asia. Ctrip is already the second biggest online travel presence in the world by market cap after Priceline.
Sun, the lone woman heading one of the big three online travel agencies, announced in late November 2016 — within days of becoming CEO — that Ctrip was acquiring Scotland-based flight metasearch company Skyscanner. Available in more than 30 languages and with a presence throughout Europe, and a lighter presence in North America, Asia, and Latin America, Skyscanner increases Ctrip’s global footprint. And Skyscanner is increasingly becoming a booking site, not merely a place where consumers can search for airline tickets.
In November 2017, Ctrip/Skyscanner made two additional acquisitions: U.S.-based Trip.com and London-headquartered Twizoo. Both companies enhance Skyscanner’s destination content and social media-generated reviews.
But Sun wasn’t done. She also repurposed the Trip.com domain and turned it into a pared-down English-language version of Ctrip, replete with flight, hotel, and train offerings. So now Ctrip has two English-language sites, and the newest, Trip.com, amounts to a rebranding of Ctrip for site visitors.
In this series of moves, Sun is expanding Ctrip’s global footprint and broadening its traditional mission beyond serving the Chinese traveler.
Another head-turner of a move was Okerstrom’s proclamation that Expedia would forego big acquisitions in the foreseeable future in favor of organic growth. Expedia, like Ctrip in 2015 and 2016, bought almost everything that wasn’t nailed down. At Expedia, those purchases included Wotif, Travelocity, Orbitz Worldwide, HomeAway, and others.
Under Okerstrom’s new strategy, unless Expedia hears an offer it can’t refuse or sees a potential acquisition that is just too enticing to turn down, the company plans to fuel further growth from its existing portfolio, including Expedia.com, Hotels.com, HomeAway, the Expedia Affiliate Network, and Egencia.
If Okerstrom sticks to his word to “disproportionately” tilt toward growing internally instead of via acquisition, Expedia could benefit from the enhanced focus. Following its 2015 acquisition spree, Expedia stumbled in integrating Orbitz Worldwide, and saw its hotel room night growth tumble. With the further integration of HomeAway and Trivago’s challenges on his plate, Okerstrom wants to avoid miscues and distractions.
Travel startups and other companies that may have been looking toward Expedia for a potential exit strategy thus may have to woo others among the relatively limited roster of potential suitors with big resources to make acquisitions.
Okerstrom also said he intends to give more focus to enhancing Expedia’s operations, including putting an emphasis on signing up more hotels in key local markets around the world rather than necessarily adding new markets. It’s unclear how that would play out in practice.
Tours and activities, Okerstrom said, may also deserve higher priority now than under the previous regime, as he juggles the order of Expedia’s to-do list.
With Sun and Fogel already marking their one-year anniversaries at their new gigs, and Okerstrom settling in, it’s clear that their current challenges are requiring them to forge ahead and make clear breaks with what their predecessors accomplished.