Is there future for a hotel-owned OTA?
— 8 experts shared their view
Travel suppliers - hotels and airlines - have experimented for years with a supplier-owned online travel agency (OTA) to combat their over-dependency on the mega OTAs like Booking Holdings and Expedia Group. Orbitz started in 2001 as a joint venture of five major U.S. air carriers. The hospitality industry answer to the OTAs was RoomKey — a joint venture among Choice Hotels, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, Marriott, and Wyndham — launched in January 2012 as "an innovative new online hotel search engine that will provide the simplicity, transparency and breadth of choice consumers expect from a search engine." Both of these attempts to establish a fairer marketplace, a conduit between suppliers/owners of inventory on one side and travel consumers on the other end - failed to gain traction: Orbitz was acquired by Expedia Group in 2015 and RoomKey folded operations in June 2020. Recently, some hotel owners and operators forums - including a prominent one with thousands of hoteliers - have again started discussions about creating a hotel-owned OTA to battle the dominance of Booking and Expedia.
The question here is: In the distribution landscape, is there a place for a hotel-owned OTA, and how viable would be such an initiative?
Associate Professor at The Collins College of Hospitality Management
OTAs are online travel agents, meaning they sell more than just hotel rooms. When saying hotels should get into the OTA business, do we want hotels to compete against OTAs or OTAs with a specialty, like Hotels.com? If so, we need to know if hotels have the expertise or resources to sustain a competitive position in the market. RoomKey was an unsuccessful attempt.
Then, if hotels accept OTAs as one of the many distribution channels available, they should make good use of it. That is, through OTAs, hotels shall be able to reach specific groups of travelers who would not stay with them otherwise. So, instead of suggesting hotels should take the forward vertical integration approach and get into the OTA market too, I recommend hotels should work closely with the existing OTAs. Let's get through such a challenging time together during the COVID-19 pandemic first. Would you agree?
Founder | CEO | Futurist
The fact that we're still even discussing the possibility of building another OTA is baffling to me. Roomkey and Orbitz are just the tip of the iceberg: new OTAs get acquired or go out of business. More often than not, the latter.
Both France and Italy started discussing the possibility of launching government-owned OTAs, which means that either we still don't understand how distribution works, or we just have a poor memory.
I think it's worth remembering the italia.it disaster. The portal took six governments and €45 million (or 90, according to the sources) of taxpayers' funds in the making. In the intentions, it should have become the "on-line jewel of Italy" but, after years of delay, the result was so unfortunate that one guy entirely re-coded the website in half a day to prove how poorly the whole project was managed.
My point? We could have used those €90M to buy Google Ads funds for hotels. There are 33,000 hotels in Italy; this means almost 3,000€ in advertising fundings per property. It's one full year of ads for a small independent hotel.
We keep confusing the tool (OTAs) with the strategy (a proper plan) and, until we keep mixing the two, there's no easy way out.
So Max, viable initiative? Hell, no...
Managing Director Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited
A hotel-owned OTA? Sorry, everyone, you may have the cart before the horse! How about an OTA that buys a hotel brand? I made this bold forecast back (maybe) six-seven years ago. What is a hotel brand, really, without distribution? If the battle for eyeballs is between Expedia and Priceline, why not secure your inventory through ownership. Think: you can control pricing, ensure your products are 'first' in the pecking order, and even manage commission structures. While it may seem far fetched, COVID-19 may create some valuations that could encourage a large cash-rich and levered Wall Street guru to bundle it. I'm not counting anything out at this stage.
Founder at Ghost Works
My take is that there's been so much consolidation that most hotel websites are already hotel-owned mini-OTAs... If anything, micro-OTAs serving specific niches will continue to be popular, especially with emerging tech from folks like Winding Tree offering new distribution pathways.
Adjunct Professor NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality and Hospitality & Online Travel Tech Consultant
Building a hotelier-owned OTA is such a hotelier's pipe dream! Expedia spent billions of dollars building its current CRS platform now being used across its portfolio(Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and Wotif). In addition, Expedia spends $6 billion on marketing EVERY YEAR. All of hotels combined spend less on marketing globally.
In place of a hotel-owned OTA, smart hoteliers should consider a joint venture to build an “Open API marketplace” to provide seamless and low cost connectivity between PMS, CRS, RMS, CRM, Channel Managers, CMS, DMS, and myriad guest-facing and back-office AI, automation, robotic and IoT applications, devices and solutions. Within five years, a 4- or 5-star hotel would need 200 plus APIs to its PMS in order to accommodate all of the next gen (AI, IoT, robotics, automation, blockchain, etc.) technology devices and applications it would need to survive.
