Meta on Meta. How can it make sense?

Initially, when Google launched its “Hotel Finder” product, it fan faired how the product would allow more hotels to advertise their own direct web sites, delivering providing lower prices to customers and lower commission payments for hotels as they cut out layers of the distribution chain.

Today however, Google hotel finder continues to be dominated not only by the big OTA’s, Booking.com and Expedia, but more surprisingly by other Meta price comparison sites such as Tripadvisor and Kayak.

 So what’s with the Meta on Meta game?

 Google initially resisted allowing other meta sites to advertise on its services, as it felt that the customer friction from a “Russian Doll” booking process, where customers clicked from one site to another to another, would be highly unsatisfactory. However, as deep linking of hotel and date details improved, this friction was reduced and the benefits of offering the lowest price outweighed these concerns.

 But what’s in it for the other meta’s? The simple answer is a combination of bid arbitrage and brand halo.

 The aim is obviously to charge the meta’s own advertiser more than the meta pays Google and amazingly at times this is clearly possible. However, the longer term game clearly revolves around “Brand Halo”.

 All hotel meta’s such as Tripadvisor, Trivago and Kayak are investing millions into “above the line” TV advertising. Within this media they are generally advertising to a relatively unqualified audience, who may or may not be looking to book hotels in the near future. However, it is done not for the immediate ROI, but to build brand awareness and to introduce new bookers to the brand that then can be retained to book time and again.

 Advertising on another Meta such as Google Hotel finder, delivers 100% qualified audience of potential bookers and even if the arbitrage is negative and the initial booking is acquired at a loss, it is often a less expensive acquisition tool than above the line advertising.

 Hence, the key is customer retention and what drives this.

 For hotel meta’s its clearly the utility delivered by price comparison and the belief that one visit to the site delivers the best price for a hotel. 

 They also have the advantage over Hotel direct sites, of offering a massive range of both beach and city hotels, increasing the likelihood of a repeat purchase, which in turn gives it deeper advertising pockets, with an initially negative ROI’s being acceptable when hotel direct sites will rarely advertise this aggressively.

 The intersecting question however is which Meta site does the customer go to next year? Google hotel finder or the end Meta?

 The same dilemma applies to all Hotel OTA’s advertising on Meta’s and hence the push from beach hotel OTA’s to add extra utility by offering flights, transfers and holiday insurance during the hotel booking process. The more of these products customers buy from OTA’s, the greater the chance of building “Utility” and stickiness, over pure Meta sites that just provide hotel only price comparison.

 So at the end of the day Google is likely to be dominated by those with the highest customer retentions levels and subsequently deepest advertising pockets as it’s a deeply capitalist bidding market place.

 However, the depth of the pockets depends on both customer retention and potential upsell revenues, so don’t expect the same results across beach and city destinations as the specialist beach OTA’s have a number of advantages over their more generic hotel competitors.

 I think it will remain a fascinating battle ground over the next few years!

 

Are On the Beach creating the next Evolution of Dynamic Packaging?

On the Beach’s move into B2B distribution via independent travel agents, is a highly logical move for the UK’s leading OTA and reflects the changing regulatory environment.

 

Prior to June’s role out of the new European Package Directive, OTA’s operated under the much lighter touch “Flight Plus ATOL” arrangements and therefore avoided B2B trade distribution, because selling via third parties was not possible under flight plus and required a full ATOL licence. This required principal status and incurred higher operating costs in the form of higher Public liability insurance, duty office and compensatory framework.

 

However, under the new regulation Flight Plus has effectively been scrapped and full ATOL licence are required for both B2C and B2B distribution, so why not exploit high street distribution?

 

From OTB’s point of view, high street agents provide risk free distribution, with commission only being paid on booking, creating a known cost of customer acquisition (CPA). Contrast this with the greater risk from an ever increasing cost per click (CPC) Google advertising model and you can see the attraction, particularly when there is a clear argument that the high street attracts a different customer sector to those who book online.

 

Significantly, OTB has one of the highest online margins per booking, created by a slick booking process where customers are initially hooked by ultra-low flight prices, derived by mix and matching different low cost carrier flight option, before booking directly contracted “Recommended” hotels and integrated holiday extras such as transfers.

