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An Oral History of Travel's Greatest Acquisition, Booking.com
By Dennis Schaal
The inside story of twin deals that created an online hotel-booking juggernaut

In 1996 in the Netherlands, Geert-Jan Bruinsma, a recent college grad who always knew he wanted to start a business, discovered the Internet, and decided he wanted to create a hotel-booking website. He launched Bookings.nl after borrowing a bit more than just inspiration, namely some code, from the fledgling U.S. website, Hilton.com.

Three years later in Cambridge, UK, cousins Andy Phillipps and Adrian Critchlow, a duo which one of their peers playfully described as the Dangerous Brothers because of their-sometimes overly exuberant thinking, likewise thought they could build a better and more locally relevant business than Expedia, Hotels.com, and Lastminute.com by focusing on independent hotels. The result was Activebooking.com, which, in early 2001 after the dot-com crash, changed its name to Active Hotels. It, too, like Bookings.nl, did a little borrowing as it copied the basics of the WorldRes business model. Founded in 1996 in California, WorldRes powered hotel bookings on third-party websites instead of appealing directly to consumers, and faded away in an asset sale a decade later.

The founders and co-founders of Active Hotels and Bookings were techies who knew very little about the hotel industry, although Bruinsma had done a brief stint as a hotel night porter [as did this reporter] during his studies at Universiteit Twente in the Netherlands. That outsider perspective, as well as a love of technology and a belief in the power of data, certainly propelled the trajectory of both businesses.

Within a few years, Active Hotels and Bookings, neither of which raised a significant amount of money by today's venture capital standards, went on to become the leading hotel-booking sites in their home markets and beyond. Through a chance meeting at a travel trade show in London years earlier, both Active Hotels and later Bookings caught the attention of Priceline.com's chief mergers and acquisitions guru, Glenn Fogel, who today is CEO of parent company Booking Holdings. Fogel led his company's efforts to buy Active Hotels and Bookings in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

In 2006, Priceline merged Active Hotels and Bookings to create Booking.com, a brand that changed the course of online travel history, and is largely responsible for Booking Holdings' stature as a roughly $100 billion company today. Both Active Hotels and Bookings were integral to that leap.

Booking.com's Influence Reverberated Across Online Travel

Booking.com reshaped the competitive landscape in travel as its parent company, the Priceline Group, now appropriately named Booking Holdings, transitioned from second-tier player to outright leader. It not only dislodged competitors like Expedia, Orbitz Worldwide, and Travelocity/Lastminute.com in the process, but Booking.com transformed the way travel companies market themselves, and consumers make hotel reservations.

For example, Booking.com emerged as best in class in search engine marketing in travel, and it converted lookers to bookers so efficiently that it had an ever-larger stockpile of cash at its disposal to spend on Google, further widening its competitive advantage.

In some ways — and you can look at its competitors' websites today to confirm this — Booking.com turned all the other online travel agencies into converts. Booking.com's messaging about how many site visitors were looking at a specific hotel at that particular moment, or the number of people who had booked the property in the past day ["Booked 120 times in the last 24 hours"] became standard fare across online travel. Because of Booking.com's influence, rival Expedia Group, which now owns Expedia.com, Travelocity, Orbitz, and Wotif, had to add an option in many listings to enable travelers to wait until they arrive at the hotel to pay instead of having to prepay months in advance at the time of the booking.

The emergence of Booking.com as a powerhouse in hotel bookings put pressure on Expedia and others' commission structures, and rates have been descending for years, particularly for the big chains.

Booking.com was also one of the first online travel players to recognize that all types of accommodations, whether they be hotels or vacation rentals, would be relevant to travelers, depending on the situation, and it made comprehensiveness, including listings for hotels, vacation rentals, hostels, and apartments, a rallying cry.

For further context, though, make sure to read Fogel's take on whether Booking.com in particular, and online travel agencies in general, were truly disruptive when compared to the rise of the Internet, mobile, Google, Facebook, and Uber.

In Their Own Words

What follows is the oral history of the greatest acquisition — actually a pair of acquisitions — in online travel history. We illustrate clearly below how the Bookings acquisition alone created roughly $88 billion in value for Booking Holdings, nearly as great as eBay's purchase of PayPal, Facebook's deal for Instagram, and Google's acquisitions of YouTube and Android. And, our calculations don't even take into account Priceline's acquisition of Active Hotels, which occurred a year earlier than that of Bookings.

Like most of the greatest acquisitions in Internet history, Priceline's Active Hotels and Bookings acquisitions, which it melded together to create Booking.com, added a layer onto a legacy brand that injected new life into the company. That's true of online marketplace eBay, which entered into digital payments by buying Paypal in 2002; Google grew its mobile and video chops through its acquisitions of Android and YouTube in 2005 and 2006, respectively; and Facebook reengaged a younger, Millennial crowd with its deal for Instagram in 2012.

We ranked Priceline's acquisition of Bookings B.V. alone — even when excluding the Active Hotels transaction — as the fifth greatest deal in Internet history, surpassing Google-DoubleClick and Amazon-Zappos in terms of value creation. Priceline's Active-Bookings acquisitions transformed a travel brand that was running out of capital resources and international expansion options for its Name Your Own Price business. It opened up global opportunities in hotel bookings where Booking.com disclosed the room rates in advance instead of cloaking them in a relatively complicated bidding process.

This oral history was a couple of years in the making. We started speaking with the co-founders and key executives at Active Hotels, Booking.com, Booking Holdings, and Expedia in 2016, continued in 2017, and it all culminates here. In their own words, you can read often-never-revealed details about the formation of the companies; how they viewed the competition; the talks that led up to the deals; the sometimes-stormy interactions when British-led Active Hotels and Dutch-run Bookings team members clashed during the integration process; and how they feel about the outcome. Despite what some — but not all — would characterize as a stormy marriage, the pairing of Active Hotels and Bookings to create Booking.com helped create enormous value for Booking Holdings, and many of the early employees.

There is plenty of news, if not scoops, that you'll read below. For example, Expedia, which was owned by InterActiveCorp, looked at both Bookings.nl and Active Hotels and, for various reasons, didn't make an offer for either. The decisions could arguably go down as the greatest missed opportunity in online travel history. Incidentally, there isn't anyone at IAC or Expedia — Barry Diller, anyone? — raising his hand to say he was the one who decided not to buy Active Hotels or Bookings.

You'll also read how Active Hotels and Bookings explored joining together before Priceline scooped them up in a deftly executed one-two punch. Meanwhile, prior to Expedia acquiring Italy's Venere in 2008, in an unsuccessful bid to make headway against the Booking.com juggernaut in Europe, Fogel and the Booking.com team looked at a deal to buy Venere. They didn't proceed, however, because the founders were quarreling, and just wanted to unload the business and get out of the way.

There are personal tales interwoven into these business stories. In late 2004, Fogel explained to his wife, Amy Roberts Fogel, that he'd have to spend a couple of extra days in Europe — again — because he had to visit a little-known company called Bookings.nl in Amsterdam; Shane Whaley, who initially put Fogel in touch with Active Hotels, lost a girlfriend when he moved from Octopustravel in London to hook up with Active Hotels in Cambridge in 2003; current Booking.com CEO Gillian Tans recalled the excitement as employee number seven when the team presented the Bookings business to the Priceline mergers and acquisitions team in 2005; and Rachel Howes, who worked as a contracts manager at Active Hotels and transitioned to Booking.com after the deals, looked back at her experiences as "the ride of my life."

An Oral History of Travel's Greatest Acquisition, Booking.com, builds on two previous Skift oral histories: The Definitive Oral History of Online Travel, and Complete Oral History of Boutique Hotels.

Like the others, An Oral History of Travel's Greatest Acquisition, Booking.com, spotlights pioneers who refused to go along with the crowd and conventional wisdom — au contraire — and made online travel history because of their convictions and talent. Bookings' Arthur Kosten has a tale to tell in that regard that is one of our favorites.

When you dig into this oral history of Booking.com and the two deals that were its foundation, you'll see, to paraphrase Howes, that the evolution of this business has indeed been quite a ride.

An illustration of Dennis Schaal
Dennis Schaal

Pivotal Moments in the History of Active Hotels and Booking.com

November 1996
Bookings.nl is founded
July 1999
USAI (later IAC) acquires Hotel Reservations Network/Hotels.com
September 1999
Activebooking.com is founded
2000
Bookings.nl merges with Bookings Online
Early 2001
Activebooking.com changes name to Active Hotels
July 2001
USAI/IAC acquires Expedia
June 2002
Priceline.com acquires Carl Icahn's Lowestfare.com
May 2003
Bookingsportal acquires Bookings.nl
May 2004
Bookings.nl starts operating as Bookings and Bookings.org. Priceline.com acquires Travelweb
September 2004
Priceline.com acquires Active Hotels
July 2005
Priceline.com acquires Bookings B.V.
October 2006
Priceline.com Merges Active Hotels and Bookings to create Booking.com
July 2008
Expedia announces it will acquire Venere
April 2014
Priceline.com changes name to The Priceline Group
February 2018
The Priceline Group changes its name to Booking Holdings

The UK's Active Hotels Targets Independents While Competitors Chased the Chains

In 1999 in the UK, Active Hotels set about trying to bring independent hotels online, and in many cases the properties didn't even have computers yet.
Rachel Howes
Active Hotels, contracts manager, 2004-2005, Booking.com, director/managing director roles in UK, Ireland, North Europe, Middle East and Africa, 2006-2013

At Gullivers Travel Associates in the early 2000s my role was literally to sit in the car and go around Europe signing contracts with hotels. And, I mean, literally screw hotels, for want of a better word. And Gullivers launched a company called OctopusTravel.com. And Octopus started selling online even prior to Active Hotels, but Octopus was selling wholesale rates that were meant for tour groups. So that kind of crashed and burned as quickly as it came. And it really opened the door for Active Hotels to go in and say, "Hey look. We want 10 percent commission instead of 40 percent or 50 percent commission." Off we go.

An illustration of Rachel Howes
Rachel Howes
Séverine Philardeau
Active Hotels, European business development manager 2000-2005, Booking.com, head of strategy and communications, 2006

If there was one sector that seemed to make complete sense for the Internet, it was travel. I was in the mineral water business. That was probably not going to be sold over the Internet anytime soon. Travel seemed like the really obvious fit. I went over to Cambridge [where Active Hotels was founded and located]. They were still in that very small house out in — I'd call it — the suburbs of Cambridge. It was just a very small building that had two floors, one toilet. It was guys and girls sharing. That was a bit of a challenge initially. At the time it was [Active Hotels co-founder and CEO] Andy Phillipps; Adrian Critchlow, who was his cousin and co-founder; and Matt Witt [chief operating officer] were already there, I believe.

Initially the whole concept was that these independent hotels didn't have a laptop or a computer. We were giving them this small, Alcatel phone with a modem that gave them access to the Internet. It was a 36K modem. It was a very, very simple interface. They could put in their rates and availability and then we would connect to the World Wide Web.

