If one were to ask, who is the Google of travel world, the answer would be Booking.com.
The company entered India in 2012. At first, it kept its head down, doing what it was good at–tapping travellers going in and out of India. But as the online travel market grew, it went after the domestic market, people travelling within India. This didn’t pan out as expected. India is the stronghold of online aggregators (OTAs)—MakeMyTrip, Yatra and Cleartrip. Booking.com hummed and hawed.
Over the last five years, Booking.com has got 28,000 hotels (including alternative accommodations) onboard. That’s almost half the number of properties that Makemytrip and Goibibo have combined. From a team of seven in 2014, the company has grown its presence to 80 people with four offices in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata. But India is a strange, frothy bubble bath where even the best take a while to get their footing right. For instance, Expedia, Booking.com’s biggest competitor globally, got lost somewhere down the road despite entering the country before its rival.
The firm, which is a part of the world’s largest online travel agent Priceline Group, has been adapting, taking cues from other global companies like Amazon and Uber. Still, it hasn’t turned into what Amazon is to Flipkart or Uber is to Ola.
So what gives?
When the strength become the weakness
Back in 2012, when Booking.com opened its first office in Mumbai with about 500 properties onboard, the first targets were foreigners visiting the country. It spent the next two years getting more four and five-star hotels, as well as high-end standalone properties on its platform. These included those which were already with other online agents, and those which were yet not online. “That was our first focus, because inbound market has that kind of demand,” saysVikas Bhola, regional manager, Indian subcontinent at Booking.com.
The company provided hotels tools to project their rates, basis competition and demand, and made them a free website and a platform to carry out transactions. While doing all that, the travel firm noticed something else. There were more than expected Indians booking with it when going outside India. Thanks to the expansive portfolio of 1.2 million properties that it has across the globe. “And we realised, maybe we could use that to (tap) the travel within the country,” says Bhola.
This understanding dawned upon it as more people came online between 2012 and 2014. This was the time when Uber and Amazon grew rapidly as they poured money into India. Taking a leaf out of their playbook, somewhere in mid-2014, Booking.com tweaked its global model.
For context, Booking.com was the first online travel company to have a business model where transactions happened at the hotel’s end when guests checked in.