 

These high margins will allow OTB to pay attractive commission to the trade, whilst retaining a small element of profit to cover their administration and bonding costs. Trade distribution will never be a massive profit driver for OTB, but it could easily add a third more volume, boosting its buying power with hoteliers and potentially making it a more attractive channel for airline partners to reach high street agents.

 

From a agents perspective the key question is “Why would high street agents book OTB’s Classic Online packages, rather than packaging the same elements themselves?”

 

The answer probalby boils down to speed and risk. OTB’s booking interface is better than any B2B booking tool I have seen and is provided free of charge. It will also come with full financial protection and public liability insurance, so as long as commission are competitive, it provides a simple and fast booking platform with much reduced risk to the travel agent.

 

I am sure some travel agents will be worried about supporting a “Competitor”, but holidays will be sold via a separate B2B brand and I’m sure OTB will be providing guarantees about not using email address or mobile numbers, to remarket to these customers in the future.

 

Interestingly, it may be the low cost carriers themselves who object to OTB’s move. It is expected that Easyjet Holidays will be following Jet2 Holidays lead and launching their own trade tour operation for Summer 2019. How will they feel about competing with OTB for trade distribution, when OTB are often under cutting their prices by combing outbound Easyjet Flights with inbound Ryanair flights?

 

You can certainly imagine some friction occurring here, but conversely Easyjet may be perfectly happy to take the extra £30 a booking they earn from flight API fees on these trade sales without having any of the hassle of actually selling a holiday!

 

Adding Trade distribution is a logical step for On the Beach and could easily be a win:win for both them and trade partners, however I would not be surprised to hear some trade consortia saying “Not on my Watch”.

Will the escalating fuel cost drive capacity cuts for Summer 2019?

Fuel prices have risen by 50% since June 2017 and as airlines fuel hedges unwind, they will need to pass as much of this increased cost on to customers in the form of higher prices as possible.  However, to do this they will need to reduce supply relative  to demand, which will inevitably lead to capacity cuts.

 

As UK holiday makers know, airlines don’t price their product like most companies.

Rather than pricing each ticket based on how much it costs to fly to Majorca, with perhaps a built-in profit margin, airlines set fares based on supply and demand. It’s why a Saturday day flight is more expensive than on a Wednesday 6am departure, even though the operating cost is the same. It’s just a matter of increasing demand for less popular slots by reducing price, as long as the net result at least covers the operating cost.

Therefore, when fuel prices are low as they were in 2017, airlines look to drive the utilisation of their fixed aircraft assets by introducing more mid-week and early morning flights boosting capacity. Also, aggressively expanding airlines like Jet2 massively increased capacity with the introduction of new bases such as Stanstead.

However, when fuel prices reverse its obviously harder to remove this capacity, but if it’s not removed then its impossible for airlines to match supply and demand in order to pass on the cost increase on to a customers in the form of higher prices.

This is doubly true in a UK market place facing demand damping factors such as good UK weather, a weak pound and fears of political and business disruption because of Brexit.

The easiest solution is obviously for one or more airlines to be forced out of the market, but with the benefit of the removal of Monarch already banked, who is realistically at threat of collapse?

 

Ryanair are openly talking up the prospects of Norwegian Airways and Alitalia failing this winter, but neither of these would remove much short haul capacity from the UK market, although players like Rynair might switch capacity out of the UK to the Nordics to fill the massive gap created in the market there.

 

The logical step for UK low cost airlines is therefore to reduce capacity by scraping marginal routes or moving aircraft from short flight duration routes like Mainland Spain, to longer flight sectors such as Turkey and the Canaries. Adding one Turkey flight will utilise an aircraft for the same time as two Alicante flights, in effect halving the number of seats to be sold, assuming of course they can get enough yield from the Turkey flight to balance the books.

 

There is also an argument that airlines like Jet2 are effectively reducing the amount of flights seats in the market by selling more as package holidays. I’m not however convinced that this hold much water, as in my opinion Jet2 are just swapping capacity out of the OTA dynamic packaging market into their inhouse tour operation.

 

Ironically, the simplest route to boost demand may be for the low cost airlines to finally recognise the volume of seats filled on aircraft by the UK OTA’s and do deals to reduce their high API fees (£30 per booking) in exchange for preferential promotion within the OTA’s sites.

 

But I would suggest that wouldn’t I !!!

