The strategy and vision for the next stage in Expedia Group's life should include sharp departures from the status quo, but rest assured that the company line for the time being will be stability to keep the peace.
Off with their heads isn’t a long-term strategy.
Now that the bloodletting — among senior leadership, at least — at Expedia Group apparently is over, and the CEO and chief financial officer searches are under way, what is the blueprint for getting the company back on track?
Skift spoke with insiders and outsiders about a potential future strategy for Expedia Group, and present the main themes below.
Cost-Cutting Is Coming
In its third quarter earnings announcement in November, the company lowered its full-year adjusted earnings guidance to 5-8 percent (down from 12-15 percent). However, chairman Barry Diller, on the day of the resignations announcement, said he thinks the company can accelerate growth in 2020, and sees a “significant opportunity for Expedia to grow revenue and margins in what is still a very dynamic online travel industry.”
Consider that in the third quarter, Expedia’s EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) margin was 11.8 percent compared with rival Booking Holdings’ 39.8 percent.
One way to widen margins in the short term is to reduce costs, and several people we spoke with said they expect that cost-cutting, including layoffs, would be on the agenda. Some $500-$600 million in “responsible belt-tightening” is feasible to accelerate earnings, one source said. Booking Holdings has a reputation of operating as a relatively lean machine; Expedia, with its new and aspirational headquarters on Elliott Bay in Seattle, Washington, doesn’t.
Simplify a Complex Business With Well-Placed Asset Sales
Several observers pointed to the complexity of the Expedia Group business — it lists more than 20 brands on its investor relations site — as a disadvantage. No, Expedia will not spin itself into oblivion with Diller cruising off into the sunset. Don’t expect Expedia to sell Expedia.com, Hotels.com, or Vrbo (although at least one observer mused that perhaps Marriott could be a buyer of the vacation rental business, although I highly doubt it.)
However, would corporate travel business Egencia, under-performing metasearcher Trivago, or luxury tour operator Classic Vacations, among Expedia’s brands, make for timely disposals? What about Expedia’s investment in Traveloka in Indonesia? There isn’t much left under the hood to make Travelocity, Orbitz, or CheapTickets worth selling, however.
“Our analysis of Expedia Group’s cost structure relative to benchmarks suggests massive redundancies and inefficiencies,” said Wall Street analyst Thomas Paulson, principal at Inflection Capital Management who owns shares in Expedia. “Moreover, we strongly suspect that Expedia Group’s inconsistent execution and frequent stock blow-ups are the consequence of excessive complexity and operating controls.”
Paulson said his company suspects that Expedia had problems integrating many of its acquisitions. “As such, old wiring needs to be ripped-out and new wiring needs to be laid. That is likely to take time and it points to they type of experience the new leader will need to have.”
Sharpen Focus and Execution
This is a corollary to the disposing of nonessential assets, and sharpening focus and execution is easier said than done.
What is Expedia.com’s differentiation? How is it different from Travelocity or Orbitz? “Expedia’s loyalty program is incomprehensible,” said one online travel agency veteran, citing the weak loyalty scheme as a detriment to attracting direct bookings.
Another travel industry veteran argued for a radical reorientation to have Expedia focus on a handful of key markets, and to dominate them. Rinse and repeat.
A well-placed content acquisition or two would enhance this strategy, and serve as an edge against Google.
Does Expedia Need a Warrior CEO to Confront Google?
We’ve heard a range of opinions on how Expedia should face off against Google, which now-former CEO Mark Okerstrom cited as a big reason for Expedia’s disappointing performance in the third quarter.
Some analysts have argued that Expedia needs to wean itself off Google or be swallowed up. Both Expedia, and to a greater extent rival Booking Holdings, have articulated the need to reduce reliance on Google, and emphasize direct bookings on their respective online travel agency sites.
“I think it’s about finding a war chief,” said one insider, opining that should be one of the characteristics of a new CEO who would get more aggressive with Google, and would force Expedia to execute faster.
Tapping a new CEO “offers the company the opportunity to re-brand Expedia as the connected-trip solution,” said Paulson. “This would involve making a significant appeal to consumers to reconsider how they are currently using the Expedia Group’s platform of brands and services. This likely would involve demonizing Google as an excessive toll-taker that takes 4-5 percent of a travelers booking value.”
Others disagreed, though, arguing that Google’s usurpation tactics are nothing new, and that Okerstrom was scapegoating Google instead of accepting responsibility for Expedia’s lack of execution.
“What consumers brands of any scale have successfully resisted Google?” asked one veteran travel industry entrepreneur. Amazon, Zillow, perhaps Airbnb to some extent, but the list is short.
Still perhaps travel industry gripes about Google encroachment, the exodus of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and the prospect of a U.S. bipartisan consensus that the time is ripe to blunt the power of Big Tech, signal the prospect that a new era in the Google-travel industry power dynamic may be in the offing.
Shake Up Brand Leadership
One knowledgeable observer claimed that one aspect of Okerstrom’s problematic reorganization of Expedia was that he simply moved chess pieces around, in terms of appointing new brand leaders, instead of recruiting outsiders to really shake things up and reinvigorate tired business units.
When Diller and the Expedia board get to naming a new CEO and CFO, if they come from outside the company, presumably they bring in some proverbial new blood along with them.
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Photo credit: Attendees at the Expedia Explore '19 conference at the Venetian in Las Vegas November 13-13, 2019. They heard all about Expedia's strategy, which may change anew. Adam Shane Productions / Expedia Group