It's the End of the Hotel Metasearch Model as We Know It
By Max Starkov, Adjunct Professor NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality and Hospitality & Online Travel Tech Consultant
Price shopping, including flight and hotel metasearch, is needed by consumers only when there are hundreds of price choices but becomes completely irrelevant when there are only a handful of choices left.
Flight Metasearch vs. Hotel Metasearch
There is a monumental difference between the business model of flight metasearch and hotel metasearch:
- Flight Metasearch (Kayak, SkyScanner, Google Flights): These sites compare airfares between Point A and Point B. Example: NYC - LAX with 10+ airlines operating this route and offering hundreds of price and service options: nonstop, one stop or multiple stops; different departure times; different classes of service and seats; various routes and flight durations; and more. The hundreds of airfare and service variations are the reason why air travelers need price comparison sites (flight metasearch) to sort out all of their options and make an informed decision. Ultimately, this need is what determines the future and longevity of flight metasearch.
- Hotel Metasearch (TripAdvisor, Trivago, Google Hotel Ads): These sites promise to compare rates on hundreds of sites for the same hotel. Travelers are promised to find the best price for the property they have chosen, not the best hotel in the destination they are traveling to. All of the TV and digital advertising campaigns by TripAdvisor and Trivago communicate the same message - "We search over 200 booking sites to find the best price for the hotel you want".
This leads us to ask the following question: what exactly are the hundreds of websites where hotel metasearch get their rates to compare? Expedia, Hotels.com, Orbitz and Travelocity offer the same user interface and rates and have no differentiating value proposition. It is clear that these sites are all part of the same entity.
Why Hotel Metasearch is Inherently Flawed?
The very promise to compare rates on hundreds of sites for the same hotel is what makes hotel metasearch inherently flawed. Back in 2003-2005 there were dozens of OTAs and hundreds of affiliate sites giving hotel metasearch relevance. The issue today is that many of those OTAs and affiliate sites are non-existent after many went out of business or were acquired by bigger OTAs. On top of that, hoteliers became more savvy revenue and channel managers and began to enforce rate parity across the board.
As a result, today there are only three websites worth travel shoppers' time when researching the best price for the hotel they have chosen: two OTA sites (Booking.com and Expedia) and the hotel's own website. What is there left to compare with only two OTAs left in much of the world?
A choice of three options does not warrant a price shopping service such as hotel metasearch. Hotel shoppers are very savvy at this point and see clearly through the fake choices offered by the hotel metasearch players. This is why Trivago and TripAdvisor are showing a decline in business and financial performance in recent years.
Can Meta-On-Meta Save Hotel Metasearch?
Recently, some of the hotel metasearch players like TripAdvisor are buying traffic by bidding on Google Hotel Ads. At an estimated 6x ROI from Google Hotel Ad (GHA) campaigns, there is no way the economics of meta-on-meta can work. In other words, TripAdvisor is losing money from every click and booking they generate from GHA. This is definitely an unsustainable way to buy traffic and position TripAdvisor as a booking channel, something TripAdvisor has not been able to convince the traveling public of after spending millions in advertising for the past 5 years. Travelers have already made up their mind about what the hotel booking channels are: the hotel website and the mega OTAs, Booking.com and Expedia.
At HEBS Digital, we have been running GHA campaigns since 2010 for thousands of our hotel clients, seeing ROIs of 6x - 12x. ROIs vary based on how appealing the rate is, the hotel location, and how well known the brand is. However, these ROIs are aided by the fact that travel consumers perceive direct hotel campaigns as the "official" presence of the owner of the inventory, in this case the hotel. TripAdvisor is perceived as an intermediary therefore their ROI is inevitably lower. Even if TripAdvisor's ROI from GHA is 8x, they are losing money from every GHA click. At an effective commission rate of 12% they make from Instant Booking, they would still be losing approximately $4 -$5 per booking. They need to be reaching ROIs of 10x - 12x and above to break even, but it is unlikely their ROIs even come close to what we are seeing from the hotels' official GHA campaigns.
What is the Future of Hotel Metasearch?
I believe at this point it is too late for hotel metasearch players like Trivago and TripAdvisor to:
- Change their business model from promising hotel shoppers the best price for the property they have chosen to promising them that they will find the best hotel in the destination they are traveling to. Travelers have long chosen Booking.com and Expedia as their favorite research tools for finding the best hotel in the destination they are traveling to, and both OTAs offer a wealth of research tools to facilitate this: maps, descriptions, rich media and customer reviews. For example, both Expedia and Booking.com offer over 700 hotel choices in New York City, far more than any metasearch player.
- Position themselves as "booking sites" in the collective mind of the traveling public. As witnessed by the attempt by TripAdvisor called Instant Booking, and Trivago's Express Booking initiative, this is hardly an achievable task.
So, what is the future of hotel metasearch players? The answer can be found without looking far. Take online retail as an example. Has anyone ever heard of the top online retail price comparison/metasearch engines out there? The price comparison leaders in retail include Nextag and PriceGrabber, as well as Shopzilla, Shopping.com, and Pronto. Hardly well known, yet these are the top online retail metasearch engines, which are confined to a very niche status by Amazon.com and the extraordinary consolidation in the online retail space.
