During the past five months, Expedia gobbled up former competitor Travelocity and offered $1.6 billion cash for Orbitz Worldwide and its family of brands. The boards of both companies approved the acquisition, and the Orbitz deal now is waiting for shareholder approval. These announcements came shortly after Expedia purchased Australian travel company Wotif.
The acquisitions essentially make the travel booking market a two-horse race between Expedia and Priceline. PhoCusWright, a market-research firm that focuses on travel, reported that when Expedia and Orbitz finally seal the deal, Expedia’s market share will balloon from 40 to 75 percent. Priceline remains Expedia’s largest competitor, with 26 percent market share in the U.S. The two biggest names in online booking are coming face to face, though at first glance you might not know it.
Kayak.com holds 50 percent of the U.S. travel search market, a significant coup for Priceline even though Kayak doesn’t handle bookings. The brand was purchased by Priceline in 2013 for $1.8 billion. Since then, Priceline has been gaining on Expedia’s market share, thanks in part to booking referrals from Kayak.
During the fourth-quarter earnings call in February, Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi downplayed the concern that the Expedia-Travelocity-Orbitz consolidation might not obtain regulatory approval, saying the market is “highly fragmented.” Expedia did not return calls for comment by press time.
Though Expedia and Priceline handle 95 percent of the U.S. market share, the global travel industry is a $1.3 trillion behemoth, and Expedia carries market share in the single digits. The European, Latin American, and Asian-Pacific OTA markets are growing rapidly, according to PhoCusWright. Additionally, Expedia and Priceline are growing faster than other OTAs.
“The rest of the OTA market is growing, but at a pace far behind that of the big two. The sheer scale of Priceline and Expedia gives them a daunting advantage across inventory, marketing and technology, to say the least,” Douglas Quinby, PhoCusWright vice president of research, said in a recent blog post.
Mobile bookings are continuing to increase. PhoCusWright reported nearly 40 percent of bookings in 2013 were made using a smartphone. Millennials are on the forefront of that movement. According to the same report, travelers are researching and planning nearly 31-90 days before they leave, using websites and mobile apps. Millennials are checking multiple brands and shopping around for the best fares. Not surprisingly, they’re more likely to tap into the sharing economy. Rather than spring for the four-star hotel with a view of the beach, they’re booking a rental through Airbnb, call an Uber instead of hailing a cab, and tapping into EatWith or WithLocals for meals in lieu of spendy restaurants.
With sharing economy options flooding the market, brand awareness and loyalty have become the war cry for battle-hardened online booking companies. Gobbling up smaller brands has been Expedia’s and Priceline’s approach thus far, but what happens when the travel giants run out of smaller companies to add to the arsenal? The hospitality industry is not immune to innovation. As the saying goes, only dead fish go with the flow.
Expedia CFO Mark Okerstrom spoke openly last year about investments of time and money into rebuilding its backend infrastructure, though he didn’t provide a price tag. The company has taken apart its outdated code and rebuilt its platforms for a faster experience. “We have, over the course of the last couple of years, transitioned our technology platforms from platforms that were built in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” Okerstrom told The Seattle Times.
While the travel industry keeps its eyes on Expedia and Priceline for more acquisitions, the Puget Sound can breathe a little easier knowing the company won’t take its employees out of the state. The travel giant’s CEO told the Puget Sound Business Journal the company will remain in the Seattle metro area when its lease expires in October 2018. The downside for the Eastside is that Expedia might vacate its longtime Bellevue headquarters for larger digs elsewhere, taking 3,000 well-paying jobs with it.