An illustration of Séverine Philardeau
Séverine Philardeau
Matt Witt
Active Hotels, chief operating officer, 2000-2005, Booking.com, chief operating officer/consultant, 2006-2008

First thing, Active Hotels was a no-name so we didn't want to go after hotel chains. Our whole story is based around the fact we wanted to give independent hotels access to the Internet. The problem was only about 40 percent of them had computers, and of those, only about half had what they called Internet access. This was 1999. So a solution had to be all-encompassing. We came up with a cheap way of accessing the Internet using — you won't believe it — something called a Web Phone. It was a phone manufactured by Alcatel that could actually allow me to access the Internet with a very simple low-speed modem.

This changed within 12 months. I would say the number of hotels that we had with PCs and their own Internet actually went from 20 percent to more than 60 percent, then to 80 percent once we had things settled about which ones we were connected to. It came very fast. We had to come up with more than just the booking engine. We had to come up with this holistic solution for the hotel.

Within the UK, a PC would've cost £1,000 [$2.220 adjusted for inflation]. Our first 500 hotels were connected using these phones. It had its own browsers, which meant we had to come up with our own displayed solution for presenting things on it. It was a very low-performance system, but it got the job done. Amazingly, three or four years later, we tried to switch them off and we found there were 25 or so hotels that were still using it.

An illustration of Matt Witt
Matt Witt
The founders and co-founders of Active Hotels in Cambridge, UK, and Bookings.nl in Amsterdam were techies and outsiders to the travel industry. Their knowledge of the hotel industry wasn't very deep.
Rachel Howes
Active Hotels, contracts manager, 2004-2005, Booking.com, director/managing director roles in UK, Ireland, North Europe, Middle East and Africa, 2006-2013

When I met Andy Phillipps and Adrian Currie [Active Hotels finance director], those guys knew a lot about how to build a technical company, but they had no idea about the hotel side of things. They had a couple of sales guys who were paid per hotel that they signed up. So all these guys did was go around signing up hotels. However, the hotel contract got flung in a drawer and nobody knew if that hotel actually put rooms on the Internet or not. So they didn't understand you actually need availability and the hotel to put those rooms online to be able to sell them.

Matt Witt
Active Hotels, chief operating officer, 2000-2005, Booking.com, chief operating officer/consultant, 2006-2008

Andy Phillipps started the Active Hotels business with his cousin, Adrian Critchlow. There are two Adrians in this story. Adrian Critchlow and Adrian Currie, who's also incredible. The founders, Andy Phillipps and Adrian Critchlow, were the two cousins. They were amazing. They're like the Dangerous Brothers. Locked up in a room, they were so full of ideas. They needed somebody like me, with gray hairs and a degree of thick skin, who could say no. Or slow them down. I think I was known as the handbrake or Dr. No.

The first thing we had to do was secure some startup seed money so we could get a proof of concept within the first 12 months. We did a presentation to the Software Business Network, which was a loose network of entrepreneurs, angels basically, based in London. We pitched to them back in February 2000, before I'd officially joined. Activebooking.com was what we initially called ourselves because this was still the dot-com boom. The crash came six months after we started. Our timing wasn't perfect. Also within the next 12 months we had 9/11. We had raised around £400,000 [$528,360]. After that we had two rounds of venture capital.

Booking.com Founder Knew Little About the Hotel Business

Geert-Jan Bruinsma
Bookings.nl, founder, 1996-2003, Booking.com, business development, 2011-2016

I think the most common way to make a hotel reservation in those days was to get a phone number from a phone book or get the phone number from a travel guide if you want to go to Paris. In my final year in university, I got in contact with the Internet and found it really interesting. The morning after, I searched for online hotel reservations. I didn't find anything for the Netherlands, but I remember I found Hilton.com in the U.S., and this must have been July 1996. You could actually already make a reservation on Hilton.com. I must admit, I did some copy and paste from them in the early stages of the [Bookings.nl] project.

I had very little knowledge about the hotel industry. I was a night porter in a hotel as a student. It gave me some inspiration and at least I knew how the reservation process went because we had people who came in at night who hadn't booked so they came in for a reservation. I had no clue about commission rates; that's why I started with 5 percent. To me, it sounded very logical that hotels themselves should know the best room rate they can charge at any time. From the beginning, it was the hotel that decided what the rate should be on the website.

An illustration of Geert-Jan Bruinsma
Geert-Jan Bruinsma
Gillian Tans
Booking.com, chief operating officer 2002-2015, CEO, 2016-present

I was working for a hotel chain [Golden Tulip Worldwide] and that's how I got connected with Geert-Jan Bruinsma; he was the founder of Bookings.nl. He was building databases for the chain where I was working. I was responsible for e-commerce at the time; I think it was just before 2000. Like many people, I had no clue what to do; it was extremely complicated to even find a company that would build a website. So I made a deal with Bookings.nl that they would build my chain's website, and then in turn they would book the properties also on Bookings.nl. It was a great deal for me because I had a website up and running, but for Booking it was not a very good focus. The folks at Bookings.nl were focusing on chain websites.

Geert-Jan had no clue about hotels. He didn't know what a rack rate was or any term that was used in the hotel industry. Geert-Jan really had to learn everything from scratch. He had many questions and would go to hotels in Amsterdam to get answers. I know the American Hotel was the first hotel in Amsterdam he got connected to Bookings.nl, and he also used to ask them questions.

An illustration of Gillian Tans
Gillian Tans
Geert-Jan Bruinsma
Bookings.nl, 1996-2003, Booking.com, 2011-2016

I wanted to put an advertisement for Bookings in the Telegraaf in the Netherlands, which was the biggest newspaper at that time. I got a phone call that they refused my advertisement because they talked about it, and they decided not to accept any advertisements with an Internet address and there had to be a phone number. This was 1997. I think the day after, when I had to come up with new ideas, I started looking at search engines and what we call now search engine optimization. I was pretty successful in that. I think 60 percent of traffic came from Alta Vista and we had some local Dutch ones, some national ones. They're all gone. Yahoo was not a search engine yet; it was still an index. You could go through it and you could click through travel the Netherlands. But AltaVista was the main supplier of visitors.

Active Hotels Pursued Affiliate Deals While Bookings Went After Consumers

U.S.-based companies such as Expedia and Priceline.com were trying to make headway in Europe but weren't getting too far. Lastminute.com was the biggest player in the UK. In the Netherlands, Bookings.nl, which eventually become Booking.com, had a several-year head start on Active Hotels in the UK. Within a few years, Active Hotels was focusing on striking affiliate deals, or distribution partnerships, and wasn't trying to build a consumer brand in a big way. At the same time, Bookings.nl was going direct-to-consumer and was getting very skilled at search engine marketing.
Andy Phillipps
Active Hotels, co-founder and CEO, 1999-2004, Priceline.com International [2004-2006]

There was a massive hype around the Internet, and as a result, there were hundreds of companies saying, we're going to sell hotels online. I know probably 25 or 30 of these were reasonably credible, were getting a lot of PR, a lot of press. Lastminute.com was probably the highest-profile brand in the UK. I'm trying to remember now; ebookers was probably pretty big. I think we spoke to 760 hotels before we actually launched Active Hotels. So we did more of a pre-business plan and research than possibly we should have done in retrospect.

We copied a business called WorldRes, which was a U.S.-based business that was set up to be a distributor for hotels. It wasn't going to be a front-end, it was just going to be almost a GDS [global distribution system]. And then for various reasons, their business wasn't flourishing as well as we expected. It's always slightly depressing when you're copying a business model that doesn't seem to be flourishing. So we shifted a bit. And we started going more direct to consumers and more direct to some UK sites.

An illustration of Andy Phillipps
Andy Phillipps
Séverine Philardeau
Active Hotels, European business development manager 2000-2005, Booking.com, head of strategy and communications, 2006

You had Expedia, but they were very much the big American company. Booking.com, which was called Bookings at the time, or Bookings.org, was very much a Dutch company, and not present at all in the UK. Lastminute was obviously there. They were doing more packaging. I'm trying to remember the name of this business that did theater breaks. It was Super Breaks, which was a competitor. WorldRes was, interestingly, a bit of a competitor at the time, although they raised a ton of money, spent it all, and then disappeared.

Matt Witt
Active Hotels, chief operating officer, 2000-2005, Booking.com, chief operating officer/consultant, 2006-2008

Lastminute sort of hit the scene in the back end of 1999. They floated while we were raising money during 2000. They were huge; they were everywhere. I remember sitting in a meeting in London with a whole load of investors and we were looking out the window, and every second bus that went by had a Lastminute advert on it.

If you remember, in the UK, Expedia starting pushing out during 2000 and 2001. Every time they did TV ads, we would see a surge in traffic on our website. People would just go and they'd find us. Whether they'd mean to find us or not, they'd go in because they'd seen an ad for Expedia at the time.

Andy Phillipps
Active Hotels, co-founder and CEO, 1999-2004, Priceline.com International [2004-2006]

So we always had a big affiliate business. We probably called them partners rather than affiliates. So yeah, we went with some of the big airlines. Again, this was a long time ago now. Some of the mapping sites in Europe were probably the biggest travel sites by volume, by some distance. This was before Google Maps here. So we partnered with a lot of those guys here. Companies like Yell.com. We powered bookings for their hotels for a long time. We powered some of Lastminute's hotels. We never really raised much VC [venture capital] finance. So we didn't really have an option. We didn't have the budget to go big direct-to consumers so we actually just focused on processing bookings as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Active Hotels and Bookings Pursued a Home-Grown Business Model

Active Hotels in the UK and Bookings.nl in the Netherlands launched separately using the agency, or pay-at-the-hotel, business model while large U.S.-headquartered companies such as Expedia, Hotels.com, and Priceline.com were having various levels of success in Europe. These major online travel agencies focused on big hotel chains, which weren't as important in Europe. Expedia and Hotels.com were enamored with the higher-commission merchant model, which required travelers to pre-pay for their hotel stays, and that just wasn't the way things were done in Europe. Priceline.com was trying its Name Your Own Price bidding model in the UK and elsewhere internationally, and it wasn't getting traction outside the United States.
Matt Witt
Active Hotels, chief operating officer, 2000-2005, Booking.com, chief operating officer/consultant, 2006-2008

At Active Hotels, we talked about the business model for, I'd say, the first six months. It was always going to be an agency model [where the guests paid at the hotel when they arrived]. We didn't then, but we got into a debate later about whether we should take money up-front. But we were always going to take a percentage of the booking rather than be a merchant. We did debate it a lot but we never realistically had an opportunity to be a merchant because we were a startup at the moment. To be a merchant, you've got to win some big players and would have to establish a position, and our deal was [that this approach was] not realistic.

If you've got a universe where clients can pay up-front or not pay up-front for effectively the same booking, it's almost a two to one difference. We made it a huge virtue of not having to pay up-front because nearly all of our competitors, such as Expedia and Hotels.com, required an up-front payment. So it was a great moment because we were getting much more conversion. We direct-mailed hotels. Our model was to recruit affiliates. Most of our business up front came through third parties. We were very nimble and were winning the search engine game. We knew we couldn't cover all our bases so rather than try to compete with the affiliates we thought we'd be their supplier of choice, and hotels' supplier of choice. We didn't have to have every hotel, we just had to have more than anybody else. Better coverage than everybody else.

