Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"The AsiaRooms of 2009 is not the AsiaRooms of 2005": Interview with John Fearon, AsiaRooms Head of Marketing

 Hotel -  Hotels AsiaRooms is one of the region's largest online hotel retailers. With 81, 908 hotels and counting (according to the site today) and a parent company that is the largest travel company in Europe (TUI), AsiaRooms is clearly a player that the BOOT should be paying attention to. Historically the company has made this hard as it has been very secretive with its numbers and plans and (to be frank) was not a company we wanted to pay attention to. Prior to TUI buying the company, AsiaRooms built up an unwanted reputation on online customer care forums for complaints and among the trade for scoffing at rate parity and associated price guarantees. Rumours of wholesale group rates being market up $5 and sold online became the standard trade fair post-session beer story when AsiaRooms came up in the conversation. The brand buzz was all bad. In fact the customer and industry complaint forums became the only source for profile information on the secretive company.

John Fearon the (relatively) new Head of Marketing for the Pattaya based AsiaRooms is determined to change all that. Determined to build on the TUI brand and infrastructure support to change the market perception of AsiaRooms and to bring the company out from behind the secrecy curtain. As John told me “we are not the AsiaRooms of 2005”. I had a chance this week to (virtually) sit down with Fearon and hear his plans for changing the reputation of AsiaRooms, overhauling their marketing plans, ditching meta-search and taking on all comers in a press to be number one in Asia.

In marketing, John's first target is to change the approach to paid search marketing. SEM and SEO is the frontier that John believes will sort out the winners from the losers in Asia (I agree). Is also the place he was happy to share numbers and metrics with me. After only three months of work Fearon is claiming to have doubled the amount of business coming form the search engines on the same level of spend. Not much of a metric to share but an indication of his marketing plans. He had a lot less praise for and desire to continue to invest in meta-search. Has pulled AsiaRooms out of Kayak and has no plans to go with hotelscombined. For the moment is sticking with Wego but as general rule does not believe that meta-search builds a brand or helps the business. Claims it forces you into “killing yourself” on pricing at the expense of the consumer experience. This is an interesting point. I am working on a separate post on my thoughts on the meta-search model but from what I am seeing the arbitrage gap (difference between price meta-search players buy traffic from Google and sell it to suppliers) is narrowing.

In supply the plan is to continue to gain access to cheap inventory - but with less (he did not say none) of the rate rule breaking.

Asia is a tough place to play but Fearon is not worried. AsiaRooms claims that profitability and support from the rest of the TUI nline Destination Services (ODS) group will prove another important factor. [FYI the TUI ODA group includes the UK based LateRooms and Spanish Hotelopia].

They will need more than good paid search plans and mothership support to make it in this market. Fearon says he is aware of this, especially with the Global F’n Crisis hitting Asia hard. He predicts the GFC will bring down a number of smaller brands (we off the record speculated which ones). But for Fearon this is the opportunity to bring AsiaRooms out and take competitors head-on. He has not been impressed by any of the marketing activities of competitors from the big four (Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and Priceline). "There is nothing they have done that made me say Wow".

Was interesting to finally hear a (confident) voice from AsiaRooms and one not afraid to admit to the reputation. He acknowledged that AsiaRooms broke a lot of the pricing rules in the past (and maybe that they still do) but is now looking to invest in brand and customer satisfaction (heck they even have a facebook fan page now!).

So what do you think? The consumer forums still don’t paint a pretty picture for AsiaRooms but the company is claiming a lot of changes since 2005. Either way the Asian online travel market war has moved to a different level.

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