Skift Take

What if? That's always a question we want our reporters and editors to be asking. In this case, we pushed them to take it even further by conjuring up some silly predictions for the new year. What we are really doing here is preparing you for another year of the unexpected. Get ready, Skift readers.

After the past 21 months, nothing should shock us anymore, let alone a few crazy predictions from our journalists looking to have some fun with the year-ahead coverage. But with every fiction lies a little bit of truth, right?

Enjoy reading over these logic-stretching predictions, but also think about the “what if” factor for what our editors and reporters are postulating.

Marriott Will Launch a TV Channel

Marriott should name its new TV network Bonvoy after its loyalty program, and the channels should offer upbeat aspirational shows. The project’s main purpose should be to cement a bond between Marriott’s brands and customers. Possibilities for Marriott-appropriate shows are endless. Why not host cooking shows in Marriott kitchens? Or home redecoration shows set at some of the luxury properties that Marriott has in its vacation rental network? Or perhaps the company could underwrite a Spanish language telenovela staged at a Ritz Carlton. Marriott could also license content from elsewhere to fill airtime, just as Disney acquired rights to National Geographic’s video content to fill out its Disney+ streaming offering.

The new TV channel could fill a clear content gap in the market. Travel lovers are ill-served by the offerings of the Travel Channel, which owner Discovery seems to prefer programming about ghosts and other science fiction.Other brands are experimenting. L’Oreal launched a TV series this year. But the most successful TV brand extension is probably card company Hallmark. It’s believed that privately-held Hallmark’s Crown Media division has been profitable on average over the past decade despite the occasional hiccups. The channel has also successfully helped keep the Hallmark brand afloat in consumers’ minds despite pressures on paper greeting card sales. Ultimately, if Marriott wants to be hip and part of the conversation the way Airbnb is, it will have to go all-in on that most classic of branding tools, TV. — Sean O’Neill, Senior Travel Tech Editor

United Acquires Hertz and Westin

United Airlines made some bold moves in 2021, but they pale to what it is planning in 2022. The company will resurrect the vertically-integrated travel company strategy — remember Allegis Corporation? — that it dropped in 1988. United will take advantage of deals in the continuing Covid-19 recovery to reacquire Hertz and Westin Hotels & Resorts, two brands that it owned in the 1980s. Why vertically integrate? Just ask Allegiant Air, which is building its own resort, Sunseeker, on the gulf coast of Florida in a move that Wall Street analysts widely believe will buoy its financials when it opens. United’s ambitions are bigger, much bigger: Hertz and Westin will give it a much broader swath of the global travel market than it already controls, and allow the carrier to keep travelers inside its corporate universe whether they’re going to Cape Town or Dallas. And don’t forget the app, an all-in-one global travel resource to leverage its new investments that rivals competitors like AirAsia’s Super App. — Edward Russell, Airlines Reporter

Company Travel Managers Abandon All Hope of Traveling Again and Embrace the Metaverse

What’s the point, ask most travel managers in the not too distant future. The physical act of traveling for business has become so arduous, a last resort for global corporations weighed down by emission reduction targets, never-ending Covid-related travel restrictions and, of course, the Zoom factor. But travel managers will find solace in the metaverse — a parallel digital universe — and carve out new roles specializing in virtual reality meetings. The rebrand of Facebook to Meta acted as a signpost, with its backing of the metaverse helping the concept gain momentum. It will likely influence the way corporations operate, after creeping into everyday lives. But then more corporate-focused tools will emerge as travel technology companies double down. Witness the convergence of travel management company American Express Global Business Travel and its new investors Zoom and Sabre (the latter already partnering with Google on technology development.) Then there’s Amadeus exploring the idea with Microsoft. Travel agencies are already starting to advise against travel in some cases, embracing “travel dissuasion” as a new service. Travel managers will also incentivize staff to meet virtually, whether its other colleagues or with people outside their organization. It used to be about rewarding those who booked the cheapest trip; now it’s a bonus for opting to not travel. As one CEO recently said:”VR is a thing at @remote to the degree that there is now a word for alternative things ‘2D activities’.” — Matthew Parsons, Corporate Travel Editor

Trip.com Group Buys an International Branded Budget Hotel Network

Before the pandemic shut its borders, China experienced a multi-year trend of Chinee outbound travelers increasingly traveling independently rather than on group tours. But it remains difficult for some independent Chinese travelers to find hotels that are both affordable, friendly, and catering to their specific preferences. Trip.com Group could seize this opportunity by buying an Oyo-like company and branding it Trip.com Hotels. The Oyo model, followed by a few other players, is an asset-light approach. Franchisees agree to market their properties under the brand name in exchange for a promise to guarantee several amenities. In the case of Trip.com Hotels, the amenities might include having staff that speaks Mandarin, having point-of-sale devices that accept the payment methods, such as AliPay and WeChat Pay, that Chinese travelers prefer to use, having food available that will appeal to mainland Chinese tastes, and having reliable Wi-Fi. Oyo is too expensive to buy, but its smaller rivals, including Treebo, Fab Hotels, Ayenda Hoteles, are possibilities. Trip.com might choose to create the network from scratch, too. — Sean O’Neill, Senior Travel Tech Editor