Séverine Philardeau
Active Hotels, European business development manager 2000-2005, Booking.com, head of strategy and communications, 2006

I had joined Active in 2000 to help develop France and Spain. I was supposed to be based in Barcelona. We went back and forth to Cambridge on a regular basis. Essentially, within two months, everything went pear-shaped. There was the foot-and-mouth crisis. We realized that people weren't actually going to be traveling to the UK much. We realized that the distribution deal with WorldRes wasn't going to drive enough bookings. There were no up-front payment from the hotels, and we realized we needed to focus our business on the UK before starting to think about growing in France and Spain.

It was a pretty small team. I'm trying to think. God, it was between 10 or 20 employees. I can't remember exactly. We had a handful of software engineers, all guys. We had one marketing manager, who was a woman.

The business started to grow. I remember distinctly, I think it was in 2002, I want to say September, that we reached profitability. I remember because we all had a profitability bonus. We were all very excited because suddenly we weren't going to have to raise a ton of money anymore. I remember because that second round of funding was a bit painful. That's when we really started finally expanding into Europe, which is what I had been initially hired for.

Andy Phillipps
Active Hotels, co-founder and CEO, 1999-2004, Priceline.com International [2004-2006]

At the time, we were pretty ignorant as there was no one in our team that came from the hotel industry. I think that was the same at Expedia; I think that was the same for Travelocity, the same at Lastminute, and the same with the Dutch guys [Bookings.nl]. And so, we were kind of learning as we went. And, yes, we did start with the agency model. In the UK, we tried a merchant model probably in 2002.

All the market research guys were telling us the future is merchant rate, or net rate. The terminology changed a bit over the period. We tried it, and actually consumers just didn't like it. There was no trust paying up-front. Again, it sounds ridiculous, but there was no willingness from consumers, or much less willingness from consumers, to put in their credit cards and pay up-front for a hotel booking at that particular point in time.

And hotels didn't like the cash flow implications of it. So, the hotels didn't like it, the consumers didn't like it. The merchant model would have been better cash flow for us, but by 2002 we were profitable anyway so we didn't really need the cash-flow benefit.

Geert-Jan Bruinsma
Bookings.nl, founder, 1996-2003, Booking.com, business development, 2011-2016

My ultimate goal for Bookings was to be number one if people were looking for hotels in Amsterdam because that was most of the business in the beginning. I remember there were two websites about hotels in Amsterdam, which were number one and two, and I was number three. I couldn't get rid of them. I also realized that they had no online reservation system; it was an email form. I could see there was a lot of manual stuff behind it.

The other one was just advertising, asking €20 [$23] or €25 [$29] per month to have an advertisement on the website. I sent an email to both owners and I proposed to them, "Let's say, if I put my hotels behind your website and we split commission 50/50. How does it sound?" I think within an hour they both replied, like, "Wow, this is a great idea." It was Channels.nl, which is still live, and the Amsterdam Hotel Guide. It doesn't exist anymore. It took about two days to program it, and I remember after two days they put it live. I know two of those guys from the Amsterdam Hotel Guide. For years they haven't done anything. It was so successful from the beginning that they didn't have to do anything. They were just looking at statistics all day long, how many bookings they got.

That was a big step because it was scalable. Every day we were adding new affiliates. This was in 1997, beginning of 1998, I guess. Search engine optimization was number one. We had landing pages before the term landing page existed. I didn't know it was called affiliates. We had a system in place and then only a year or so later we heard it was about affiliates. But that was the second big growth path. This was all before Google. After two years, the business was going so well that I could hire someone. At the end of 1998 there were the two of us.

Gillian Tans
Booking.com, chief operating officer 2002-2015, CEO, 2016-present

In 2002, I joined Bookings.nl. Geert-Jan Bruinsma was CEO. It was at this time when Kees Koolen [marketing director/COO of Bookings.nl/Booking.com 2001-2008] came into the picture. At the time when I interviewed with Kees, I thought OK. I was employee number seven. Before it was really a lot of students. I had a good jolt. Then I decided to join. It was not long after the dot-com bubble burst. It was a very usual step for people to take. I saw how complicated it was to bring customers to properties. I really got fascinated about the opportunities this could bring. That's why I moved. I also liked the entrepreneurial spirit at Bookings.nl at that time. I felt I could learn a lot from it. It was time to start building a business.

In the first phase, we were just building the model, the product, and the culture. That's what we were busy with at that time. We had to find how the product looks to properties and to customers. There were also people getting hired who really had a vision to where this company could go.

Rachel Howes
Active Hotels, contracts manager, 2004-2005, Booking.com, director/managing director roles in UK, Ireland, North Europe, Middle East and Africa, 2006-2013

At Active, there were in Cambridge about 13 people on the team. Andy Phillipps said he didn't want customer service. He didn't want all these people. He just wanted the technical side to flourish and go forward. It was a real atmosphere of come on in, give us your ideas, we're going to do this together, let's go for it. And it was fantastic. They brought some super people on board. I'm quite a forceful woman. I'm also a gay woman, which I think also helped me. I'm very confident. I came in there and I just really pushed my ideas through.

I wasn't going to take any shit. Absolutely. I knew what I was talking about. I felt very fortunate to have been given an opportunity where my background was allowed to come into a completely new situation and really help drive that forward. So talking about availability, getting them to look at what's happening six months down the line in the UK. When are we going to need rooms? All these sorts of things.

Gillian Tans
Booking.com, chief operating officer 2002-2015, CEO, 2016-present

We didn't really have roles at that time when I joined Bookings because it was not a very large company. When I started, we were only active in the Netherlands. My first job was to make sure that we earned some money so that we could start expanding. I was managing basically more on the commercial side of the business, on-boarding hotels, and creating commissions at that time because we couldn't afford to continue what we were doing. So that's what I did. Then I also was responsible for customer service, but you saw that it was a combined job, and if customer service was too busy then we couldn't do anything with hotels. That's also the moment that we decided to split that role into two jobs.

Deciphering the Jargon

Affiliate Marketing
Distribution through partnerships with other companies rather than brand-building by going direct to consumers.
Agency Model
One of the methods online travel agencies use to collect revenue from hotels. The online travel agency makes its money through hotel commissions. The hotel is the merchant of record. The online travel agency doesn't collect money up-front; guests pay the hotel when they stay.
Merchant Model
A model for how online travel agencies collect revenue from hotels where the online travel agency is the merchant of record, collects a payment from the consumer at the time of the booking, and pays the hotel after the guest stay. Online travel agencies receive a net rate from the hotel, and mark it up to determine a retail rate at which price they sell the stay to consumers. Because the online travel agencies remit payment to the hotels only at the time of the guest stay, they get what some might call a free loan, enhancing cash flow.
Net Rate
The room price that online travel agencies receive from the hotel before any markup or commission. The net rate is associated with the merchant model.
Opaque Pricing
Consumers aren't shown the price of a hotel stay in advance. Instead, in products such as Priceline.com's Name Your Own Price, consumers learn the room rate only after they enter their credit card information and their bids and bookings are accepted.
Retail Rate
When online travel agencies disclose the room rate up-front and before the booking.
Search Engine Marketing
Paid search advertising through companies such as Google or Bing.
Search Engine Optimization
The science of appearing as prominently as possible in search engines without paying for advertising. Also called free or organic search.
Geert-Jan Bruinsma
Bookings.nl, founder, 1996-2003, Booking.com, business development, 2011-2016

Around 2001, more or less, was when Expedia started in Europe and grew. And when Expedia came to Europe they had the merchant model. In Europe, booking a hotel was like what we do today, the agency model. You make a reservation and that's it and you pay at the hotel. I always compare them. The merchant model is like what we use when buying an airline ticket; you buy it at the time you book. You can't cancel anymore, that's it.

I know that for Expedia, it was a hard time to introduce the merchant model into Europe because no one was used to it. Also, Europeans making a hotel reservation didn't understand that they had to pay at the time of booking. If you booked a complete package like a tour operator, then you were paying at the time you were booking, but a hotel, just a hotel reservation, was not about paying.

The way we did the agency model was so much easier. No contracts for the hotel. Just sign up. At the end of the month, or the beginning of the next month, we were sending an overview with all the reservations and they had just to check those reservations — which were cancelled — and we didn't charge them for cancellations. We had the idea that the hotel was misusing this thing so then we just selected some guests and we asked them how their stay was and if they said, "We had a great stay," and the hotel said it was cancelled, then we knew something was wrong. I think we only did it once or twice.

Expedia Was Too Complacent and Blew Opportunities of Historic Proportions

Bookings.nl merged with the UK's Bookings Online in 2000. In 2002, Barry Diller's USA InterActive/IAC acquired Expedia, and came close to buying Geert-Jan Bruinsma's Bookings.nl in Amsterdam. Separately, in 2003, IAC/Expedia signed a non-disclosure agreement with the UK's Active Hotels, but a deal never materialized. Together, these decisions may have arguably amounted to the biggest missed opportunity in online travel history.
Geert-Jan Bruinsma
Bookings.nl, founder, 1996-2003, Booking.com, business development, 2011-2016

In 2002, we were very close to a deal with Expedia, and I think after six months of negotiation, they cancelled it. There was a group of investors in the Netherlands who wanted to go on, and so they came with an offer I couldn't refuse. For me, there was a reason to sell my shares and to leave the company. I had a one-and-a-half-year old son at that time and I was going to love to spend more time with him. I took my chance.

But, it was the director's decision [at IAC/Expedia]. I remember that we did all preparations and there were lawyers from Expedia in the office for weeks. They must have spent quite a lot of money on it. At the end, it was a board decision, and the [IAC] board decided not to do it. As far as I know, they told us it would be decided in the board meeting and the next morning we got an email like, "Oh, sorry guys. The board decided not to do it."

Matt Witt
Active Hotels, chief operating officer, 2000-2005, Booking.com, chief operating officer/consultant, 2006-2008

We started the company, Active Hotels, knowing that at some point we were going to sell it. We weren't interested in floating the company. We were always looking for a sale. That means probably a trade sale to a large existing player. That probably meant one in the U.S. for us. We had spoken to Expedia at some length, and we'd been in touch with Expedia for quite a long time just through meeting at conferences.

The person I dealt with was Jenne Pierce. She worked for Diarmaid Russell, who worked for an English guy, Simon Breakwell, based in London, who was responsible for Expedia's development outside the U.S. We did talk to him at some length. We got into a stage where we shared some information under NDA [Non-Disclosure Agreement]. This is in 2003, early 2004. We were sort of in the frame of mind where we knew that we were interesting. By then we were number one in England, and going for much more.

It wasn't that Expedia was unsuccessful in Europe. They had a lot of trade in the UK, but it was very much focused around the chains and around the merchant model. We could always beat Expedia in a hotel discussion. The way we would know is we'd always get the last available room in a hotel because Expedia was charging too much commission, frankly. They effectively were charging 20, 25, sometimes even 30 percent commission, and we were at 15. A hotel, if they had anything open, was going to give us that last room. So if you wanted to stay in Liverpool, it might be on a Saturday, and you suddenly decide you want to go up there, the only rooms you were going to find were from us.

