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Booking Holdings CEO Glenn Fogel said the company would appeal the Spanish competition authority's $530 million draft decision if it becomes permanent.

Spanish regulators levied a $530 million fine against Booking.com in the fourth quarter in a draft decision, Booking Holdings announced Thursday.

Booking Holdings CEO Glenn Fogel said the Spanish National Markets and Competition Commission (CNMC) found that Booking.com infringed on competition law in that country.

“We could not disagree more with this draft decision and the arbitrarily large fines that they have proposed, which is completely disproportionate to the alleged conduct,” Fogel told financial analysts during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call Thursday.

Chief Financial Officer David Goulden characterized the preliminary decision in Spain as “unprecedented.”

Fogel said the company will appeal the fine if the draft decision becomes permanent. Goulden added that the appeals process could take several years and that Booking.com would have to alter some business practices in Spain.

Booking.com is the largest online travel agency and accommodations provider in Spain and Europe.

The fine in Spain comes on top of the European Union’s looming regulatory action against Booking.com based on the Digital Markets Act.

“As we have previously disclosed, we plan to file our notification for designation under the DMA soon,” Fogel said. “And we believe the main concerns raised by the Spanish authority overlap with the DMA. We will continue to work closely with these regulatory bodies to maintain consistent rules.”

A Decision Against Booking.com in the Netherlands

Booking Holdings also took a $276 million loss in the what the company described as “the Netherlands pension fund matter.” In that issue, an appeals court in The Hague ruled that Amsterdam-headquartered Booking.com is indeed a travel agency and therefore its employees there must be enrolled in a travel industry-wide pension fund.

Goulden said the company is trying to figure out how this new pension fund requirement fits in with the company’s existing pension fund for employees who work in the Netherlands. He said he expects the company’s pension costs to increase, but that they wouldn’t have a material impact on Booking’s financials.

In prior eras, Booking.com could argue it was a technology company and not a travel agency – it facilitated guest bookings but guests generally paid for rooms at the hotel. But over the past few years, Booking.com has been collecting money for hotels through prepaid guest bookings.

In fact, during Thursday’s earnings call, Fogel said that in 2023 about half of Booking.com’s global bookings were tied to the company’s merchant payments platform, where Booking.com is the merchant of record, and not an agent of the hotel as it was, as a rule, in years’ past.

The Fines and Penalties Adversely Impacted Earnings

Booking Holdings did not include the losses of $530 million and $276 million, totaling $1.016 billion, in its non-GAAP or adjusted EBITDA numbers for the fourth quarter and full-year 2023.

On a GAAP basis, Booking’s fourth quarter net income fell 82% to $222 million. Revenue jumped 18% to $4.8 billion.

For full-year 2023, Booking’s net income rose 40% year over year to $4.3 billion on revenue of $21.4 billion, a 25% increase.

Booking.com’s Short-Term Rentals Growing

Fogel announced that Booking.com’s short-term rentals — he calls them “alternative accommodations” — numbered 7.4 million — rivaling Airbnb’s 7.7 million.

These short-term rental bookings accounted for around 33% of Booking.com’s total room nights in 2023, a 3 percentage point jump year-over-year.

Connected Trip Progress

For the past few years, Fogel has been pursuing a connected trip strategy where travelers would enjoy a seamless and personalized travel experience whether they booked a flight, car, hotel, short-term rental, package or attraction on Booking.com.

Fogel said the company made steady progress on the connected trip strategy in 2023.

“We are starting to see early signs of the benefits,” Fogel said. “We continue to see a growing percentage of transactions, which we count as connected trips, though these are still a small percentage of our total transactions today.”

For example, he cited as progress the fact that Booking Holdings customers booked 58% more flights on the platform — driven by Booking.com — than in 2022. For most of its history, Booking.com didn’t offer flights – it launched them in 2019.

Expanding Generative AI in Booking Holdings

After launching an AI trip planner on Booking.com and a travel assistant named Penny on sister brand Priceline in 2022, Fogel said Booking.com expanded the trip planner from the U.S. to the UK market during the fourth quarter. The company is testing verticals beyond accommodations for the trip planner.

Priceline’s Penny is now not just displayed on the booking checkout page, but is on the Priceline.com homepage, as well. Enhancements to Penny mean it has expanded beyond hotels, and can be used for planning and booking flights, car rentals, and packages, too.

A Booking Holdings Dividend

Fogel announced that Booking Holdings will begin to pay a quarterly divided. That will supplement the $10 billion the company returned to shareholders through its share repurchase program in 2023, he said.

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Tags: antitrust, booking holdings, booking.com, dma, earnings, netherlands, online travel newsletter, regulations, spain, travel agencies

Photo credit: Located in Spain’s Balearic Islands in Menorca, Villa Le Blanc by Gran Meliá opened in July 2022. Source: Meliá Hotels International

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