Booking Holdings hired a new marketing chief in 2019 because it knew that its brand marketing in the U.S. was falling short, particularly against household name Expedia. Booking is pivoting to address shortcomings, realizing finally you can't keep kicking the can down the road with basically the same strategy.
Booking Holdings, which calls itself the “largest, most profitable global online travel business in the world,” got candid about some stubborn, multiyear failures on page 42 of its more than 100-page proxy report.
Despite notching a “solid” 2019, Booking Holdings stated Friday: “Nevertheless, 2019 was not without its challenges. Booking.com continues to under-index in the United States market, we did not see the desired results from Booking.com’s brand marketing efforts and, for much of the year, we were slower than desired to meet a number of our goals for increased collaboration, cooperation and integration among our brands.”
Failures in the U.S.
There’s a ton to unpack in that telling sentence.
As far back as 2015, Amsterdam-based Booking.com spent an estimated $32.8 million on national TV ads in the U.S., and that doesn’t even include online marketing spend. However, Booking’s “under-index” admission Friday is a jargon-filled way to say the company has been unable to make sufficient headway against Expedia Group in its home market.
Consider the following Google Trends data showing web searches for Expedia (red), Priceline (yellow) and Booking.com (blue). Despite five years of pouring tens of millions of dollars annually into U.S. brand awareness campaigns, including on TV, Booking.com’s brand awareness hardly registers compared with household-name Expedia.
The chart shows that Booking.com’s sister company Priceline has far more brand recognition than Booking.com in the U.S.
Skift has discussed with various Booking Holdings officials whether they erred in trying to build up its European brand, Booking.com, in the U.S. instead of home-grown Priceline, and one in particular scoffed that I was naive. Booking.com is Booking Holdings’ in-house brand that can scale and has the most potential in the U.S., I was told.
Still, the mothership’s efforts to boost Booking.com in the United States have lagged, and the company admits it.
Brand Marketing Shortcomings
It’s not just a problem in the U.S. but Booking Holdings has been unhappy with its own brand marketing efforts, and it hired a former Google executive, Arjan Dijk, as chief marketing officer in August to right the course.
Booking Holdings CEO Glenn Fogel has committed to leaning into brand marketing, with great but reduced muscle in search engine marketing, but has admitted he can’t allocate what he needs for brand marketing, because it hasn’t performed well enough yet.
The Connected Trip Is Dead for Now
The Booking Holdings proxy conceded that for much of 2019, “we were slower than desired to meet a number of our goals for increased collaboration, cooperation and integration among our brands.”
It is believed that some of the key reasons that Fogel took on the added role as CEO of Booking Holdings’ largest brand, Booking.com, and the company ousted Gillian Tans in that position in June 2019, is that brand cooperation was lagging, and product rollouts and innovation weren’t taking place fast enough.
Tans, who currently serves as Booking.com chairwoman, has confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses in her transition agreement so can’t speak out on these issues.
In the interim, regarding Booking Holdings brand collaboration, Priceline and Agoda developed an international flight product, Rentalcars.com has been folded into Booking.com, and Kayak CEO Steve Hafner oversees OpenTable.
But the progress hasn’t been fast enough.
Fogel’s vision of a “connected trip” was running into obstacles even before the coronavirus pandemic, which has set back the effort for years. Hurdles included that lack of brand cooperation, years’-long efforts to build a viable flight product for Booking.com, and restructuring its experiences business last last year and early in 2020 because the “build-your-own” effort wasn’t adequately scaling.
With planes not flying, travel essentially locked down in many parts of the world, and online travel agencies and other travel companies just trying to survive the pandemic, you can erase the connected trip as an overriding priority for an extended period.
Fogel’s compensation was $14.7 Million
Fogel’s total compensation was $14.7 million — almost entirely in stock awards — in 2019, and that was a 27.8 percent reduction compared with 2018 when he was the highest paid online travel CEO. The $14 million 2019 stock award doesn’t vest until 2022.
The total compensation of Booking Holdings’ median employee was $50,418 in 2019, and Fogel’s total pay was 293 times higher, although that was a smaller disparity than 402 times in 2018.
Still, Fogel, who has vowed not to take a salary for the remainder of 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, didn’t receive an annual bonus in 2019 because Booking Holdings did not achieve its 2019 internal revenue target as part of its compensation calculations. Another factor was because the company wanted to provide bonus funding for lower-paid executives instead.
The company did achieve adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) growth of 2.2 percent in 2019, exceeding its bonus compensation goals, but it calculates bonus eligibility based on a combination of earnings and revenue targets.
Still, prior to the pandemic, at least, Booking Holdings’ shareholders weren’t suffering. As the company noted: “Through the repurchase of shares of our common stock, we returned approximately $8.2 billion to stockholders in 2019 and approximately $16.0 billion over the 2017-2019 three-year period, representing 108 percent of the cash generated by operating activities during that three-year period.”
Photo credit: A Booking.com video shows the Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. Booking Holdings said it isn't making fast enough progress in the United States. Booking.com