We decided not to go down that road [to sell ourselves to Expedia], but it opened our eyes to what might be possible. Andy was a very good, outward-looking CEO. He had contacts. I think it was a combination of things [that led to the end of our talks with Expedia]. I think there was a feeling that it was going to be very hard to get the two models to work together. We were a long way apart on business models. I certainly felt that I could work with the people, but we might have to break everything up and start again with the technology.

I mean, to be honest, we had the same problem with Priceline [about conflicting business models], but they were more relaxed about letting us get on with it. We never got to that situation with Expedia, but my expectation is it would have been more difficult with them. About Priceline, I don't have a bad word to say about them. They're amazingly mature. I mean mature as in a sensible organization. Yeah, I mean, obviously under the bonnet you never know what's happening.

We agreed to stay in touch with Expedia. It was soon after — but it may have been half a year later — that Andy came to see me and said, "Look, can you go and speak to the guys at Priceline." He was never explicit about why, but we were good friends so I kind of understood it. The idea was that he would set up that they would become an affiliate for us as a way to find out more about each other. So we set up a business where we would work together.

Dara Khosrowshahi
USA Networks/IAC, senior vice president of strategic planning, CFO, Expedia, CEO [2005-2017]

I think the Expedia team had taken a look at Active Hotels and Booking.com and again had passed. And, I think it was because we were attached to the merchant model and we were attached to high margins at the time. And I think in hindsight that blinded us. I think companies get very comfortable sometimes that their way is the only way. And, hats off to Glenn Fogel and team for recognizing Booking and the potential there. And that's another deal that's been a home run on the Internet: the Priceline purchase of Booking.com. It's been absolutely extraordinary.

An illustration of Dara Khosrowshahi
Dara Khosrowshahi

This Uneventful Meeting Might Have Changed Online Travel History

Glenn Fogel of Priceline.com met Shane Whaley, business development manager at Octopustravel, at World Travel Mart in London in 2002. The meeting itself was unremarkable, but it was significant because it would lead to Fogel's introduction to Active Hotels a year or so later.
Glenn Fogel
Priceline.com/Priceline Group, head of strategy and vice president corporate development, 2000-2016, Priceline Group/Booking Holdings, CEO, 2017-present

I was running Priceline in Europe at the time [2002], commuting between New York and London. If you recall, Priceline really had one product called Name Your Own Price. I realized very quickly that we needed to have a retail product, selling travel the way everyone sold and bought it, which is with the pricing disclosed. So I was looking for how to do this in the UK. I had a meeting with a person at a company called Gullivers Travel Associates [GTA]. They had an online company called Octopustravel. This was at a very big travel conference [World Travel Market] in London in the Fall. The person I met with was Shane Whaley, and we were trying to do a commercial deal with GTA/Octopus. Shane then left GTA and he went over to Active Hotels.

An illustration of Glenn Fogel
Glenn Fogel
Shane Whaley
Active Hotels, European business development manager, 2003-2005, Booking.com, regional manager roles, 2006-2013

[Glenn Fogel and I] first met at World Travel Market when I was European business development manager at Octopustravel. Yeah, it was a very interesting meeting and I remember it so well. He came with his VP of product, a chap called Patrick Healy, an Irishman. And they kind of approached us then and we had a chat. At that time, to be honest, I was in my mid-to-late 20s, just a very aggressive sales guy. My goal was to bring on partners for Octopustravel. And, I didn't really know what Priceline was at that time, to be honest. We were at the GTA stand on the trade show floor.

I believe we had a meeting booked with my director, but my director was nowhere to be seen. So I ended up conducting the meeting with them. From my side, it was about how can we get Priceline to take our hotel stock. I'm pretty sure at that stage — what I know now — Glenn was kind of fishing around for an acquisition. But to my young sales mind at the time, it was truly about drinks and a partnership deal.

I believe that I got back to the office, did my follow-up, realized the opportunity with Priceline, and then I kept chasing Glenn. I could see the dollar signs. A couple of months later, Glenn actually came into GTA's London office. He was on one of those trips to the UK, and then he met with the director of sales and the GTA owner, David Babai.

Glenn met with Octopus first and it was probably one of the worst sales meetings I've ever attended. Glenn came in and made a quip when he left the meeting, and said something like, "Shane, you shouldn't speak so much at these meetings," because I was literally not allowed to get a word in. The owner and the vice president took over the whole thing and I just sat there smiling. I remember that, and also what Glenn said when he left. And I actually left Octopustravel shortly afterwards.

An illustration of Shane Whaley
Shane Whaley
Glenn Fogel
Priceline.com/Priceline Group, head of strategy and vice president corporate development, 2000-2016, Priceline Group/Booking Holdings, CEO, 2017-present

So Shane gave me a call. He said he moved over to Active Hotels [in 2003]. I said, "Oh great. Maybe we should do a deal with you at Active." We started talking and I went to visit him and the people running Active Hotels up in Cambridge, UK. And that began the conversations. The conversations went on for some time, until ultimately, coming together with the transaction in which we were able to acquire control of Active Hotels while leaving management with a minority stake in the company. And that was September of 2004.

Active Hotels and Bookings.nl Mulled Merging Before Priceline Came Calling

In 2003 or so, perhaps a bit before Priceline.com's Glenn Fogel was reaching out to Active Hotels about a deal, executives from Active Hotels and Bookings.nl met several times to compare notes and consider whether a partnership or even a merger might be beneficial. That same year, Bruinsma had sold Bookings.nl to Bookingsportal, which operated hundreds of hotel-booking websites across Europe in multiple languages, according to co-founder Arthur Kosten. Active Hotels, at this juncture, was the leading online accommodations site in the UK and perhaps in France, while Bookings was number one in Holland, perhaps second in Germany, and strong in Spain, Italy, and the Nordics, among other European destinations.
Gillian Tans
Booking.com, chief operating officer 2002-2015, CEO, 2016-present

Active Hotels? Yeah, absolutely, I do remember our first meeting with Active Hotels, which was at EyeForTravel in Mallorca. [The Exceltur-EyeForTravel conference took place in Palma de Mallorca October 16-17, 2003.] That's when we met. It was to think about if there was value in cooperating because they owned the British market and we were very strong in continental Europe. We had quite similar models, how we operated. We just had discussions around if that would be worthwhile and if there were any synergies. After that conversation, half a year later, I think, they were bought by Priceline.

Arthur Kosten
Bookingsportal, co-founder [2001-2003], Bookings.nl/Booking.com, chief marketing officer, 2004-2012

At Bookingsportal, we could purchase all kind of keywords on Google and they actually had a very, very targeted destination site in the language of the customer. You could, for example, have a Russian customer searching for hotels in a secondary city in Europe and he would arrive on a destination site only for that destination in Russian. You could imagine, that gave us almost an unfair advantage or almost a monopoly position on some routes. Essentially, we already had the infrastructure before we acquired Bookings.nl to have hundreds and hundreds of these destination sites. We could make the process of going into a route, scale the technology, create a destination site, get the inventory, translate it, and advertise it in local languages. We really made a factory process of that and then introduced A/B testing, and version improvements over time.

I think around that time [2003 or early 2004] we were talking to the guys at Active Hotels saying, "Hey, you guys are really good in the UK and in affiliates. We're much better on the continent and we're primarily good in SEO [search engine optimization] and SEM. What if we merged these businesses together?"

An illustration of Arthur Kosten
Arthur Kosten
Andy Phillipps
Active Hotels, co-founder and CEO, 1999-2004, Priceline.com International [2004-2006]

We knew the Dutch guys reasonably well. We bumped into them periodically. We actually talked about merging before we sold to Priceline. Yeah, of all the companies around Europe, they were the ones that worried us most. And yet if we were in a deal against anyone else, we were 95 percent certain to win it. So, if we were trying to power up someone else's website, we were pretty confident we were going to win with the possible exception of those guys at Bookings. We were much more uncertain that we were going to win when we were competing against the Dutch guys. Whereas, if it were Hotels.com, Expedia, or whomever, we had a reasonably high level of confidence. I don't want to say we were complacent, but we had quite a good track record and success on that.

We discussed merging with our shareholders and I know Stef [Noorden, Bookings CEO] discussed it with theirs, as well. We were roughly the same size at that point in time in terms of turnover, etc. The tricky thing to make that work — and part of it's a bit obvious — we were growing hundreds of percent. Most of our shareholders were saying, "If you're growing that fast, even if the deal takes three to six months to execute, you've halved the value of your income while you do it because you will take your eye off the ball while you're trying to get the transaction to go through." So our shareholders were reasonably negative about it. Wrongly in retrospect, but they were negative about it at the time.

Bookings Learned [Well, Not Really] That It Was Doing Everything Wrong

Both Bookings.nl and Active Hotels were growing at a rapid pace using the agency, or pay-at-the-hotel model, but U.S. research companies and pundits were declaring that the future of online travel would be in the pre-pay merchant model and in dynamic packaging, arguing that the agency model was dying.
Arthur Kosten
Bookingsportal, co-founder [2001-2003], Bookings.nl/Booking.com, chief marketing officer, 2004-2012

We hardly were aware of the difference between the agency and the merchant model. We never heard about those terms. So when Bookingsportal purchased Bookings.nl, three of us went to the PhoCusWright conference in Orlando, probably 2003, I guess. And we were deeply impressed with all of these very famous people, [IAC CEO] Barry Diller and whomever. [Priceline.com CEO] Jeff Boyd was speaking there. A lot of these famous people that we knew of.

The whole theme of that conference was about dynamic packaging and the death of the agency model. We'd never heard about dynamic packaging. Actually, we'd never heard the phrase, the agency model. We were operating it, but we just hadn't heard the term before. So, it took us about two to three hours into the conference where suddenly we said, "Hey, these guys are all saying that the agency model seems to be like the model of the company that we just bought." We had super-big debt, we had really high mortgages, and during that conference, literally all the smart people told us, "You just bought a company that is like the past. The future will be dynamic packaging."

The reaction, I'll tell you. Kees [Koolen, Bookings.nl COO] and I said, "Let's take a break. Let's take a small walk." This doesn't sound good because these are the smart guys; we come here to learn; we don't know much about the travel industry; and suddenly all these guys tell us our business is no good. We take a walk and we're a little bit ... we didn't expect it. We're coming there, thinking we're doing something great, and in a couple of hours there's no future.

I remember that we walked around that building and Kees literally said to me at some point, "You know? This is the biggest Marriott in the world, it has 4,000 rooms. Have you seen all their staff? We fill this hotel every single day. We did 4,000 room nights the other day, and we fill it every single day with just 50 people [employees]. We must be doing something well. We're growing really fast. We have customers who love it. We've seen that people love our product more than all these people in the room that are talking about the dynamic packaging model so maybe we shouldn't listen too much to them."