Due to the OTA consolidation in travel, the same is already happening in hospitality. Hotel shoppers looking to find the best price for the property they have chosen go to the hotel website, Booking.com or Expedia. Hotel shoppers looking to find the best hotel in the destination they are going go to Booking.com and Expedia.
As a single-category-focused hotel metasearch player, Trivago will be confined to the status of a niche player at best. As for TripAdvisor, which is the largest travel website on the planet and has a much broader business model and multitude of product lines, the site needs to refocus on monetization of its large amount of website traffic by revamping its media product while scaling its restaurant and experiences product lines.
What Should Hoteliers Do in Hotel Metasearch?
TripAdvisor hurt metasearch advertising on its own website when it introduced Instant Booking a few years ago, a commission-based CPA (Cost-Per-Acquisition) model.
The much-promoted Instant Booking has been struggling ever since, mainly because travel consumers do not perceive TripAdvisor as a booking channel. A negative effect from Instant Booking came as most hotel advertisers abandoned metasearch advertising (Cost-Per-Click) and switched to the Instant Booking (Cost-Per-Acquisition) model thus treating TripAdvisor as just another OTA distribution channel.
Recommendations for hoteliers
- Treat TripAdvisor as a soft-OTA distribution channel. If you have occupancy needs and you haven't already done so, ask your CRS provider to sign-you up with Instant Booking at the best possible terms. Ask your revenue management team to monitor closely and report on the contribution of this channel separately from the other OTAs. Evaluate participation every 3 months.
- If you haven't done so, test banner advertising on TripAdvisor. At HEBS Digital, we are seeing consistently good results for our clients with ROIs of 8x - 12x.
Trivago is strong in Europe. If this is an important feeder market for your hotel, it is worth considering this metasearch site and its Express Booking CPA program.
Recommendations for hoteliers
- Treat Trivago as a soft-OTA distribution channel. Ask your CRS provider to sign-you up with Trivago's Express Booking at the best possible terms. Ask your revenue management team to monitor closely and report on the contribution of this channel separately from the other OTAs. Evaluate participation every 3 months.
Google Hotel Ads
Over the years, Google has become the most important direct booking channel in hospitality. Over 50% of hotel website bookings are direct referrals from Google: 30% from organic and 20% from paid initiatives.
Over the past several years, hotel advertising on Google has become increasingly complex, due to changes instituted by Google itself, changes in travel consumer planning behavior, and advancements in technology.
Based on all of these developments, hotel marketers must plan accordingly and understand that the Google Ecosystem has become a fully-integrated advertising platform where all advertising formats are intertwined and work together: Google Ads (formerly AdWords), Google Display Network (GDN), Google Hotel Ads (GHA), Google Admail, YouTube. User engagement in the upper funnel influences conversions in the lower funnel, and a campaign in one advertising format on Google influences the results from all other Google ad formats.
Treating Google as a fully-integrated advertising platform requires hoteliers to utilize all available advertising formats in the Google Ecosystem in order to reach travel consumers throughout the travel planning journey.
Recommendations for hoteliers
Contrary to industry lore, with its GHA program, Google is not trying to become an OTA. It does not have the OTA CRS technology, the deep industry distribution and revenue management expertise, the local sales force and offices needed to signup hotel supply, customer service or support.
Google cares only about providing the most relevant information to its users. There are four crucial pieces of information needed by any hotel shopper before making a booking decision: hotel location, hotel description (ex. a 4-star, 600-room branded hotel or a small, 5-star boutique hotel), customer reviews about the property, and price and availability. For many years, Google has been able to provide answers to the first three questions. Since the introduction of Google Hotel Ads in 2010, now Google is in a position to provide answers to the fourth question about price and availability.
This is why hoteliers must participate in GHA to take full advantage of the Google Ecosystem.
Quite often hotels are asking the question: 'Is GHA a digital marketing format or is it a distribution channel?'. The answer is very simple:
- If the hotel operates a CPC (Cost-Per-Click) campaign on GHA, then this is a pure digital marketing format, and
- If the hotel uses the CPA (Cost-Per-Acquisition/Agency Commission) model, then this is a pure distribution channel.
The situation is similar with a number of other metasearch players like Kayak.com, TripAdvisor's Instant Booking, Trivago's Express Booking.
In my view, the biggest mistake the hotel metasearch players are making is their inherently flawed business model that promised hotel shoppers to find the best price for the property they have chosen. They did not focus on teaching the traveling public to use their sites to find the best hotel in the destination they are traveling to. With only two viable OTA choices left in most of the world, Booking.com and Expedia (and Ctrip in China), what is left to metasearch?
This is the reason for the increasingly lackluster performance by the major hotel metasearch players, and the reason why they will be confined to the status of niche players at best.
About the Author: Max Starkov is a Founder & Director at HEBS Digital, a NextGuest Technologies Company.
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