Booking.com faces tough-going in U.S. short-term rentals. Its business model has hosts perceiving they pay lower commissions to Airbnb, and the latter is has a big brand advantage. At the same time, Booking.com needs to defend Airbnb incursions on its own European turf.
Booking Holdings is committed to building up its alternative accommodations supply in the U.S., and plans to do so through partnerships with property managers rather than via the more laborious task of recruiting individual hosts.
That’s one takeaway from a wide-ranging interview that Skift conducted with Booking Holdings CEO Glenn Fogel on Monday. He discussed the company’s competition with Airbnb in the U.S., likened his “connected trip” strategy to the proliferation of superapps in Asia, and defended the company’s mergers and acquisitions strategy in attractions and hotel services.
Asked about his recent statement that there’s “no reason” Booking.com can’t have a “very good business” in short-term rentals in the U.S., as it has done in Europe, Fogel pushed back on the notion that the two markets may be different in terms of inventory types or dynamics.
Fogel said the basics of the two markets are not too different in that profit-motivated hosts want to fill rooms with paying guests. What is indeed a twist is that Booking.com built its alternative accommodations inventory in Europe before the emergence of Airbnb, but today in the U.S. Booking.com has to compete against this established player.
When Booking.com entered the U.S. market several years ago, it focused on its hotel business, but Fogel expressed confidence that the company can now use the demand it can generate on its platform to advantage in becoming a bigger short-term rental player stateside.
“We are the most profitable and biggest player in the space,” Fogel said, referring to the company’s combined hotel and non-hotel business.
Asked whether the stock market has treated Booking Holdings fairly in terms of valuing Airbnb higher since its initial public offering, Fogel claimed he doesn’t pay attention to valuations.
Fogel on Monday did not claim that Booking Holdings is the biggest company in alternative accommodations. However, in November 2020, the company said it had 6.5 million alternative accommodations’ listings while in September Airbnb, which was preparing to go public, boasted of 5.6 million “active listings.”
It is somewhat of an apples to oranges comparison. Fogel wouldn’t comment on Airbnb’s listings’ numbers, but defended Booking’s 6.5 million number of 2020, saying it was based on “truth and facts.” He added that Booking Holdings wouldn’t lie in official documents it files with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Property Managers Versus Individual Hosts
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky has claimed that his company is in somewhat different business than its competitors. “Because Airbnb, we are focused primarily on individual hosts,” Chesky said in February. “They comprise 90 percent of our 400 million hosts. And OTAs [online travel agencies] are primarily focused on professional hosts.”
Booking.com’s strategy certainly fits into that narrative. Fogel told Skift the company intends to focus on growing by working with multi-property managers in the U.S. because that tack is an efficient and effective means of expanding its supply.
Asked about Airbnb and Vrbo’s recent host-recruitment campaigns, Fogel wouldn’t divulge for competitive reasons how precisely Booking would recruit new hosts. He said Booking has its methods, has never demanded exclusive listings, and the key is to always provide great value.
We asked Fogel what Booking can do in the U.S. to take advantage of lingering host anger about Airbnb’s pro-guest cancellation refund policy during the pandemic and frustration over customer service issues.
Fogel wouldn’t comment on alleged host disillusionment with Airbnb. Fogel added that he’s proud of the customer service that Booking.com provided to both suppliers and guests during the pandemic, and this may work to the company’s benefit.
The Booking Holdings CEO wouldn’t comment on whether Airbnb is taking market share from Booking.com in Europe. “We are still waiting for Airbnb to announce first quarter results so I don’t have any interesting information beyond what you have,” Fogel said. “Certainly they are a great competitor.”
Airbnb is slated to announce its first quarter financial results Thursday.
Google Vacation Rentals and Other Metasearch Sites
Google debuted its vacation rental product a couple of years ago, but today three of the major players — Airbnb, Booking and Expedia/Vrbo — are not providing inventory to it.
Fogel said he assumes the reason for the absence of the big short-term rental platforms in Google Vacation Rentals is that the product is not adequately helping companies meet their goals.
Regarding other metasearch, or comparison-shopping, engines in travel, ranging from Expedia’s Trivago to Booking’s own Kayak, Fogel said he doesn’t see any “thematic” trend in online travel agencies currently reducing their marketing spend for short-term rentals through these sites.
The issue came up because Expedia Group CEO Peter Kern said last week that Vrbo, in addition to removing its inventory from Google Vacation Rentals several months ago, was also pulling back on vacation rental marketing spend on several metasearch engines.
Mergers and Acquisitions Strategy
In 2018, Booking Holdings acquired tours and activities tech company FareHarbor for about $250 million in cash and stock, but in 2020 farmed out much of Booking’s attractions’ sourcing business to TUI’s Musement.
Fogel said just because Booking may close a brand or service doesn’t mean it didn’t get value, which may come from intellectual property or onboarding new employees, from acquisitions.
FareHarbor, which specializes in distribution services for tours and activities operators, is doing “a great job,” Fogel said, adding that it was never designed to work with large attractions such as the London Eye.
In mergers and acquisitions, everything can’t be a “home run,” Fogel said, adding that if a company’s goal is to hit a home run with each deal then it probably isn’t taking enough risk.
No Backtracking on the Connected Trip
One of Fogel’s signature initiatives since being appointed CEO in 2016 is investing in a connected-trip strategy. In sum, the goal is to provide travelers with a full-suite of personalized services, from flights and accommodations to ground transportation and tours, at appropriate junctures during the trip, and to integrate it all with an in-house payments platform.
There are plenty of skeptics regarding whether this multiyear effort would be novel or game-changing.
Asked whether travelers even want a connected trip, Fogel pointed to the popularity of superapps, which enable users to book everything in a solitary app, and ever-present traveler frustrations about delayed flights and ground transportation bookings that don’t keep pace with that later arrival, for example.
Having more data about the customer, as envisioned in the connected trip, would enable Booking to provide better service to both the traveler and supplier, he said.
Fogel said building the connected trip is not as mammoth a task as inventing a new vaccine, meaning it’s doable with time, technology, diligence and the right marketing.
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Photo credit: Booking Holdings CEO Glenn Fogel is bullish about building the company's short-term rental business in the U.S. Natasha Miller / Booking