So literally, it became my last travel conference ever. Basically, we said, OK, either these guys are nuts or we are nuts, but let's work with our customers and make the thing grow. If these guys are talking about all these things that we don't understand that doesn't match the stuff that we see in our business going on, we'd better simply just focus on our business, make it a great business, and we'll take it from there.

Andy Phillipps
Active Hotels, co-founder and CEO, 1999-2004, Priceline.com International [2004-2006]

It was the whole industry [telling us we were wrong]. It's hard to remember now, but actually every single research report coming out would be saying, merchant rate is the future. And, you know, our investors were nervous about it. I remember meeting Bookings' Arthur Kosten, Stef Noorden, and Kees Koolen at a conference. And we'd listen to five or six presentations in a row explaining to us why merchant rate was so successful. This must have been 2003 or something.

I do remember talking with the Dutch guys and they were saying, "We're all hearing our model isn't working." And we were many hundreds of percent up year on year and so were they, and we remember having the conversation saying, "Well if this is the model that isn't working, let's stick with it?"

There were more doubts probably, from my point of view, as we tried merchant rate and we knew that it didn't work. It wasn't that we weren't listening to that research; it's that we thought, let's try it, and both consumers and hotels didn't like it. We thought, well, the only advantage here to us is the to cash flow. But most businesses flourish long term if they're serving their customers well.

Priceline UK Was Going Nowhere Fast

In the period before Priceline.com's Glenn Fogel met Octopustravel's Shane Whaley at World Travel Market in London in 2002, and then Whaley landed at Active Hotels in 2003, Fogel had been commuting between New York and London and running Priceline Europe. The latter was a joint venture with private equity firm General Atlantic Partners. Name Your Own Price, which was considered an "opaque" offering because customers didn't know the price until after their bids were accepted, wasn't working well in Europe. Fogel was on the hunt for a way to do retail travel, where rates were disclosed before the bookings.
Glenn Fogel
Priceline.com/Priceline Group, head of strategy and vice president corporate development, 2000-2016, Priceline Group/Booking Holdings, CEO, 2017-present

One of the first things I did when I joined Priceline.com was to help work on the creation of Priceline Europe, which was the joint venture with General Atlantic Partners, the big private equity firm that helped fund that operation. That was not too successful. But we were still operating it. I was running that small, opaque-only travel operation.

That's why we wanted to bring in Active Hotels to have that retail, disclosed operation. If you remember, we had bought a company called Travelweb. We had closed on that deal a little bit before Active Hotels. That was to enable us to have a retail hotel product in the U.S. But even before that, to do retail air, we had bought another company called Lowestfare, which we bought from Carl Icahn. It was a customer base and a website, and had some connections and contracts with the airlines.

Jeffery Boyd
Priceline Group, CEO, 2000-2013, Priceline Group/Booking Holdings, chairman, 2012-present

The historical context was that the company's strategic plan was to have Name Your Own Price businesses in all the major parts of the world. We had ventures in London, Hong Kong, and in Australia. We had businesses that were intended to build the Name Your Own Price brand around the world. We closed those down because they were very small and losing a lot of money. We couldn't afford to keep them running.

In re-imagining our international business, we thought of it as potentially a retail business, a much broader market than just Name Your Own Price. We were lucky in the United States. We had a lot of capital and were able to invest in getting people to understand how to Name Your Own Price for various things. The investment required to do that overseas would have been prohibitive.

An illustration of Jeffery Boyd
Jeffery Boyd
Glenn Fogel
Priceline.com/Priceline Group, head of strategy and vice president corporate development, 2000-2016, Priceline Group/Booking Holdings, CEO, 2017-present

At that time, we had already closed down that joint venture in Priceline Europe. After 9/11, General Atlantic was no longer willing to fund the venture. We took it over, 100 percent. To lower the cash burn, we stopped the opaque air business. We kept the opaque hotel product going because that was a good product. It was doing fine. I'm only talking about the UK. So we weren't looking at all for a retail air product at the time. We were looking for a retail hotel product [in Europe]. The same way Travelweb was a retail hotel product in the U.S. We bought Travelweb so we would have the contracts with all the major hotel chains, and the technology platform for the retail product.

Séverine Philardeau
Active Hotels, European business development manager 2000-2005, Booking.com, head of strategy and communications, 2006

We had quite a big partnership team that I was initially leading, and then Nick Monaghan [head of distribution at Active Hotels] took over at some point. He hired Shane Whaley, as far as I remember. I think Shane is the one who called up Priceline and said, "Oh, do you want to do a deal with us so we can give you all this inventory of independent hotels in Europe?" I think that's how the whole relationship started, really. It's through that initial partnership conversation. I think, at the time, Priceline had obviously entered Europe and it hadn't performed in the way it wanted it to. I think their opaque model was a bit difficult for people to understand. So they kind of had retreated. They were looking for ways to come back in. I think they had probably come to the conclusion at the time that an acquisition was the right thing to do.

Yeah, so I think Andy [Phillipps] had decided he wanted to try and sell the business. He had appointed — I think it was UBS or someone — to really put together a strong deck that would support why we were a great company to buy. I can't remember if there were others looking at the business at the same time. There probably were. I just remember, at some point, we had Glenn Fogel, and quite a few others descending on Cambridge to meet with us. Then the deal progressed quite quickly.

Shane Whaley
Active Hotels, European business development manager, 2003-2005, Booking.com, regional manager roles, 2006-2013

I moved across to Active Hotels and moved up to Cambridge. I actually moved from my house in London to Cambridge and lost a very good girlfriend in the process, who didn't want to move. But I believed in what Active was trying to do. I really believed in the model and being able to have these smaller hotels, being able to take bookings from around the world, rather than sit on the sidelines because they couldn't work on net rate. To me, that was the biggest thing that I could see as a game-changer at Active.

And, of course, one of the first people I called in my Rolodex was Glenn. It would have been early 2003. I was purely tasked with signing up partners. At that time, Active was very strong, but only in the UK. You would get your hotels, your B&Bs, but because we were working on the commission model, we had a lot more UK hotels than our friends at Expedia did. The smaller regional hotels and B&Bs didn't want to work on net rate, but they were happy to work with us on the commission model. So that was my pitch to Glenn. Hey, if you want to offer your Priceline customers a good selection of British hotels, then we really should be talking.

Matt Witt
Active Hotels, chief operating officer, 2000-2005, Booking.com, chief operating officer/consultant, 2006-2008

A half-year after we agreed to stay in touch with Expedia, Andy came to see me and said, "Look, can you go and speak to the guys at Priceline." He was never explicit about why, but we were good friends so I kind of understood it. The idea was that they would become an affiliate for us as a way to find out more about each other. So we set up a business where we would work together. I went over to Norwalk [Connecticut, Priceline headquarters] to chat with them ostensibly on the grounds they were vetting us a potential supplier of hotel rooms.

It was one of those meetings where you realize quite early on there's more to this. I spent the whole day, literally the whole day, being grilled on our technology. Was it good enough, and about our business model, and how we collect payments. And how much do you pay, how do we get your information? Everything. I was with a guy called Shane Whaley.

He actually was notionally responsible for the affiliates outside the UK. That was his lot. He and I went over to the states to do a couple of visits, two or three visits, of which Priceline was just one. But, obviously when I was there, I realized it was the most important one.

I recognized early on it was a kind of mixture of tie-ticking and actual pre-due diligence. No, they weren't trying to steal anything. You can tell. If somebody's thinking of setting up to compete with you, there's just no level of trust. That wasn't like that here, this was a very clear, to my mind at least anyway. It was a very clear pre-due diligence process. For half the day. It was run by their tech team, and a guy called Ron Rose. He was the CIO. I also did meet Glenn, and I met Mitch Truwit [then Priceline COO], as well. I wasn't the lead person from Active. I was just the person in the room on that day.

The due diligence process with them was very, very thorough. We had two or three trips to the States during the summer of 2004. And, then they came over to see us in a big group, as well. We had the full legal due diligence, as well. That was handled 50-50 by myself and Adrian Currie. He's the second Adrian at Active. He's the finance guy. He ended up very senior in Priceline. [He was the founding director of Booking.com's operations in New Zealand and is still a Booking Holdings senior vice president.]

The offer Priceline made for Active Hotels was a good one. It never changed. One of the things that was very trust-building with all the discussions we had during due diligence is they did find things that you're not that happy to show them, and there was never any sense or hint that they were going to change their minds.

Andy Phillipps
Active Hotels, co-founder and CEO, 1999-2004, Priceline.com International [2004-2006]

Glenn's a hugely personable, well-connected and great guy, and he was very, very-well-connected to the European tech scene. I've got no idea how I first met Glenn, but we'd known him for two, three years probably before we got into acquisition discussions. He came out to Cambridge. We met him at various conferences. Yeah, there was lots of contact before the transaction went through. And probably, crucially, we trusted him. He's got very high integrity as an individual and we thought we could benefit from working with Priceline. Trust is massively underrated, and so I'm going to sound like some old fart here, but business works when people are working together. Normally it's much easier to get together a framework and to work together if there's trust involved.

Matt Witt
Active Hotels, chief operating officer, 2000-2005, Booking.com, chief operating officer/consultant, 2006-2008

Things were going very well for the model during 2004 and 2005. As soon as we'd been bought, among a number of things, we started talking about what's the best way to expand into Europe because that is the strategy for this to work. We have to do this across Europe.

Priceline Announces on September 21, 2004 Its Purchase of Active Hotels

Priceline.com acquired Active Hotels for $161 million in September 2004, and soon turned its attention to further expansion in Europe, and Bookings B.V.
Glenn Fogel
Priceline.com/Priceline Group, head of strategy and vice president corporate development, 2000-2016, Priceline Group/Booking Holdings, CEO, 2017-present

Well, I was in Trafalgar Square with Andy Phillipps, the CEO [of Active Hotels]. It was November [2004]. It was during World Travel Mart, which I mentioned was the conference where I met Shane Whaley several years before. It was that time of the year. What happened was Andy mentioned, what did I think of Booking.com? I said, "Well, I know of them, but I don't know them well. Why do you ask?" He said, "Well, a couple of guys are in town for World Travel Mart and we've been thinking of doing a deal with them before we did the deal with you. Would you like to have a conversation with them?"

This was on a Wednesday. I was still going back and forth between New York and London. I was supposed to go home the next day, Thursday. I'd been there since Monday. I was very close to telling Andy, "Gee, sounds interesting, but I'm tired. Let's just go home and why don't we do it another time." But I didn't. I came very close to saying that. I said to Andy, "OK." So I called my wife, Amy. I said, "Amy, I'm not coming home tomorrow. I've got a meeting now Thursday. I've got to go to it." She said, "OK."

I go to the meeting. I met the CEO, Stef Noorden. With him was the man who's running finance; he was more of a consultant and helping them keep things together. His name is Jan Doctor. Jan ultimately later became a board member of the Priceline Group.