 

Pre-booked Sunbeds – Creative commerciality or a step to far?

I personally applaud Thomas Cooks creative commercial thinking behind identifying sun beds as another chargeable optional extra in a package holiday.

Low cost airlines first brought this phycology to the market place, by first making luggage a chargeable extra and then pre-booked flight seats. They rightly pointed out that this allows them to charge a lower price for the basic flight seat and leaves customers to choose what they want to pay for.

For example, why should a customer who takes fewer clothes via hand luggage pay the same as a customer taking a 22kg suitcase, which requires airline staff to check it in, transport it to the plane and then load/unload it. In this case there is a clear cost saving that the airline can pass on to reward hand luggage only customers.

Pre-booked seats, when it was first introduced, was more controversial as there is minimal extra cost to implement this and most airlines already offered the service free of charge to its customers, who expected to be able to pre-book seats next to each other. Supposed “Full Service” airlines such as British Airways initially resisted such innovations, preferring to sell on the basis of “Differentiated Service”, but after a number of years of losing ground eventually followed suit.

Therefore, you can only applaud Thomas Cook for becoming the “Easyjet” of the package holiday world and evolving its product offering to give customers the option of paying to pre-book the best sun beds. Just like Easyjet’s “Speedy boarding” service, this not only is a valuable service to some customers, it also provides a degree of “show off ability” that they are smart enough to pre-book and can afford to do so. A few seasons of “sun bed” envy will soon see the uptake of this service soar.

The subtle down side of Thomas Cook launching this policy, is that it does allow its major competitor Tui to take the moral high ground over its “differentiated” holiday products, where I am sure it will claim sun beds are so plentiful that there is no need to pay extra to pre-book. However, for me this has echoes of British Airways stance and is unlikely to have any real impact in a world where customer choice, is just as “Customer Centric” as full service options that cost more.

This year, Turkey is not just for Christmas.

As we sit recovering from one to many Christmas turkey dinners, it may be time to look at the year ahead and assess the role that Turkey as a destination is likely to play in the success of the UK Travel Industry this year.

The collapse of Monarch airlines gave a stark warning as to how nasty the “Spanish route” price war had got, with average yields having dropped by 30% over a 2-year period for most airlines.

As we all know, terrorism and political unrest has seen a massive concentration of demand into Spanish destinations, resulting in scarce last-minute hotel availability and large price hikes. Fortunately, for OTA’s whose flexible model allows them to be “parasites living off the misery of others”, these hotel price increases were offset by reduced last minute flight prices, as airlines struggled with excess last-minute capacity to fill their aircraft.

For virtually the first time, we saw how disastrous the low-cost model of discounting early can be, if high hotel price’s mean they cannot fill the last-minute seats and have to “double discount”.

The failed Turkish coup in July 2016 ensured that not only late demand for Turkey in 2016 was dramatically reduced, but also led to large swaths of capacity being redirected to Spain in 2017. Therefore, even though Turkey remained stable in 2017 and late demand surged back, there were few seats left to match with the plentiful and cheap hotel availability.

However, some airlines desperate to remove capacity from the Spanish blood bath, are flooding capacity back into Turkey for 2018.

Ironically, in these situations a high degree of “Exclusive”, but committed hotel product is working against TUI, who have increased capacity by 100k passengers, compared to the massive hike in capacity that Thomas Cook have put back into Turkey, with a virtual doubling of capacity to 600k passengers. Although, exclusive product is highly profitable, it cannot be moved around and does expose the owners to big swings in destination demand.

Also, the successful short duration, high frequency flying model of Ryanair combined with 5th freedom flight permissions issues, resulting from being an Irish rather than UK carrier, has kept them out of this potentially lucrative Turkey alternative. Easyjet on the other hand have no such limitations and having acquired profitable routes from GB Airways many years ago, know Turkey’s yield potential.

Easyjet’s biggest UK competition is likely to come from Thomas Cook being nervous of their large capacity increase and reducing perceived risk, by dumping flight only seats at low prices early to boost load factors.

A more left field threat is Turkey’s own low cost airlines like Turkish Airways, which have the benefit of being based downstream and so are able to move capacity around

Europe to exploit regional peaks in demand e.g. both Scottish and English school holidays with one flying program.