Expedia Buys Latin America’s Despegar

Since 2015, Expedia has held a stake in Despegar, Latin America’s largest online travel agency group. The stake was recently estimated at nearly 12 percent. The pandemic has discounted Despegar’s share price to a third of what it was at the company’s initial public offering in 2017. The agency is unlikely to be this cheap again, and Latin America’s transition from offline to online shopping for travel seems as reliable to bet on over a decade-long horizon as the growth of its middle class. Expedia had about $5 billion in cash on hand in September, and Despegar’s market capitalization was recently about $688 million. — Sean O’Neill, Senior Travel Tech Editor

Amadeus Buys WebBeds in a Play for the Bedbank Segment

Amadeus has been steadily diversifying its travel technology services from its flagship emphasis on serving airlines. Over a decade, the Madrid-based group has made a string of acquisitions to bolster its software services for hotels. One gap in its offering is business-to-business wholesaling. While Hotelbeds has the biggest market share, that Barcelona-based company’s financial sponsors may expect too much of a price premium. WebBeds, the number-two player in the market, has an advantage in being cheaper. Parent company Webjet would likely appreciate the extra cash of selling its subsidiary. Hotelbeds is five times WebBeds’ size. But Amadeus, thanks to its capital resources and vast distribution savvy, could supercharge WebBeds. It could take WebBeds from today’s 4 percent share of the $50 billion (U.S.) business-to-business market to a 14 percent share within perhaps five years. — Sean O’Neill, Senior Travel Tech Editor

Airlines Stop Using 2019 as a Reference Point

We’re in the middle of a revolution. We just don’t know it. In the wake of every massive global upheaval — war, famine, depression, pandemic — comes radical social, economic, and political reordering. We’re starting to see the first glimmers of the economic and. political reordering worldwide. But it’s the social reordering that could have the most effect on airlines. Airline leaders have spent much of the last two years comparing every last statistic or development to the same time in 2019, hoping that the elusive inflection point when the industry returns to what it was in that halcyon year is just within reach. But maybe it shouldn’t be.

We don’t know yet how people’s travel patterns will change when the pandemic eventually recedes. Will migrant workers still fly the busy airways between South Asia and the Middle East? Will Chinese holidaygoers flock back to Europe en masse or opt to stay at home? Will companies return to approving trips to conferences and meetings? Will consumers, ever more conscious about climate change, continue to take cheap package holidays to beach destinations, or will tickets factor in their environmental cost and be priced out of reach? Many industry leaders say they have answers to these questions, tinged with more than a little hope. But when pressed, no one really knows. What the world will be like when we come out on the other side of Covid-19 will become clearer next year. And travel patterns will change. And perhaps then, airline leaders will stop comparing the industry to 2019 and will adapt their networks and businesses to a new reality. — Madhu Unnikrishnan, Editor, Airline Weekly

Marriott and Hilton Fight to Buy Vrbo

SPOILER-ish ALERT: If HBO’s Succession taught us one thing this season, it’s never trust your father if he’s a media baron. If it taught us two things, it’s that, if you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em — or at least try to.

Hotel companies like Marriott and Hilton may not be viewed as hip as tech-y vacation rental platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo, but they do offer the type of operational foundation and standardization missing from these companies as they look to scale into new travel sectors. Airbnb is too expensive for the world’s largest hotel companies to even consider, and Marriott leaders made clear earlier this year they were playing it safe with the wallet when it came to acquisitions. But that’s not to say there can’t be some schmoozing over the dinner table with Expedia to offload Vrbo.

Company leaders told Skift earlier this year they wouldn’t spin off the vacation rental platform just for the sake of “valuation games,” but hotel analysts think the industry is fertile for consolidation — and the next takeover target doesn’t necessarily have to be a traditional hotel company.

Marriott’s Homes & Villas platform is rapidly adding new listings, and it’d make sense for a company like Hilton to get some skin in the game. If the future of accommodations increasingly relies on leisure travel, hotel companies have to evolve to offer more than a traditional guest room. Time to get the acquisitions team to start crunching numbers. Or maybe Airbnb will decide to get into the business of owning a few hotel brands. — Cameron Sperance, Hospitality Reporter

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