In Part Two of our Ghosts of the Internet Past interviews, we caught up with former Expedia executive Spencer Rascoff. Spencer is now the Chief Operating Office of real estate website Zillow.com but was ran hotel supplier relations during the IHG/Expedia stand-off six years ago. Prior to Exedia, Spencer and I worked together at Hotwire.com where Spencer ran the hotel side of that business and I brought him coffee and donuts.
Spencer Rascoff: “Well, of course I miss travel. Real estate is fun – things are going very well here at Zillow. But I still follow the travel industry closely – several of us who were at Expedia during the IHG smack-down have been emailing back and forth and reliving the old days.”
Tom: “So, has anything changed this time around in your opinion?”
Spencer: “The biggest change is that the suppliers have developed much stronger direct selling capabilities. Six years ago, the brand sites were pretty much second class sites. That has changed radically. The brand sites are a lot more reliable alternatives to the OTAs now and the brands have developed tactical marketing capabilities to successfully drive traffic directly.”
Tom: “When it comes to the current breakdown between Choice and Expedia, what you see as the major issues based on what you know?”
Spencer: “It seems that the negotiations are almost exactly the same as they were six years ago - you can copy and paste “IHG” for “Choice”. So little has changed. Amazing that the industry has changed so little that they are arguing about the same 3 issues – LRA, sell rate and margin – it’s been the same for ten years!”
Tom: “Does it make a difference this time around that it is Choice rather than IHG?”
Spencer: “In my opinion, IHG was more important in 2003 than Choice is to Expedia in 2009. I would give the edge to Expedia in this bout. The dirty little secret out there in the OTA space is that they don’t really need all hotels for leisure consumers. They need to have a good mix of star levels and locations but they don’t need every single hotel for this customer base. The OTAs are focused on the key cities that make up the bulk of their business and there are several key properties – about ten or so in each that are fundamental must-haves. For example, you can’t sell hotel rooms in New York and not have the Waldorf=Astoria. IHG has (or had) many of these key assets – I’m not convinced that Choice is in the same position of strength and brand power.
Tom: “Does an OTA need to have all hotels for business customers?”
Spencer: “Yes, business travelers are a different breed – they book much more on location, loyalty program, habit and of course negotiated rates. If all of a sudden the hotel where their company has a negotiated rate is gone this presents a major issue for the supplier, the company, the TMC and the traveler.”
Tom: “So when IHG pulled GDS inventory from what was Expedia Corporate Travel (now egencia) how big of a deal was that?”
Spencer: “It was a nuclear bomb – we didn’t see it coming and it took us and our mutual customers by total surprise. It was the one thing that really brought Expedia back to the negotiating table. I don’t think Choice has the same amount of leverage, however. Their hotels are just not as important to the corporate travelers that use a booking tool as the IHG properties were and are.”
Tom: Any other key levers you see either player having in this game?
Spencer: “The other lever is understanding how much control the franchisor has over the franchisees when it comes to distribution. Negotiating with IHG was a three legged stool between corporate, the owners and Expedia. Jim and IHG did a great job of ensuring that the franchisees would toe the corporate line. The franchisees were unhappy but IHG was really effective at keeping them in line. I’m not sure Choice has the same power.”
Tom: “Do you think Choice can replace the demand through other channels?”
Spencer: “It will certainly be easier this time around but it is still really hard. One key fact that is hard to ignore is what we used to call the ‘billboard effect.’ I’m not sure what the recent research shows but we found, back in the day, that for every booking that occurred on Expedia.com, the supplier site generated a direct booking as well. Consumers were exposed to the hotel on Expedia and then went off to book it on the supplier site. This demand generation is nearly impossible to replace.”
Tom: “Yes, we saw similar results in testing when I was at Starwood. So, does the lack of Choice hotels really hurt Exedia?”
Spencer: “I highly doubt Expedia’s conversion will take a hit. Consumers just book a similar hotel from a different brand. Now, this would not be the case if we were talking about a key marquis property – but for run of the mill hotels, consumers simply book something else.”
Tom: “Any parting thoughts?”
Spencer: “Well, in my mind, the wild card here is really egencia. It is very difficult to grow that business if potential customers see the TMC as at war with the suppliers. I’m not sure where things stand between egencia and Choice, but it is certainly Expedia’s Achilles Heel in this negotiation.”