So Andy and I meet with Stef and Jan. Stef tells me the story of how they're doing what they're doing. I said, "That sounds very interesting. I'd like to know more. Can I come and visit?" Stef said, "Sure, when would you like to come?" I said, "How about tomorrow?" He said, "Fine." I call up Amy, and I say, "Amy, I'm not coming home tomorrow either. Now I'll come home Friday. I've got a meeting I've got to go to." So I go to Amsterdam alone and I met with Stef again, his management team, and Jan.

And, I think this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. This is fantastic. And, I think this would be great because Active was very big in the UK and had some hotels in France, and a couple of other places on the continent, and was very oriented towards using affiliates to get demand. Booking.com, on the other hand, had a lot more hotels on the continent — the Netherlands, France, Spain — and they were very heavily oriented towards using SEM.

Arthur Kosten
Bookingsportal, co-founder [2001-2003], Bookings.nl/Booking.com, chief marketing officer, 2004-2012

I think a lot of it actually started from the early days of starting the destination sites. For digital marketing, I think, one of the things we've not understood for a long time was that when we advertised for Paris and Expedia advertised for Paris, then people would land on a destination page for Paris on Booking.com and the home page of Expedia where suddenly there was New York and Vegas advertised. I think, our background from building all these sets of destination sites was a lucky shot because that was a practice that we did for organic search results, but that helped us a lot when paid search came along.

A problem in the beginning was that we had substantially higher conversions [than Expedia and others] but also substantially lower margins, and essentially it's the one-times-the-other that matters. We needed to overachieve in conversion. I think we always understood that we can't win if we're doing as good a job as Expedia does or other merchants with converting our consumers. Then it's never going to work because they have much wider margins than us so we really need to excel on that part. We had that tech DNA and had always been very scrappy and very low-funded. So we had to really always be smarter on the conversion front than our competitors.

Andy Phillipps
Active Hotels, co-founder and CEO, 1999-2004, Priceline.com International [2004-2006]

I think my job title after the acquisition was CEO of Priceline International, which sounds very grand but that was basically Priceline's non-U.S. activities, which weren't that substantial at the time. Glenn was head of M&A [mergers and acquisitions] at that point in time. He said, "Who are the other guys that we should be looking at globally?" And the first guys I pointed out were these guys in Holland. They're good. He'd had some contact with them already, but Glenn and Bob Mylod [Priceline CFO] started taking that a pretty bit more seriously at that particular point in time. It was obvious to me — sorry if that sounds arrogant — but yeah, because I had seen Bookings as a competitor and I was worried about them in the hotel space.

There was some discussion about whether this opportunity made the most sense or not. Should Priceline be going and buying another retail hotel offering that's growing well in Europe and really double down on hotels or should it be widening out its travel offering? So it was a brave decision from both Glenn and Bob Mylod actually to go through with it and buy Bookings. I mean, but the great metrics, including the size of the hotel industry and the margin involved, made hotels an obvious place to focus if you're an online travel agent.

Glenn Fogel
Priceline.com/Priceline Group, head of strategy and vice president corporate development, 2000-2016, Priceline Group/Booking Holdings, CEO, 2017-present

I thought, wow, this would be a great thing to put these guys [Active Hotels and Bookings] together. Active was bigger in sales and Active was bigger in profits. In fact, Booking didn't have any profits yet by that time. But Booking was growing faster. Well, and another great thing. They were doing the exact same agency model. It was like, this is perfect.

Arthur Kosten
Bookingsportal, co-founder [2001-2003], Bookings.nl/Booking.com, chief marketing officer, 2004-2012

So essentially Priceline came by. Glenn Fogel is a great guy, who did all the right acquisitions when everybody did the wrong acquisitions. And, he has a nose for finding these companies. Definitely for us, it was a bit scary. Suddenly to have these American guys that want to buy your company, and you didn't know them, and obviously you think they're way smarter than you are. Imagine we were a bunch of tech guys doing these projects, and acquired a company [when Kosten's Bookingsportal bought Bookings.nl in 2003], and we actually had quite a success growing it, but we were relatively inexperienced young guys.

Suddenly, these guys with banker backgrounds and very experienced M&A guys come along and we were a little bit scared. But you know, Glenn, he's a very charming and friendly guy and we had a great conversation. I showed him, essentially, all the flywheels in the business, and the level of insight we had in the business, and the buttons we could press, in turn, to actually grow the business. For us, we couldn't envision that it would become so big as it is now, but we were fairly confident that we could grow it a long way.

Active Hotels had exited to Priceline and then raised the same opportunity to Priceline like, "Hey, we think we're an excellent fit with Bookings. Could you acquire them too and then merge us together?" Essentially, that's what happened; then so Glenn came over. I think he was instantly excited with a couple of the ways we could show him how we managed and grew the business.

It was a weird deal because every week we were beating the plan so much that we were afraid to tell Glenn because we thought that he wouldn't believe us and think we were manipulating things. Yeah, I'm an investment man, too, now, and you see all these hockey sticks. I've never seen a hockey stick play out, but this was a hockey stick playing out during the process. Where essentially at some moment Glenn is just going to think we're cheating him because the numbers got better and better than expected every single week. So that was actually a fun process.

Gillian Tans
Booking.com, chief operating officer 2002-2015, CEO, 2016-present

It was right after the purchase of Active went through. I recall that we presented the Bookings business to Priceline and to Glenn, and it was pretty exciting. It was a completely new experience. So that was interesting. The process went on. I'm not sure how long. But it took quite some time. At that time, I was managing most of Bookings' operations, but we didn't have titles or anything like that. We were expanding into the world. So that was the biggest part of my job, which was to make sure we were successful in as many countries as we could.

Jeffery Boyd
Priceline Group, CEO, 2000-2013, Priceline Group/Booking Holdings, chairman, 2012-present

Glenn Fogel, who was our corporate development guy, shut down our business in London for us. But to his great credit, he continued to stay very close to the market and ultimately identified Active Hotels in Cambridge as an agency model hotel business. It was growing very well, and had terrific people working there. We made that acquisition first. A year later, Glenn had identified Booking.com. We bought Booking.com, and ultimately combined Active and Booking. That was one of the few mergers where the integration really did provide some top-line synergies.

Active Hotels was very successful in the UK, which was the biggest online travel market in Europe at the time, but not very successful in continental Europe. Booking.com was very successful at that time in continental Europe, but not as successful in the UK. Each had about 8,000 hotels, but there wasn't a lot of overlap. When we were able to combine the business and expose that inventory to travelers from Europe who wanted to come to the UK, and UK travelers who wanted to go to Europe, then there was an instant lift in the business.

The guys at Booking.com understood how to address the entire market. Not just the big chain hotels, the Accors, Marriotts, and the Hiltons in London, but ultimately to find demand for and service hotels all over the country, small towns, small hotels. When you think of the value of the service that an OTA [online travel agency] brings to a hotel, it's really at the highest for a small hotel that doesn't have their own website. They can't book online. They don't have online marketing. They don't have distribution agreements all around the world. They don't have foreign languages.

In the End, It's the Team Quality That Really Matters in an Acquisition

There was so much discussion about business models, namely agent versus merchant, and marketing strategies, affiliate deals versus search engine marketing. But beyond the business models, Priceline was attracted to the quality of the teams at Bookings and Active Hotels.
Jeffery Boyd
Priceline Group, CEO, 2000-2013, Priceline Group/Booking Holdings, chairman, 2012-present

We believed at that time that the agency's model was preferable for consumers obviously because they don't have to pay up-front. While collecting commissions can be a challenge, our businesses had the processes and understood how to do that. And so we actually felt it was an advantage. It was very hard for the others [such as Expedia and Hotels.com] to really move away from the merchant model because of the very substantial cash flow benefits that accrued to the merchant that collects the money and hangs onto it until the guest check out.

I think that was an advantage for us. I think the businesses [Active Hotels and Bookings] were initially misunderstood as affiliate businesses that were relying on a bunch of marginal click-farming websites for their demand. Obviously, that was the not truth. These businesses were growing very substantial direct business, and brand strength over time.

Glenn Fogel
Priceline.com/Priceline Group, head of strategy and vice president corporate development, 2000-2016, Priceline Group/Booking Holdings, CEO, 2017-present

Here's a key thing, though. The first reason you look at an acquisition is the people: Arthur Kosten, Kees Koolen, and Stef Noorden, and so many other people. We don't have time to name every single one. But everyone deserves to be mentioned. They were so good. And, it's a shame that only some people get their names mentioned because, as with any of these companies, there are a lot of people who don't get to have the public acclamation and acknowledgement of the hard work being put in to make these companies successful. But every single one deserves it.

I would say Adrian Currie, who was CFO of Active Hotels and then became CFO of the entire combination, and helped a great deal there, also should be cited. But, there are so many people to name. How do you possibly? We'll fill up the entire thing with a list of 300 people who just so happen to be the 150 from Active Hotels and 150 from Booking. What stood out were the teams' intelligence and street smarts. It's business knowledge, management skills. There are just so many things. It's normal business stuff. It's just they were doing it so well in every area.

Booking.com pioneered in travel certain marketing messages, such as the number of site visitors who were looking at a specific hotel at that moment, and before long its competitors were copying and adding similar features.
Arthur Kosten
Bookingsportal, co-founder [2001-2003], Bookings.nl/Booking.com, chief marketing officer, 2004-2012

We had at one point a discussion about shopping behavior and we had a discussion on e-commerce and it was actually not even related to Booking.com. If you imagine, there are lots of people looking at that place so, probably, I'll go there. There are no social clues, and mostly shopping is a very social thing like in a restaurant. Would you go into a restaurant if there's nobody there? Would you order something that nobody has? No. You'll go to a restaurant where there are lots of people. Then you'll look at the menu and look at what other people are having. There are a lot of psychological signals that come from the behavior of other people that actual help you in your purchase process.

Then at some point, I decided to buy a pile of books on persuasion, seduction, and dating to understand consumer psychology. I even got in trouble with my wife who came in at the moment. I ordered something on Amazon for the family and she saw the recommendations on dating books and she said, "Hey Arthur, is there something you need to tell me?" I said, "Oh no, I need it for work." "Oh yeah." We essentially just got a big pile of books for the team that was working on the website. I said, "OK, let's read a bit of this stuff to really understand what is known about consumer behavior, about signals that help customers make a decision, what are reasons why people keep delaying decisions."

Priceline Announced on July 14, 2005 Its Acquisition of Bookings B.V.

In July 2005, Priceline.com acquired Bookings B.V. for $133 million. Although the joint operation and merged companies — Active Hotels and Bookings — would eventually take the name Booking.com, it is interesting to note that Priceline paid more for Active Hotels, buying it in 2004 for $161 million, than it did for Bookings. Now the focus became to integrate the two companies, which at that time had 18,000 properties combined, the largest inventory among online players in Europe.

In the grand scheme of things, the integration went remarkably well, although it was at times a tough marriage between Active and Bookings. There were cultural differences and clashes among the teams; most of the Active Hotels leadership left after a year or two. In both deals, management reinvested a portion of the acquisition proceeds back into their respective businesses.

