As we discussed earlier, all of the relevant parties to the last major public flare-up between an OTA and a major brand (Expedia and IHG) have moved on to new challenges. However, we’ve tracked the two key witnesses down, and they both have agreed to discuss the current situation between Choice and Expedia. First, we are talking with former IHG SVP Jim Young. We’ll follow shortly with a discussion with Spencer Rascoff, former VP of Supplier Relations at Expedia, and now COO at Zillow.com
Jim Young: “It feels like the industry hasn’t learned a thing. Suppliers seek leverage in the good times when demand is high and Distributors take advantage when demand is low. I suppose you could argue that is just capitalism, but it sure isn’t sustaining and somewhat unproductive”
Tom: “Is the landscape still the same in your opinion?”
Jim: “Some things are different. I think there is greater price transparency and channel awareness with meta-search now in the mainstream. Hotels have greater ability to communicate with customers through social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Finally, I think that both hotel companies and OTAs have done a better job establishing their brand position in the market.
Tom: “Talk about the role of hotel brands in this puzzle”
Jim: “Hotel brands are in the business of franchising their trademarks, providing development and marketing expertise, as well as reservation services. They make money by charging fees, normally based on a percentage of total rooms’ revenue. Hotel owners sign franchise agreements in order to be part of a bigger system. It gives them access to services and scale they either can’t get or are too costly to procure on their own. As far as room distribution is concerned, the brand represents all their system hotels and negotiates the participation terms with all major travel sellers, offline and online and processes them through the reservation system. Some brands have very strong franchise agreements that clearly establish the brands rights to set the terms of these agreements. Other brands are just glorified representation companies with minimal design, quality, and compliance standards.
Tom: “What is the power of a brand in your mind?”
Jim: “A hospitality brand is a lot more than just the sign, the room decor and the attitude at the front desk. The brand is the market power you give to hotel owners to sell rooms. That is what it is all about, after all. If you are a 200 room hotel in a big city crowed with many competing properties or an 85 room hotel at an interstate exit with 5 other hotels on the same strip, having a strong brand is a big deal and it helps you beat the competition. If, however, an owner perceives that they can get better marketing, distribution and reservation production by going direct to the distributor, then the brands value starts to diminish. That is what keeps franchisors up at night. If they are not perceived as a strong well marketed brand, then they can’t grow their system”
Tom: “So, why now? Why is this fight happening at a time when most hoteliers are pretty happy to get any revenue at more or less any price?”
Jim: “Like I mentioned earlier, I don’t think the industry learned anything from the last exercise. The cyclical nature of the business constantly creates winners and losers in contract negotiations. Expedia’s timing is dubious – kicking hoteliers when they are down is a tough card to play. Choice and Expedia were operating under the previous terms of their agreement which had, apparently after a number of extensions, expired. It sounds as if Expedia saw an opportunity to bring Choice’s corporate agreement into the realm of what they claim is their accepted norm with other chains. Both would have been better served to build an agreement that would survive the normal cyclical nature of the business – building an agreement that survives good times and bad for both.”
Tom: “And so what of Expedia’s attempts to bypass Choice and go directly to the owners/franchisees?”
Jim: “As you said in an earlier post, ‘we’ve seen this movie before.’ It is exactly what they attempted with IHG. We had tough guidelines in place that prevented our franchisees from deviating from the corporate strategic position. I’m not sure if Choice has those same standards in place. Going directly to the hotels is disingenuous if you really want to do a deal at the chain level. Expedia could drop a whole bunch of market managers if they focused on the chain level relationships rather than focusing on the hotels.”
Tom: “Choice has talked a lot about other efforts they are pursuing to replace the lost revenue from Expedia. Steve Joyce has placed the number at around $100M per year – not a small number given that it probably flows to a disproportionate number of hotels. You worked hard to replace the business you lost when you were dark on Expedia – did you make it up?”
Jim: “Well, we came pretty close. I can’t share exact numbers of course, but we were able to leverage some other key strategic partners to drive some pretty impressive numbers which demonstrated to its hotel owners the power of its brand system."
Tom: “So, could you have driven those numbers and retained the Expedia business for a net overall share gain?”
Jim: “Great question – the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Some things are only possible when you switch allegiances and create the burning platform that forces everyone to react to the change – just look at Continental and SkyTeam vs. Star! I’m sure Continental will get an early benefit from being a full partner in such a large alliance.”
Tom: “Old airline guys (myself included) never get the Jet A out of our veins, do we? What is the net net of this situation?”
Jim: “I think, in the current state of mind of both hoteliers and OTAs, that this will end up as a giant, zero-sum game for both. Expedia will look a little less complete when their customers realize that Choice’s 5000+ hotels are missing from the display and Choice won’t have access to Expedia’s distribution reach. Something has to change.”
Tom: “What needs to change in your opinion, Jim?”
Jim: “I think there is a balance somewhere out there. In market segments where Choice has a strong brand presence and can easily tap the demand directly to their website, they don’t need to rely on the OTAs as much and should focus their efforts there. However, where Expedia can demonstrate that they can more cost effectively merchandise and deliver a room reservation to a hotel in a market that Choice is not as strong in or not targeting directly, then Choice should find a way to pay for that value delivered.”