The geographic business mix of Booking Holdings has always been a tightly held secret. The trajectory of the uneven recovery, with the U.S. being its strongest and Europe the weakest regions, prompted the company the tell-all. The dynamic proved disadvantageous for Booking's short-term rentals.
The dynamics of the travel recovery and setbacks around the world during the first quarter prompted Booking Holdings — for the first time in recent memory — to provide percentages about the geographic sources of its business.
Other than the company being strongest in Europe and committed to expanding in the U.S., that business mix has always been kept under wraps, absent from financial discussions and filings.
The numbers explain why expanding into the U.S. is so important for Booking.com, the largest brand in a portfolio that includes Priceline, Kayak and others, and why Booking Holdings was unable to take advantage of the boom in short-term rentals during the quarter that ended March 31.
During the company’s first quarter earnings call Wednesday, Booking Chief Financial Officer David Goulden said pre-Covid Booking Holdings generated around 50 percent “or maybe a little bit more,” 20 percent came from Asia, and the rest of the world, including the U.S., accounted for around 30 percent.
It is very likely that the business mix tilted a bit toward the U.S. and away from Europe during the first quarter because of the uneven recovery. The figures Goulden cited were for the business mix pre-Covid.
The reason that is particularly relevant is that officials said the U.S. was Booking’s strongest region in the first quarter, and Europe, beset by lockdowns and a tardy vaccination pace, was the poorest-performing.
So while Airbnb and Expedia’s Vrbo have been able to take advantage of the boost in travelers considering short-term rentals for their stays in the U.S., where the travel recovery is strongest for the company, Booking Holdings couldn’t leverage that trend because most of its alternate accommodations are in Europe. Its short-term rental presence in the U.S. is relatively weak.
While Booking.com’s mix of alternative accommodations versus hotels rose a few percentage points in Europe during the first quarter, Europe was the company’s weakest region, “which negatively impacted our alternative accommodation mix on a global basis,” Goulden told financial analysts during the call.
At the end of the fourth quarter of 2020, it appeared as though Booking Holdings would be able to take greater advantage of the short-term rental boom because there were signs of a travel recovery in Europe.
During the company’s fourth quarter earnings call on February 24, Fogel said: “We are tracking early signs of encouraging summer booking trends in Western Europe, primarily the UK and Germany, relative to what we are seeing globally, although in each case, gross booking levels are still below where we were at the same point in time in 2019.”
It didn’t really turn out that way toward the end of the first quarter and in April. While the travel recovery in the UK is relatively strong, the European Union countries have been a laggard.
Expedia Group reports earnings Thursday afternoon so it may provide insight into how its hotel-vacation rental mix trended during the first quarter. Its Vrbo vacation-rental unit is heavily U.S.-based. For Airbnb, which reports its first quarter financials next week, the mix issue isn’t great because Airbnb is weak in hotels.
Booking Holdings CEO Glenn Fogel tied the travel recovery to vaccine distribution progress.
“Israel, the UK and the U.S. are benefiting from successful vaccine distribution programs,” Fogel said. “In each of these countries, we have seen encouraging booking trends, which supports our view that vaccine distribution is a key to unlocking pent-up travel demand.”
Booking officials cited a room night decline of 54 percent compared with the first quarter of 2019, which was unaffected by Covid, as a positive sign. Because the 54 percent decline in the first quarter of 2021 was a 6 percentage point improvement over the fourth quarter of 2020.
Fogel repeated previous assertions that having Booking.com expand its U.S. business is a strategic priority. He said both U.S.-based Priceline and Europe-based Booking.com had strong performance in the U.S. in the first quarter.
Positive signs included increased supplier adoption in the U.S. of Booking’s relatively new payments platform, which the company sees as essential to making progress on its “connected trip” — offering lodging, flights, ground transportation and tours — strategy.
Financial engineering meant that for the first quarter, Booking Holdings saw its net loss narrow to $55 million compared with a net loss of $699 million a year earlier. Revenue fell 50 percent to $1.14 billion.
Officials likewise cited progress in its mobile strategy. with two-thirds of bookings now coming through mobile devices.
In April, Booking.com began a promotion in the U.S. where travelers who booked through the app and took trips by the end of May would get a $50 travel credit. The company kicked off a similar program in the UK a few days ago.
“This is just one example of the marketing methods that we will be employing to increase awareness of the Booking.com brand in the U.S.,” Fogel said. “And in this case, drive further consumer engagement with our app.”
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Photo credit: The Booking.com presence at Web Summit 2019 on November 05, 2019. Weakness in Europe meant Booking Holdings couldn't take great advantage of the boom in short-term rentals in the first quarter of 2021. Paolo Moura Photography / Flickr.com