The OTAs are constantly evolving and will continue to do so. Their role as a marketplace i.e. a conduit between suppliers/owners of inventory on one side and travel consumers on the other end - will continue as such. A marketplace provides choice and efficiency. Amazon is a marketplace. Booking is a marketplace. Consumers have been in need of marketplaces for millennia. What form and shape of a marketplace the OTAs will evolve to let's say 10-15-20 years from now? It's anybody's guess. But a hotel-owned OTA? Dream on...
Program Director, Master’s Degree in Hospitality Strategy and Digital Transformation at Les Roches Global Hospitality Education
Roomkey failed because it didn't sell rooms. The major decline in global travel in 2001 created the perfect storm that allowed the Online Travel Agencies to grow from virtually unknown to the giant presence they have in hospitality today.
By the time Roomkey was launched in 2012, hotels were going gangbusters and the OTAs had secured a gigantic share of the B2C market. The OTAs were already implementing emerging technology to improve their customer experience online and had shown a willingness to reinvest all their excess margin in marketing to acquire new customers for the future. Roomkey's model of lower costs by spending less meant few consumers ever laid eyes on their inventory despite it probably being the best value for the few who did, so it failed.
Today could be different. Like the rest of the industry, the OTAs are struggling right now. Even before COVID, they were acknowledging that they had extended themselves too far. And like all major crisis, there will be a period of innovation that follows. The question is: What will it be?
With a well-designed, disruptive approach, a hotel owned OTA could work today. Here are a few thoughts:
Focus on strengths. Surely, a group of hotels must be able to secure inventory and organize it to be efficiently sold better than a third party. By eliminating most of the massive marketing and infrastructure expenditures, plus one set of shareholders from the transaction, they should be able to offer very attractive net rates, to then be marketed by someone else.
Democratize the innovation portion. It cannot be ignored that if the major brands could “out-market” the OTAs, they would have already done so. Eventually, someone is going to figure out a way to sell rooms than doesn't also mean making Google rich. By efficiently distributing the best affiliate rates, this marketplace would ensure that the upcoming customer-facing innovation has an attractive way to connect to supply and give existing OTA affiliate marketers something to consider as well.
Take a leadership role in the next normal. Now is the time to step up, before something less desirable fills the void. The return of travel and a healthy hospitality industry is obviously in everyone's collective best interest. Much of the world's hotel inventory does not have the benefit of brand distribution and standards, and without an alternative, has only been rendered more beholden to the OTAs.
Co-Founder at TRAVHOTECH
I would like to think so. Although it will require an unprecedented level of compromise and cooperation toward a greater good beyond the individual corporations specific interests.
The business of distribution is mission-critical to the hospitality industry. Not only for rooms, being more established, but for all of the perishable inventory that hotels & resorts offer to their customers.
Historically the industries reach was tougher in an offline world, but the online world has leveled that playing field. If companies who do not directly come from the hospitality industry can consolidate and distribute inventory and pricing, surely the industry that provides the product and the pricing can achieve the same outcome. If only for their own sake.
All serious hospitality organizations are deeply embedded in the business of electronic distribution through their own direct initiatives as well as third party channels. They must do this to compete and also to maintain a direct connection with the customer. Taking an existing practice to the next level of consolidation among like-minded companies should be a natural step to take.
As an example, the Global Hotel Alliance began upon the premise that hoteliers should look after the hotelier's best interests. I would argue that this has been successful as an initiative to date and an example of what can be achieved through a shared charter and willingness to find a common solution to a common problem/opportunity. Therein lies the key. Common charter.
Was the issue with Roomkey a battle over technology preferences? Was it a lack of alignment? Was it the inability to remove competitive instincts from the dialogue? Was there an intention to be inclusive of all industry operator's, shareholding aside? Was their an understanding that to gain acceptance and work well it would need to be a very level playing field from the smallest to the largest in the industry? It would be an interesting case study.
The need to sell products will not go away for the hospitality industry. Therefore the opportunity to continue growth of market share and become closer to the customer through the guest journey to the betterment of hoteliers, in general, is a continued challenge with an opportunity for an industry-led solution.
That's what brands large & small are already doing. Now to take it to the industry level.
No - that wouldn't have a strong chance of success. The hotel business is primarily a hospitality retail and real estate business - not a high-performance e-commerce business. The expertise and skills required to be successful as a hotelier are vastly different from the attributes required to succeed in the OTA business. Owners would probably get better returns from their hotel asset if they 'OTA-branded' their property. For the right portfolio of properties, I'm sure an OTA could easily create a hotel brand, to be sold exclusively by them - so the hotelier could just focus on profitable service-delivery.