Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Priceline and Expedia continue to grow but at what cost?

They are still growing strongly, but Priceline and Expedia are increasingly reliant on marketing spend to drive expansion and this could leave them with vulnerabilities, finds EyeforTravel’s new reports into the two companies.

Both Priceline and Expedia continued to post some impressive growth numbers in their Q3 results, with double digit rises in gross bookings but these increases appear to come at an ever-increasing cost and concern is rising among investors. EyeforTravel’s new reports into both Expedia and Priceline finds that investors are right to be concerned as this is a potential weakness for both companies that empowers potential rivals in the form of the main digital advertising giants Facebook and Google.

Both companies saw soaring costs in 2016 continue into 2017 and appear to be trapped in a competitive spiral, focusing on matching increases in the other’s marketing spend for fear of falling behind. In 2016, Priceline increased its brand advertising spend by 8% and performance advertising by 27%, whilst Expedia saw selling and marketing costs rise by 29%. Through the first three quarters of 2017, marketing spend by Priceline has grown by 22%. In percentage terms this matches a 22% increase in the broader ‘selling and marketing’ element of Expedia’s costs across the same time frame. For the latter, selling and marketing costs now make up more than 55% of the company’s overall costs, whilst Priceline's combined selling and advertising costs make up 70% of overall costs.

There can be little doubt that the majority of this spend is heading over to Google, with Priceline appearing to be the more reliant on the search giant currently. Around three quarters of search engine traffic to is generated via paid advertising, as compared to around half for Expedia. This also comes despite Expedia paying less in advertising than Priceline but is nonetheless a concern for both companies as Google continues to relentlessly but quietly ramp up its travel products.

Not only are the two facing pressure from each other and the online travel agency market, but increasing pressure from their suppliers as well, as they try to recapture market share through book direct campaigns. Most of the major chains have initiated these alongside a broader consideration of what loyalty means in the industry. Combine this with a more combative regulatory environment in Europe, with wide price parity agreements being eroded, and what they will get is more competing forces for keywords and users’ attention across a wider number of search terms.

This has caused ripples on Wall Streets, with analysts focusing in on the growing costs and their effect on the bottom line as profit expectations are missed. After Q3 2017 earnings call for both companies, stocks plummeted, falling nearly 16% for Expedia the day following the call on 27th October and 13% for Priceline on 7th November. For Priceline this mimicked a similar stock drop following the Q2 earnings call, highlighting investor concerns.

Investor concern is unlikely to dissipate as these two are reaching such gigantic proportions that their growth is likely to slow naturally anyway and there doesn’t seem to be a way out of the marketing spend increases on the near horizon, with search engine marketing critical to their business models. Indeed, currently their ability to outbid almost any other player when required and their vast data regarding search term effectiveness currently makes this arena a competitive advantage for both players.

Nonetheless, the question remains, at what cost? It will be critical to continue to monitor marketing spend for both over the coming years to see what the limits of sustainability and effectiveness are. As the competition intensifies across the digital travel space and tech giants eye travel

To preview and buy EyeforTravel’s Expedia report, click here, or here for the Priceline report. These are part of the Future of the Online Giants series, which will cover Expedia, Priceline, TripAdvisor, Ctrip and Google. Keep a look out through EyeforTravel On Demand for the rest of these reports.