Monday, August 17, 2009

Webjet to relaunch hotels with a GDS backed retail model. Three reasons why I don' think this is the best plan available

Webjet are having a great time selling domestic air in Australia. As we have discussed before their tech leadership in developing the Travel Services Aggregator back in 2004 enabled them to sell multi-carrier domestic air including low cost carriers before anyone else. Even though other sites now have similar functionality, Webjet continues to enjoy customer loyalty and growth (despite charging dramatically higher fees per booking).

The company has made a number of attempts at diversifying their
revenue with land product. In mid 2003 they launched Bookabed as a standalone hotel brand. In 2006 they revamped the product under the new name Lotsofhotels. Then in June 2008 they announced plans to take Lotsofhotels onto the eBay platform. Unfortunately none of these efforts have developed traction in a very competitive market.

In their recent results they announced the launch of new hotel product called "Stay and Pay" (Travel Weekly story here). This new product moves them away from merchant sales to the retail model (consumer pay at the hotel, Webjet collects commission from hotel). They are launching two twists on the retail models you see from big players like and Venere. Firstly there is no negotiated inventory. The inventory is drawn from the publicly available rates distributed through a GDS feed from Travelport. Secondly there is a service fee of $10 per booking charged up front by Webjet.

I like the fact that Webjet are trying hotels again. Fees on air make up 97% of their operating revenue (just down from 98% last year). They need to have other revenue streams to compete with packaging experts Expedia and Zuji (Travelocity) and the Wotif group owned air intermediaries and (not to forget the Orbitz owned hotel only players HotelClub and RatesToGo) [disclosure]. That said there are three reasons why I don' think this is the best way to go about hotels for Webjet:

  1. Webjet will struggle for Rate Parity: The GDS companies (Travelport included) have done an admirable job working with the Chains and some independent properties to secure rate parity through GDS distribution. By that I mean working with hotels to have the rates that are loaded in the GDS be on par with the negotiated rates provided to the OTAs. However the rates in the GDS are never cheaper and by charging a $10 booking fee, Webjet will end up with pricing that is almost always more expensive than any other channel. There will be a convenience factor for consumers but this will be at the margins compared to the consumers who will be turned away by the higher price on Webjet;
  2. Webjet will not have access to important Inventory Types: Again the GDS companies have worked hard to expand the range of hotels and properties available. However there is still a bias towards chains and a bias towards geographies with a history of GDS distribution. This means Webjet will be missing important independent properties and have less coverage in the Asia Pacific, Latin American and Middle East regions than the negotiated hotel agencies and OTA competitors; and
  3. Webjet will miss out of the the best Specials and Promos: In this "year of the deal", hoteliers are providing deals and promos the likes of which have not been seen since 9/11. Most of these come with conditions, specifically a range of cancellation options ranging up to non-refundable. The GDS is not able to support this functionality as well as the negotiated inventory providers. Means that many of the great deals (especially last minute ones) will not be in the feed accessed by Webjet.
I can understand why Webjet went down this route. It would be very expensive for them to build a hotel contracting team from scratch. Impossible in fact if they wanted to gain coverage outside of Australia. Therefore they need to work with partners to access inventory. However my recommendation would be to work with an inventory provider with negotiated rates rather than the GDS. [disclosure - I work for a company that provides negotiated hotel rates]. It will provide them with a fix to each of the issues above.

The new Stay and Pay product is due for beta-launch today (18 Aug 2009). Will put in a functionality review post later.

Update - make sure you check out the comments where Richard Noon (Webjet CEO) puts his side of the story

Update 2 - I thought of one more reason why this product won't give consumers as good an experience as a negotiated provider will. The room type description and hotel content on the GDS is not as clear or attractive as those from a negotiated provider. Here is an example of a room type for a Sydney hotel in a GDS " PREMIER ROOM CITY VIEW 1 QUEEN OR 2 SGLSNON SMOKING LCD TV HI SPEED INTERNET FOR A FEE".

PS - last year at TRAVELtech Webjet CEO Richard Noon gave his estimates of the turnover of the various Austrlaia online air intemediaries.

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