Jeffery Boyd
Priceline Group, CEO, 2000-2013, Priceline Group/Booking Holdings, chairman, 2012-present

It was a great acquisition. We were really lucky to have tremendous entrepreneurs at both businesses [Active and Booking]. In particular, the guys at Booking.com, after the integration of the two, including Kees Koolen, Arthur Kosten, Pieter van Doorne, and Adrian Currie came from Active Hotels, really did a great job scaling the business. I think one of the insights we came up with, and it turned out to be the right one, was to make sure that we gave an extraordinary amount of control and independence to the guys running the business. That's still a hallmark at Priceline, too. All management structures have challenges, but you have to look at what are the benefits and what are the costs. The benefits of having these fantastic entrepreneurs continuing to work in the business for six, seven, or eight years can make the acquisition, and continuing letting them really punch away at it, that's the value of the businesses.

The Greatest Internet Acquisitions in History

Acquisition Year Purchase
Price
Current
Value
Annualized
Return
Dollar
Value Gain
eBay-Paypal 2002 $1.5 billion $102 billion 30% $101 billion
Facebook-Instagram 2012 $1 billion $100 billion 131% $99 billion
Google-YouTube 2006 $1.7 billion $95 billion 40% $93 billion
Google-Android 2005 $50 million $90 billion 78% $90 billion
Priceline-Booking.com 2005 $135 million $88 billion 65% $88 billion
Google-DoubleClick 2007 $3.1 billion $23 billion 20% $20 billion
Amazon-Zappos 2009 $1.2 billion $13 billion 30% $12 billion

Note: These are our best estimates of the current enterprise value of the acquired companies, and the dollar value gained. For Booking.com, we estimated that it accounts for 85% of Booking Holdings' market cap on June 21, 2018.

Source: Jeremy Schaal, Jarislowsky Fraser with input from Skift Research

We had our experts crunch the numbers to determine the greatest Internet deals in history, and determined that Priceline.com's acquisition of Bookings B.V. in 2005 was the greatest in travel, and the fifth largest Internet deal overall in terms of value creation. These numbers are necessarily estimates because they are based on market caps, which constantly change, and they amount to our best calculation as to what contribution the acquired company made to the parent company's overall valuation. For example, we weighed the Priceline-Booking.com deal from the perspective of parent company Booking Holdings market cap of around $103 billion on June 21, 2018, and we gauged that Booking.com contributed around 85 percent of that value, or around $88 billion.

Many mergers and acquisitions don't perform well, and never produce the financial synergies that the acquiring company envisioned and touted. But the greatest acquisitions, such as Priceline's rapid-fire acquisitions of Active Hotels and Bookings, which led to putting these businesses together and rebranding them as Booking.com, gave the parent company new life and global reach. Priceline.com had figured out by 2003 that it didn't have the marketing resources to turn Name Your Own Price into a global business, as was the initial vision, and it wasn't a good fit anyway with consumer habits and behavior in many parts of the world. Booking.com, though, and to a lesser extent Priceline's 2007 acquisition of Agoda, enabled Booking Holdings to address a vast new business by bringing traveler demand to hotels and accommodations of all types in far-flung hilltops, villages, towns and cities around the globe.

In this sense, Priceline's acquisition of Booking.com has parallels to eBay's 2002 acquisition of Paypal, which spearheaded growth by adding a then-attractive payments platform onto a plateauing e-commerce marketplace. We calculated that eBay's acquisition of Paypal created about $100 billion in value for the parent company. eBay spun out Paypal in 2015, which in turn, seeking to repeat the magic, acquired Millennial favorite Venmo the following year. Likewise, Facebook played the Millennial card in its 2012 acquisition of Instagram, which ranked a very close second on our list of greatest Internet acquisitions to eBay-Paypal, at $99 billion in value creation.

Google-YouTube in 2006 ranked third at $95 billion in value creation while Google-Android in 2005 came in fourth at $90 billion, just edging out Priceline-Booking.com. There's no question that Booking.com is the little engine that turned into a big engine for Booking Holdings, and overturned the balance of power in online travel.

A Highly Successful Merger That Wasn't Without Pain

Andy Phillipps
Active Hotels, co-founder and CEO, 1999-2004, Priceline.com International [2004-2006]

One of the things that Bob Mylod [Priceline CFO] insisted on was, "OK, Andy do you think this is a really good transaction? Then put your money where your mouth is." The whole team had to reinvest in the new entity under Priceline. So he said, "If you think it's good, then merge your equity with these guys. So when you buy these guys [Bookings], it's going to be one class of equity afterwards and you will all be in it together. And so the two businesses were financially integrated from day one. I think in retrospect that was a very smart action from Glenn, Bob, and Jeff to make that happen. Because as a result, it took the Active team and the Booking team and forced them to act together very early on in that transaction.

Shane Whaley
Active Hotels, European business development manager, 2003-2005, Booking.com, regional manager roles, 2006-2013

To be honest with you, and this is testament to the character of Priceline, there wasn't a huge amount of visible change after the Active acquisition. Clearly we had more money. We were getting more staff, more marketing staff, and I think there were growing pains. There were certain compliance issues coming in. So I remember the Christmas parties that used to be quite raucous, and we had these awards for worst haircut of the year award. All that went out the window. As soon as we were American-owned, that went out the window. You couldn't say "boo" to a goose.

Priceline was very good in that they trusted the leadership of Active and they didn't get involved in the day-to-day. They kind of let the local management manage. Of course, if they were taking a wrong direction, they would have jumped in for sure. I think the real changes came in, to be honest, when Priceline then bought Bookings.nl and brought Kees Koolen and Arthur Kosten on board.

Bookings was very strong in Benelux and France, and we were really strong in the UK so we didn't step on each other's toes too much. Although we at Active had just opened an office in Paris, which closed down in deference to Booking. What we saw was a really difficult marriage between Bookings.nl and Active. I want to say within 12 months, all the Active directors left, including the CEO Andy Phillipps, who I'm sure walked away from a ton of cash.

Certainly, in the partnership department and affiliates, we had our way of working. They had theirs. The Bookings.nl Dutch way was very much how Bookings had to do it for a supplier. They didn't give the supplier that trust, which was a culture change for us in the department. I can think of one example where my partners were just used to going in, changing the colors, changing the text, moving things around, whereas when we integrated with Bookings, we had to use their platform. So the partner would have to send in what they wanted changed, and we had to wait in line for our team in Amsterdam to change it.

Rachel Howes
Active Hotels, contracts manager, 2004-2005, Booking.com, director/managing director roles in UK, Ireland, North Europe, Middle East and Africa, 2006-2013

I get a little bit frustrated when people come and say Priceline acquired Bookings.nl and from that came Booking.com because Active was acquired first. And from a business perspective, Active Hotels had the UK and the French markets sewn up, which in Internet terms, and still today in travel terms, are the biggest markets that exist.

I honestly think it was a 50-50 partnership. So when we first merged companies, Gillian Tans and myself were given our Priceline Europe business cards. It became pretty quickly obvious that Priceline Europe wasn't going to work, just like Priceline hadn't worked in the UK. So they kind of kept Booking.com or Bookings.nl at the time, and Active Hotels as two companies. And slowly, slowly, as Andy and the guys started to step back, and Kees Koolen and Arthur Kosten took over, the emphasis, and rightly so, went onto Booking.com and to create one brand.

I don't want to sound negative about it because it was a super time, but when Andy left, I was made managing director of Bookings.com Ltd. So under Bookings.com Ltd., we were in charge of the French, the UK, and the Scandinavian market, a huge chunk of the revenue. And within the Cambridge office, I still had a customer service team, I had the pay-per-click team, I had a technical team, and I had the finance team. And I think, honestly, outside of going out and developing the business, I was stuck in the middle trying to fight for two corners. You know, the UK guys were going, "What about Active Hotels?" and the Dutch guys were going, "Yeah, we have to do this." And I found myself as a peacemaker for a good year.

I think the frustration was that back in the day, there were Active Hotels innovations and Bookings kind of cut them out. However, two or three years later, they reintroduced the whole thing. So there was real bitterness at the time. One of our innovations was automatic availability. So when a hotel sold a room, it was immediately replaced. The other was a bookings button. So we went out to hotels, and we created this little booking button. You'd stick it on the individual hotel's website and for every booking he got through our booking button — because again, it was very early days and these guys didn't have these tools — we'd get a 3 percent kickback. And again, that was kind of abandoned, and reintroduced many years later. So a lot of the guys — and some of these guys are still there — felt a little bit torn about the whole thing. On one side, it's exciting, we're growing, everything's going really fast. The numbers are phenomenal, innovation is at its best. But on the other hand, the guys in Cambridge still felt a little bit frustrated.

Matt Witt
Active Hotels, chief operating officer, 2000-2005, Booking.com, chief operating officer/consultant, 2006-2008

There has to be some degree of trust in any business merger. Bookings had a particular view of Active that we were very successful in the affiliate space, but not very good in marketing. Our view of them was that they were very, very good in geographical places where we weren't successful. When we got closer together, we discovered that our models were even more similar than we realized. For example, we were recruiting hotels in the same way, and on-boarding hotels in very similar ways. One thing that was clear quite early is their system was newer and more capable of scaling for the future than ours.

Rachel Howes
Active Hotels, contracts manager, 2004-2005, Booking.com, director/managing director roles in UK, Ireland, North Europe, Middle East and Africa, 2006-2013

It was a super company. I have no issues. I mean, the Dutch and the British working together … Yeah. It was again, initially harsh because the Dutch would say, "No I don't like that, that's crap, let's do it again." Whereas the British would be, "Well, you know, maybe we'll have a different look at it that way." It was very difficult. So Kees, Gillian, and Arthur — perhaps Arthur not so much — but Kees and Gillian were very, very forceful. This is how it is, this is the way we're doing it. And it wasn't wrong. Honestly, it wasn't wrong.

At Booking.com they did an academy. It got a little bit serious. They accepted 10 of us and they did an internal academy. They still do it today. It was the early leaders within the team, including myself, Gillian, a guy called Kamal Bounajma, whom I still do business with today, and Pepijn Rijvers [currently Booking.com CMO], and we were sent five weekends to do almost like an MBA training together.

So after the acquisition, Gillian and I were thrown together. We literally had the same roles, me in Active, Gillian in Booking. We worked very, very well together, and Gillian's a hard worker. She's just a tough lady. And, you know, she deserved it [her success]. I think in the academy and in other ways, she stood out [in a good way]. She came across as somebody who was very stable for the business.

Matt Witt
Active Hotels, chief operating officer, 2000-2005, Booking.com, chief operating officer/consultant, 2006-2008

There were some challenges. Whenever two companies come together there's always a risk of a section winning or losing but I would say the majority — and there were some people who got burned — of people went into it willing for it to succeed on behalf of the new combined entity. I'm not unhappy about saying that that's how it worked.

The key differences between us, I think, were more to do with our management styles. Active was a very collegiate, not a democratic, but certainly a very-involving sort of business. We used a lot of humor to try and bring the team with us. A lot of energy went into getting everybody's views into the decision-making process. Whereas at Booking, because of the nature of the people running it, not because they're Dutch, but it was a slightly more top-down management style. There would be a lot of arguments at the board level, heated arguments at the board level, but once the decision was taken, it was implemented with ruthless efficiency. That top-down versus slightly more bottom-up was, I think, more to do with management style than to do with national characteristics.

