Price comparison engines, better known as metasearch engines or simply metasearch, have been around since 1995. Remember websites like BargainFinder, NetBot and Nextag? In travel, price comparison sites have been in existence since the early 2000s. Early flight metasearch entrants were SkyScanner and Kayak, followed by Momondo and Google Flights. Hotel metasearch was also introduced in the early 2000s with early entrants such as Trip.com, SideStep.com (acquired by Kayak.com), and over the past 13 years, Trivago (NASDAQ:TRVG), Momondo, TripAdvisor (NASDAQ:TRIP) and Google Hotel Ads.
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 (TRIP, TRVG, 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 TRIP and TRVG 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? For example, Expedia (NASDAQ:EXPE), Hotels.com, Orbitz and Travelocity offer the same user interface and rates and have no differentiating value proposition. It is plain clear to any hotel shopper that these sites are all part of the same entity.
Why is Hotel Metasearch 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 Holdings (NASDAQ:BKNG) and EXPE) 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 is no choice at all and does not warrant a price shopping service such as hotel metasearch. Hotel shoppers are very savvy at this point and see clearly that the "200 plus" choices offered by the hotel metasearch players are de facto a choice of three options: the hotel own website , EXPE and BKNG. This is why we believe that TRVG and TRIP will see declining number of users and top line revenues in the coming years.
Can Meta-On-Meta Save Hotel Metasearch?
Recently, some of the hotel metasearch players like TRIP are buying traffic by bidding on Google Hotel Ads (GHA). At an estimated 6x ROI from GHA campaigns, there is no way the economics of meta-on-meta can work. In other words, TRIP is losing money from every click and booking they generate from GHA. This is definitely an unsustainable way to buy traffic and position TRIP as a booking channel, something TRIP has not been able to convince the traveling public of after spending millions in advertising for the past 5 years. Hotel shoppers have already made up their mind about what the hotel booking channels are: the hotel website and the mega OTAs, BKNG and EXPE.
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. TRIP is perceived as an intermediary therefore their ROI is inevitably lower. Even if TRIP’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 TRVG and TRIP 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 BKNG and EXPE 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 EXPE and BKNG offer over 850 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 futile attempts by TRIP's Instant Booking and TRVG’s Express Booking initiatives, 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 AMZN and the extraordinary consolidation in the online retail space.
Due to the OTA consolidation and rate parity enforcements across the board, the same is already happening in hospitality. Hotel shoppers looking to find the best price for the property they have chosen are checking the hotel website, BKNG and EXPE. Hotel shoppers looking to find the best hotel in the destination they would like to visit are going to BKNG and EXPE.
As a single-category-focused hotel metasearch player, I believe TRVG will be confined to the status of a niche player at best. As for TRIP, 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.
A Word About Google Hotel Ads (GHA)
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 now 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 influences the results from all other formats.
Therefore smart hoteliers are treating Google as a fully-integrated advertising platform and utilize all available advertising formats in the Google Ecosystem in order to reach travel consumers throughout the travel planning journey.
Contrary to industry lore, with its GHA program, Google is not trying to become an OTA. Google does not have OTA CRS technology, APIs to legacy hotel tech platforms like PMS, CRS, RMS, Channel Management Systems, deep industry distribution and revenue management expertise, local sales force and offices needed to signup hotel supply and provide local customer service.
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 are embracing GHA and taking full advantage of the Google Ecosystem.
In my view, from the start hotel metasearch players adopted an inherently flawed business model: one 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, BKNG and EXPE (and Ctrip in China), what is there left to metasearch? This is the reason why I believe we will be seeing an increasingly lackluster performance by the major hotel metasearch players like TRIP and TRVG.
About the Author: Max Starkov is a Founder & Director at HEBS Digital, a NextGuest Technologies Company.
Disclosure: I am/we are long GOOG, BKNG. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
Additional disclosure: I am long on many travel industry stocks via mutual funds