END OF YEAR REVIEW: DIGITAL MARKETPLACE

By: Cindy Estis Green

Featured in the December 2015 issue of Hospitality Upgrade

2015 has been a whirlwind year for the digital marketplace. Here are just a few of the changes that affected hotels and the digital ecosystem in which they operate.

Expedia acquired Travelocity and Orbitz by Q3 of 2015 and most recently announced the acquisition of Homeaway to compete in the vacation rental space. Sabre announced the acquisition of Trust, adding to its breadth of independent hotel and small chain CRS offerings, and Amadeus consolidated its hold on Newmarket, expanding its distribution reach into the groups and meetings markets. Priceline/Booking.com pulled together a trio of companies to provide services to independent hotels. These companies included buuteeq to create websites, HotelNinjas to provide cloud-based PMSs and PriceMatch to offer revenue management services. Priceline/Booking.com calls the new offering Booking Suite and appears ready to compete with hotel brands and franchisors by offering an end-to-end distribution platform and related services.

Then Accor fired right back in Europe, Priceline’s stronghold (through Booking.com), by offering up a new booking platform, AccorHotels, for independent hotels that is open to any qualifying independent but does not require participation in one of the Accor brands. If that is not enough, Google has taken aggressive steps to monetize all of the primary real estate on the first page of every hotel search listing, allowing OTAs to bid on branded search terms, thereby creating a bias against direct bookings and raising the cost for those that happen. And Google ramped up Google Hotel Finder to accept bookings on a commission basis (wait, that sounds like an OTA business model!).

TripAdvisor, after months of attempts, finally reached an agreement with a series of hotel companies to offer hotel rooms for sale, with its crowning achievement being the Marriott deal in mid year. And it is offering Instant Booking (wait, that sounds like an OTA business model too!). Instant Booking is all the rage and is yet another example that everyone seems to want to dip their toe in the OTA waters.

Airbnb announced an aggressive move into business travel and claimed it had hundreds of new corporate accounts signed in the first 30 days. Rate parity is now outlawed in France under the new Macron Law with another form of rate parity restriction in Germany and other moves to regulate it in Italy, Sweden and more. Several large hotel companies announced that they dropped last room availability conditions in their contracts and widened the range of closed user groups to be eligible for special rates, further loosening rate parity restrictions. A preview of a new research study proves that the “billboard effect” is officially dead. This study raises serious doubt about the prevailing conventional wisdom, saying that a listing on an OTA site will benefit the bookings on brand.com.

Google’s practices are under deep investigation by the European Commission for antitrust violations throughout the European Union, and the European Commission also launched a multiyear investigation of all digital platforms, not just in travel. The commission opened up for comment until late December 2015 to gather facts about whether there should be increased regulation.

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission announced a series of warnings to consumers to beware of potential scams that are rampant with online travel agents that purport to be official websites or call centers but are not. This follows a series of stories from several U.S. news outlets including ABC News “Nightline,” CBS News, NBC News and The New York Times describing in detail how some third-party sites deploy deceptive practices to mislead consumers.

Most of the technology consolidations seem to be designed to build more and bigger distribution platforms to support hotels in reaching travel shoppers and buyers. Amadeus and Sabre are moving away from their roots as GDS companies and looking to expand and offer a wider range of services to the hotel community. With the potential to be a next-generation OTA, Airbnb is pushing the legacy OTAs into vacation rentals to hedge their bets on the traditional hotel industry. Booking.com is certainly working both angles by claiming to have the largest portfolio of vacation rental listings while expanding into the business that hotel brand/franchise services have occupied. This is a good move in case Google decides to replace OTAs in the booking of hotel rooms through Hotel Finder. Expedia is working hard to build scale through a series of acquisitions.

Regulation and legislation are front and center activities in the digital landscape, and while it is new to the hotel industry, paying attention to government affairs with respect to technology appears to be gaining traction with hoteliers. The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) in the United States has ramped up its efforts to impose needed regulation on the vacation rental sites with regard to safety, security and tax remittances to municipalities and states, and has sharpened its focus on the rampant consumer deception throughout the digital market. The European Commission is cranking up a machine to take charge of all things digital. It’s the Wild West online and it may finally be time to rein in the cowboys.

It appears that technology and hotel merger and acquisition activity will not slow down in the New Year. Everyone is vying for a stronger position and thinks that growing scale will earn them a bigger slice of the pie. Better fasten your seatbelts.

The hotel industry is flying into 2016 at high speed.