Backed by significant travel demand, Booking.com is confident about travel returning to Asian destinations. However, China's quarantine and Japan's reopening trepidations stand in the way of a full recovery.
As countries in Asia-Pacific have been slower to open borders than other destinations, the region’s road to recovery hasn’t really been a smooth one.
However, Booking.com is seeing a much quicker recovery in the region now, finally mirroring the trends it is tracking from across the rest of the world.
In conversation with Skift, Laura Houldsworth, Booking.com’s managing director and vice president for Asia Pacific, talks about these healthy booking trends and about the online travel agency’s “strategic partnerships” in the region.
The comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Skift: Based on the bookings that you’ve received what are some of the trends coming up in Asia?
Laura Houldsworth: With restrictions lifting, high vaccination rates and the summer peak for travel, we will continue to see heightened demand. Our first quarter earnings showed that we had our best first quarter ever, surpassing our best previous quarter which was the first quarter of 2019. In April, we surpassed our global booking numbers, even with restrictions across Asia. We’re also seeing some interesting trends emerging on the back of the pandemic. Consumers are travelling with health and safety at the forefront of their minds. Flexibility is a significant trend. While we’ve got significant bookings on for the summer, most of them are backed by a flexible policy. So, while people are traveling now, they’re also mindful that things can change. Also, the desire for sustainable travel has definitely come as an outcome of the last couple of years.
Skift: How do you look at the competitive landscape with Trip.com Group and all the Covid hurdles in China?
Houldsworth: If we look across Asia Pacific, we see a significant pent-up demand for travel and then markets that have still got significant restrictions, like China, continue to focus on domestic travel. Globally too, many markets like India continue to be domestic focused even as things start to ramp up.
We made an investment into Trip.com because we believe in the ability to make it easier for everyone to experience the world. We did a traveler confidence index survey and what was really interesting to come out of the index was that 89 percent of Chinese travellers said they would travel once borders open, while only 62 percent Japanese were confident about traveling. Japanese travelers were also less confident about opening borders. So, even while the two markets have had fairly similar approaches to Covid-19 the mindset of the travellers are very different when it comes to taking advantage of demand.
Skift: Isn’t quarantine a deterrent for Chinese travelers coming back to the country?
Houldsworth: Absolutely, it is a significant deterrent and we saw that even globally — wherever there was quarantine or any restrictions in place. But we know once restrictions are lifted, including pre-departure and on-arrival tests, travel confidence comes rushing back.
Skift: What about the travel sentiment in the rest of Asia? What does the endemic Asian traveler look like?
Houldsworth: The travel sentiment is very positive across the region, there is diversity in the confidence of travel, but for the most part, we are seeing a significant desire to travel — whether internationally or domestically. The mood is, ‘We want to go and we want to go anywhere.’ Also, people are now travelling above budgets. However, it remains to be seen if they’ll do it multiple times. Certainly, the mindset right now across the region is – ‘We want to go’
Skift: After several years of working on the ‘connected trip’ strategy, can you provide some specific examples of how travelers are experiencing that implementation in Asia Pacific?
Houldsworth: Connected trip is a global mission of Booking Holdings which we are able to leverage across all brands. We launched a new and enhanced flight product in India this year. About 25 percent of travelers that start their journey with Booking.com on flights are new customers, meaning that we are able to bring in a different segment of customer/different customer base than what we are able to capture with only accommodation. That obviously brings additional value and then we start to see that trend going across our car rental business, our ground transportation and experiences. We know from the last couple of years that the travelers’ desire for experiences has increased significantly.
We’re able to bring a lot of those together and in some markets actually package them together. While we’re working towards packages globally, but right now we have those in certain markets where it’s most prevalent, most required and adds a significant value. We will continue to make the experience seamless and frictionless for travelers.
Skift: How does Booking see the dynamic with sister company Agoda with both operating in the region? How is that changing?
Houldsworth: We continue to focus on long-term recovery and other than Agoda, we also have a number of brands within the Bookings Holdings like Priceline and Kayak. We’re all playing in the same space to deliver a seamless value to our customers. We continue to collaborate with Agoda on technology, best practices, strategic partnerships and we will continue to focus on expanding that where possible. There’s no real change in the dynamic, we are just getting closer in terms of what we share and how we share inventory and technology.
Skift: How do you view your investment in Grab since it went public through a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) deal and has been struggling ever since? Has the hotel partnership between Booking, Agoda and Grab been meaningful at all?
Houldsworth: Our partnership with Grab is a very strategic one. It was really about a traveler coming into the countries where Grab operates and having a booking experience that they’re comfortable with without having to download another app and opting for different payment methods.
That was our objective and we were able to deliver on that and we anticipate now as Covid starts to move behind us and travel starts, we will see an evolution in that partnership. As we want to continue to make it easier for everybody, we know that if our consumers are coming through Grab then that’s a customer that we may not have had otherwise. All these partnerships some do more, some do less, but the reality is it really is about capturing customers where they want to operate — which app they want to use to be able to provide them the opportunity to book with us.
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Photo credit: Booking.com notes a significant pent-up demand for travel in Asia. Michelle_Raponi / pixabay