Andy Phillipps
Active Hotels, co-founder and CEO, 1999-2004, Priceline.com International [2004-2006]

There are different ways of doing things. I don't know whether they were cultural-specific to the company or cultural-specific to the country here. We had a big kick-off once we completed the transaction with the Bookings guys and got everyone into one room and decided what we wanted to do next, how we were going to work together, who's going to run what. And there are definitely different styles between people but I think both cultures were very, very focused on numbers. I think we at Active had 10 or so Ph.D's in math-based subjects. Which meant that the yields through the websites were something we just focused on all day and every day. And I know Arthur, Kees, and Stef from Bookings all worried about that as well. It made it a lot easier that if someone could show that the numbers were going to work then that kind of made the decision. Then there doesn't have to be too much discussion on it. Neither company had any truck with brand at the time.

It was Bookings.org when the transaction was actually done. And, you know, the dot-org was an ideal URL for Bookings. Yet people still called it Booking, or Bookings now or they get the brand wrong.

There are always strategies you're trying to work out. How to get two technical platforms to integrate; who does what in terms of teams etc. But, in general, it was pretty cooperative here, and the teams worked well together pretty early on. Most mergers and acquisitions don't work. And although it was a lot of effort, both culturally and from a tech point of view, and who owns the contact of this hotel group now and all that kind of stuff, so you begin to work together. Although that took a lot of involvement and a lot of involved activity, compared with many M&A transactions, it was relatively smooth.

Matt Witt
Active Hotels, chief operating officer, 2000-2005, Booking.com, chief operating officer/consultant, 2006-2008

The main thing we're talking about is the back end. Their database and web service systems had been completely refurbished during 2004 because they'd had nasty problems earlier. Since they'd rebuilt all that, they had a new modular system, which they could expand and scale very, very quickly. In terms of numbers of hotels and trade, we were similar, but Active was probably, I would guess, about 20 percent bigger in terms of hotels and trade. This is before the acquisition. Very soon after the acquisition, we moved the essential gravity of the business to Amsterdam. That was partly because the expansion was going to be in Europe, in continental Europe, and partly because, as I say, the scaling of their system was easier than scaling ours.

Andy Phillipps
Active Hotels, co-founder and CEO, 1999-2004, Priceline.com International [2004-2006]

There was some stuff they couldn't leave us alone on, but I think Glenn worked really well with Jeff and Bob to try and give us space to be allowed to carry on. The whole European team experimented and innovated quite a lot. And sometimes that gets more difficult if you get into a larger organization whereas they largely left us alone early on. And Priceline had tried to expand into Europe previously with pretty limited success, I think.

Expedia Announced July 15, 2008 That It Had a Deal to Buy Italy's Venere

Stunned by Booking.com's gains, Expedia acquired Venere, an Italian hotel-booking site that, like Booking.com, used the agency model, in 2008 for an undisclosed sum.
Glenn Fogel
Priceline.com/Priceline Group, head of strategy and vice president corporate development, 2000-2016, Priceline Group/Booking Holdings, CEO, 2017-present

I can tell you a funny story about Venere. This is good. This one I can tell. We looked at Venere a couple of times. When I say we, I mean I went with members of the Booking.com management team to Rome. I guess this was maybe the last time we went to visit them about potentially doing a deal with them. The founders were having arguments and they really wanted to sell it, be done and leave. And just hand it off. We said, "But if you guys don't want to stay on, who's going to run it?" They said, "Well, Stef could run it." Now Stef spoke many languages, like a lot, but he doesn't speak Italian. He says, "I don't speak Italian." "Well, you can learn Italian." We're looking at them and say, "No." We just looked at each other said, "No. I don't think having Stef learn Italian is really the right way to do this.

Epilogue

In 2003, prior to Priceline acquiring Active Hotels and Bookings B.V., it didn't have much of a disclosed-price retail product in Europe, and globally it was a relatively weak number three player to IAC Travel — primarily Expedia and Hotels.com — and Orbitz, which stood at numbers one and two, respectively. Fast forward, and today the aptly renamed Booking Holdings is the largest and leading online travel agency in the world. Consider that in 2017, Booking Holdings bested Expedia in revenue $12.7 billion versus $10 billion, net income $2.34 billion versus $378 million, and net income margin 18.5 percent versus 3.8 percent.

Although it wasn't widely recognized at the time, 2005 was a pivotal year. In Priceline.com's fourth quarter of 2005 earnings call on February 16, 2006, CEO Jeffery Boyd characterized 2005 as "a transformational year for Priceline." Priceline Europe, which now included Active Hotels and the newly acquired Bookings B.V., "had an excellent quarter with $158 million in gross bookings and an organic growth rate of 88 percent, accelerating from 76 percent in Q3 and significantly in excess of that reported by our competitors," Boyd told investors and analysts. That compared with just 5 percent organic growth for Priceline's U.S. business.

Andy Phillipps
Active Hotels, co-founder and CEO, 1999-2004, Priceline.com International [2004-2006]

I think Booking was bought for $140 million [actually $133 million versus Active for $161 million] and we were slightly more than that, but subsequent to that transaction, there's been so much value generated. And that's largely down to the effort of the remaining team. And Stef, Kees, Arthur, Matthew Witt, Adrian Currie, Rachel Howes, all those people worked really, really closely together to make that value happen. So, you know success always has many authors and I think there's more than enough value from both companies, going into that.

Jeffery Boyd is a stunningly competent and honest individual. He just sort of oozes probity from every pore. And yeah, he's one of those guys you can have in a meeting. He won't be asserting, directing or forcing the direction of travel in any obvious way. But then he'll say something that is so blindingly perceptive and summarizes all the previous conversations so well. So, he was great at bringing clarity and vision to the entity. So I can't speak highly enough of all three of them. I'm sorry it makes it a slightly boring story, but Bob, Glenn, and Jeff were all exceptional individuals.

Jeffery Boyd
Priceline Group, CEO, 2000-2013, Priceline Group/Booking Holdings, chairman, 2012-present

The only thing I would say is — and I'm sure all the other guys in the industry you've spoken to will feel this way — it's been a real privilege to work in the early days of such an important transition in technology, just the Internet in general. The ability to work there and all of a sudden have mobile come in and have the industry, in effect, transform again. It's a great treat to be able to work right in the middle of that with such great people, and just be in it.

Rachel Howes
Active Hotels, contracts manager, 2004-2005, Booking.com, director/managing director roles in UK, Ireland, North Europe, Middle East and Africa, 2006-2013

Personally, I think it was the ride of my life. I had the most exciting period of my career, and I can honestly say I feel super proud to have been part of the foundations of that company. It was the pace, the fact that everybody was excited, the fact that we were outdoing everything, every target we ever set ourselves. And wanting to continue to do so. The fact it was so multicultural, the fact that everybody just rolled their sleeves up and ran with it. When Active got purchased, we got bought at $19 per share. [Booking Holdings stock closed June 29, 2018 at $2,027.09 per share.]

We asked Glenn Fogel whether he considers Booking.com to have been a big disruptor, and we got a somewhat surprising answer.
Glenn Fogel
Priceline.com/Priceline Group, head of strategy and vice president corporate development, 2000-2016, Priceline Group/Booking Holdings, CEO, 2017-present

So people copied Booking.com site features. OK, that's not a big deal. I can't say that's an amazing, ground-moving thing there. Certainly Booking was very big in the early part of doing data testing, A/B testing, but you know, so that's what everybody is doing. I'm not sure there's really that much that you can really say that this was sort of a major change in an industry. Yes, they did very well and they're doing very well, but I don't see it as a great disrupter. How about that?

Here's a great disrupter for you. Google is a great disrupter about how people get information. That's a disrupter. Facebook is a great disrupter about how people interact with each other. OK? Those are disrupters. I would even so far as to say something like Uber and things like Uber are disrupters in changing the old way you would get a taxi. But Booking or any of the online travel agencies? Yes, it's sort of a different way that you book a holiday, vacation to go online to get it, but it's not that different. Is it that different than picking up a phone? It's not that different. It's different, but it's not a ground-shaking change the way Google or Facebook was.

Certainly the success Booking had in marketing certainly made other people think about it. Do you remember times in the early part of the last decade, when companies were acquiring customers in different deals with other online portals. If you remember way back, the late 1990s, early 2000s, those big portal deals you would do with old AOL. These are different ways to market, sure, but different marketing, is that a giant change?

The Internet is giant change, right? That's a revolutionary change.

Mobile. The mobile convenience is one of those shifts in the way people live. Maybe that's a way to think about it. Does this truly, significantly alter the way people live? That, to me, would be something that is ground-shaking.

I feel very, very, very fortunate that I've been able to work with such a great group of people throughout the organization that have, together, been able to create a very successful company that has done a number of very, very good things. It has, one, provided an easier way for people to get their holidays at a cheaper price with less hassle, more efficiently than in the past. Two, we have created, over 18,000 jobs that did not exist beforehand. Many of these jobs are for people throughout the world, this the first time their family is having somebody working in a professional manner. When I go to China or I got to Vietnam or I go to Thailand or India or around the world, and I go to our offices and I see the young people — we're talking people who are 20, 21, 22. In their family, that's the first time someone in their family is working in an office. And helping them go up that ladder of economic success is wonderful. We help create that. We made these opportunities.

I would just add it's something that people should not take for granted. When you have a success, to recognize that it was due to many people and there is no sense that any single person deserves all the credit. It's actually the other way around. But for all the people, who knows where we'd be? I'm just thankful that we've been able to achieve what we've been able to achieve to date. We hope that we'll be able to continue to do this for a long time in the future.

Where are they now?

Jeffery Boyd
Booking Holdings, chairman
Geert-Jan Bruinsma
Entrepreneur
Glenn Fogel
Booking Holdings, CEO
Rachel Howes
Homerez.com, co-founder
Dara Khosrowshahi
Uber, CEO
Arthur Kosten
Catawiki, HealthCare.com, 3D Hubs, investor
Séverine Philardeau
Time Out Group, managing director e-commerce
Andy Phillipps
Active Venture Fund, founder
Gillian Tans
Booking.com, CEO
Shane Whaley
GetYourGuide, regional director, sales and supply, Americas
Matt Witt
GreenTraveller, GolfBreaks, director; consultant

About This Project

Skift Executive Editor Dennis Schaal interviewed from 2016 to 2018 about a dozen executives who played instrumental roles in the development and creation of Booking.com. Other key officials either couldn't be reached or declined to participate. In addition to the interviews, which appear as excerpts and have been lightly edited for grammar, Skift collected archival materials from participants and institutions involved. Those items appear here with their permission.

The Skift editorial, design, and development teams were key to bringing this oral history to life. That effort included:

Design and Development: Ping Chan and Mike Linden

Illustrations: Bing Qing Ye

Editing: Tom Lowry and Jason Clampet

Research: Seth Borko

Video Editing: Richard Chen