News for the Hospitality Executive
By Max Starkov, August 30, 2010
Back in December 2003, Smith Travel Research published a much discussed article titled, “The Billion Dollar Leak - The Impact of The Merchant Model on US Hotel Profits.” In this article the authors attempted to quantify the financial impact of third party sites on U.S. hotel industry room revenues and profits. To describe this loss, they coined the term “leakage”: i.e. revenue "leaked" from the hotel industry to third party sites in the form of abnormally high merchant commissions of 25% and higher.
Smith Travel Research estimated that the leakage would hit $1 billion back in 2003, and grow to reach $1.3 billion in 2004.
Estimated Total Merchant Model Leakage:
Source: Smith Travel Research
As we will prove
below, this billion dollar leak turned into a multi-billion dollar
reaching a staggering $5.4 billion in 2010!
Why did the hospitality industry, in these turbulent post 9/11 times, allow the third party sites (today known as Online Travel Agencies-OTAs) to earn billions of dollars in the form of merchant commissions? There are many reasons for that; here are just a few of them:
Case in point: back in early 2003 we conducted a Top 10 Market Comp Analysis Study for a major hotel brand. The results? In all markets, this hotel brand properties’ rates were consistently $150-$200 per night lower (no kidding!) on OTA sites like hotels.com than on the brand own website.
With the establishment of the Internet as a serious online marketing and distribution channel, hoteliers began to understand that overdependence on the indirect online channel (OTAs) hurts the bottom line and leads to brand erosion and loss of customer loyalty. All major hotel brands and many smart independent hotel companies undertook a series of measures to limit the impact of the OTAs and steer customers to book via the direct online channel i.e. via the hotel’s own website.
Some of the best practices implemented during this period led to a complete reversal of the distribution landscape at the expense of the OTAs:
Case in point: InterContinental Hotel Group exemplified the industry’s determination to take back control from the OTAs by severing its relationship with Expedia and Hotels.com in August of 2004 and pulling all of its hotels from these OTA websites. The main reasons cited were merchant commission levels, circumventing the brand and working directly with IHG franchisees, lack of clear marketing practices, not honoring IHG trademarks, etc. It took more than three years – until November 2007 – for IHG and Expedia to sign a distribution agreement.
Case Study: Internet Hotel Bookings by Channel for the Top 30 Hotel Brands
In 2006 and 2007, the top 30 hotel brands and the industry as a whole increased the hotel brand website booking contribution to as high as 76.1% and decreased reliance on merchant and opaque OTA sites to as low as 18.4% from all online bookings.
Here is a summary of Internet bookings by channel for 2006 and 2007:
Source: eTRAK Report
2008-2010: The Years of
When the recession hit the industry back in 2008, I truly believed the hospitality industry would not allow a repetition of the shameful post- 9/11 years. Why did the industry allow the OTAs (again) to have a field day at the expense of the industry, and another “billion dollar leakage” to go to the OTAs in the form of abnormally high markups and commissions?
I was convinced that during the “Golden Years,” hoteliers had become seasoned eMarketers, had fully embraced the direct online channel and instituted measures and processes in place to disallow OTAs from taking advantage of the industry in an economic downturn.
Was I dead wrong or what?
The hospitality industry suffered from some kind of industry-wide amnesia and had completely forgotten the tremendous damage done to the industry by the OTAs in the months and years after 9/11.
Many hotel companies (including a number of major hotel brands) exhibited a typical “knee-jerk” reaction to the deteriorating economic environment, forgot everything they learned in the post- 9/11 period, and “succumbed to the devil” by embracing the indirect online channel (OTAs) to compensate for decreasing business. These hotel companies have been accommodating the OTAs with bigger discounts, unique promotions, etc., thus jeopardizing their direct online channel and destroying years-worth of achievements such as rate parity, best rate guarantees and more.
In other words, some hotel companies literally betrayed the industry by surrendering to the temptations of the indirect channel and demands of Expedia.com, and some of them did this in a particularly unintelligent way.
The following clearly illustrates how within a very short period of time, hoteliers became susceptible to discounting and working with the OTAs, resulting in a significant shift from the direct online channel to the indirect online channel:
Source: eTRAK Report
In a few short years the industry leaders – the top 30 hotel brands –
lost 5% market share to the OTAs, which represents millions of dollars in bottom
line revenue. The rest of the industry: smaller hotel brands,
independents, resorts, etc. did not fare much better. Though concrete
data is simply not available, it is logical to expect these smaller
industry players lost a much bigger market share to the OTAs compared
to the major brands.
There is no doubt that Expedia.com and the other OTAs have gained new market clout in this economic downturn. How did the OTAs achieve that?
I argued further that since the removal of airline booking fees in 2008, which was the only substantial revenue source outside of hospitality, Expedia and the OTAs could survive only at the expense of the hospitality industry. Exploiting the desperation among hoteliers, Expedia and some of the OTAs adopted increasingly aggressive market behavior toward the hospitality sector. The results were more than damaging for the hospitality industry and resulted in years of multi-billion dollar “leakages”.
The Billion Dollar Leak: Experiencing an Unbearable Industry Drain All Over Again
The OTAs heavily rely on the hotel industry for the bulk of their revenues. For example, hotel bookings contribute to a little over 30% of the OTA global gross booking volume. At the same time, hotel bookings contribute to more than 60% of OTAs commissions/booking fees!
In its SEC filings, Expedia acknowledges that over 60% of its revenue comes from transactions involving the booking of hotel reservations, with less than 15% of its worldwide revenue derived from the sale of airline tickets. To clarify, over 54% of the OTAs’ U.S. domestic reservation volume (44% of the OTA global gross booking volume) comes from selling airline tickets, and yet airline ticket sales produce a paltry 15% of Expedia’s revenues.
In other words, hotel reservations are financing the OTAs’ operations and allowing the OTAs to “make a killing” by reaping billions of dollars of abnormally high merchant (wholesale) commissions, and to survive after they stopped charging airline ticket booking fees.
In its 2007-2010 SEC filings, Expedia provides a crystal-clear confirmation that the billion dollar “leakage”, first discussed by STR back in 2003, continues in full force and at much higher levels.
Over the last several years, revenue "leaked" from the hotel industry to Expedia in the form of abnormally high merchant commissions has been increasing every single year. This “leakage” exceeded $2 billion in 2007 and reached $2.3 billion dollars in 2009!
Source: SEC, HeBS
This leakage is
estimated to reach $2.7 billion in 2010, based on the results from
first six months of this year and the rate of increase of 14.65% over
period of last year.
To summarize, the $2.7 billion dollar “leakage” in 2010 is only the damage caused by Expedia. Expedia has an approximate 50% market share of the OTA market. If we calculate for the rest of the OTAs (Travelocity, Orbitz, Priceline), the total leakage in 2010 will reach a staggering $5.4 billion dollars!
What Can Hoteliers Do to Overcome this Massive “Leakage”?
Hoteliers must realize that a) the OTAs will not surrender their dominant position voluntarily, without putting up a fight (we repeatedly witnessed this after the end of past economic downturn), and b) increased travel demand, the beginning of which we are starting to notice, does not automatically translate into higher occupancy, ADRs and RevPARs: hoteliers must be more proactive and creative than the OTAs and the competition to get a “bigger piece of the pie” (increase market share and benefit more from the growing demand).
There are a few other important industry developments to be taken under consideration:
Many hoteliers claim they cannot afford to market themselves via the Internet and that is why they resort to the OTAs since their services are “free.” The following case study shows why the OTA channel not only is not “free”, but is far more expensive than the Direct Online Channel and why focusing on the Direct Online Channel provides meaningful savings that go straight to the bottom line:
Case Study: How to Add Half a Million Dollars to the Bottom Line
A hypothetical New York City Hotel with 200 rooms, 77.2% average occupancy rate, an ADR of $215.14 in 2009 (STR), and 45% of bookings being made via the Internet will incur the following distribution costs (using the industry average 60:40 direct vs. indirect online ratio):
Across the industry, in 2010, Direct Online Channel sales will exceed 60% of total online hotel bookings. In Q1 2010, 71.7% of online bookings for the top 30 hotel brands were direct via the brand websites, while 28.3 % were via the indirect online channel i.e. the Online Travel Agencies (OTAs).
The ultimate goal for the industry should be as follows:
What should hoteliers do to improve their direct vs. indirect online channel exposure?
Revenue "leaked" from the hotel industry to the OTAs in the form of abnormally high merchant commissions of 25% and higher will reach $5.4 billion in 2010. This leakage must be stopped and reversed as it drains the hospitality industry’s bottom line and threatens the mere survival of the industry.
With GDS and voice channels in perpetual decline, hoteliers do not have many options when considering non-OTA distribution channels. The only viable option to drastically reduce reliance on the OTA channel is for the industry to embrace the Direct Online Channel.
Hoteliers need a robust Direct Online Channel Strategy, accompanied by adequate marketing funds, to be able to take advantage of the steady growth in the Internet channel and shift from offline to online bookings in hospitality due to declining GDS and voice channels. Hoteliers must carefully employ ROI-centric initiatives, including website redesign, website optimization and SEO, paid search, email marketing, online display advertising, and proven social media and mobile marketing initiatives.
About the Author and HeBS:
Max Starkov is Chief eBusiness Strategist at Hospitality eBusiness Strategies (HeBS). HeBS is an award-winning, full-service hotel Internet marketing and Direct Online Channel Strategy firm, strictly dedicated to the hospitality and travel verticals. Having pioneered many of the "best practices" in hotel Internet marketing and direct online distribution, HeBS specializes in helping hoteliers profit from the direct online channel and transform their websites into the hotel’s chief and most-effective distribution channel, establish interactive relationships with their customers, and significantly increase direct online bookings and ROIs. Visit us online at www.hospitalityebusiness.com
A diverse client portfolio of over 500 top tier major hotel brands, luxury and boutique hotel brands, resorts and casinos, hotel management companies, franchisees, independents, and CVBs has sought and successfully taken advantage of HeBS’ hospitality Internet marketing expertise. Contact HeBS consultants at (212)752-8186 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hospitality eBusiness Strategies (HeBS)
|Also See:||7 Steps to Position Your Hotel in the New OTA Environment / Tim Coleman / April 2010|
|5 Questions to Ask Online Distributors / Michelle Peluso / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / October 2003|
|The End of the Merchant Model as We Know It / Max Starkov and Jason Price / March 2005|