Turkey is one of the UK’s few major beach destinations outside of the Euro and with the pound having strengthened markedly against the Turkish Lira over the last 12 months (+20%), the price benefit of an All-Inclusive holiday to Turkey over its Spanish compatriots has never been higher.

Unfortunately, the same price advantage also applies to Germany, the other European beach power house, and capacity is also piling back in from that source market, so 2018 may be the one and only year for the British travel trade to gobble up as much Turkey as possible.

Mobile is fragmenting the OTA booking process and re-shaping their basic infrastructure.

For most online player’s, mobile represents more than 50% of their traffic, but has a much lower conversion than its desktop cousin. It’s no surprise therefore, that a “Mobile First” approach has become the key focus for most OTA’s with literally 1,000’s of A/B tests constantly being applied to try to find the ultimate “User Interface” (UX) for mobile sites.

The original focus of the industry was on “Responsive” sites, that optimised the desktop journey to represent it better on mobile devices. Quickly, the UX guys realised that the “Friction points” on a hand-held device from “big finger “clumsiness issues, required different solutions to mouse driven desktop interfaces. However, the “Real Mobile” difference, is the very limited time customers view their mobile devices at one time and the development of what the marketers call “Mobile Moments”. This means that the mobile journey must be much faster and to achieve this simpler.

The latest movement in UX is focusing on “Removing friction” in the booking journey. In laymen’s terms, this means understanding the users’ intent and ensuring that the experience provided is exactly what the user wants providing clear actions, in some respect this could be perceived as “dumbing” down the booking journey by removing any possible distractions. Just have a look at how different the “Booking.com” desktop and mobile sites are. On the mobile site, filters are hidden and once a customer is in the booking funnel, any distraction from the key goal e.g. book a hotel, has been removed.

The result is that ancillary sales such as car hire, transfers and insurance, are being shunted to a post booking pitches via email or clever “Remarketing”, using cookies that allow highly targeted “post booking” advertising of ancillaries. This “two stage” approach is facilitated by getting customers to downloading the “mobile App”, as even though many customers forget they have the app on the phone, it allows much more effective push marketing and links to content rich post sale processes. What is dressed up as customer service by companies like booking.com and Airbnb, is highly profitable in-resort revenue, relating to local excursions, transport options or dinning out. These allow them to maximize revenues once a customer has been acquired, but in a two-stage booking process. They would never interrupt their mobile booking flows with these options, but once they have the app downloaded they can easily become the customers “pocket passport” and sale a whole range of “ancillary” products by using both geo location and time sensitive metrics.

Other companies have adopted similar processes, but may become unstuck due to their dependency on email as the secondary customer contract strategy. As GDPR comes into effect next

year, travel companies will be able to email customers about their booking as part of legitimate interests, however it’s still unclear whether these emails can provide a marketing up-sell message in addition. The line between allowable customer service follow up and the sale of new products, looks blurred and grey to me. For example, is it customer service to offer a transfer to customers who have brought a flight or hotel from you or a new sale they have not opted into? I would argue it’s fine, but I’m sure somebody may soon object.

Speed is also a key in a factor in a “mobile moments” environment and multiple layers of “caching” are a fundamental requirement of a mobile site. Slimed down content pages driven by AMP or price caching to drive the speed of results pages are now common. Again, compromise is required and here it is the absorption of price increases during the jump from cache to live, as not absorbing reduces conversion by up to 60%.

The ease of linking between mobile and desktop to allow a booking to be started in a “moment”, but to be completed at leisure on a desktop is key. Currently the only realistic method of doing this is to get the customer to login, which is tough in the travel environment where customers are promiscuous and on average visit 23 sites before booking. Easy login tools using Facebook etc. have helped, as do high levels of repeat booking customers, but this is a hard one to crack and will be a massive advantage to the travel company that gets this right.

OTA’s are also taking a good look at payment options and how these can be simplified, whilst at the same time pushing customers to the cheapest merchant clearing option. From January 2018, the industry will no longer be able to charge the global 2% surcharge for booking with a credit card, compared to a debit card. Logically, most customer will opt for the greater protection and better payment terms offered by booking via their credit cards. Many OTA’s already have plans centering around flexible deposits and payment terms only available for customers paying via debit card, but these tend to be complex and conflict with the requirement to simplify the mobile booking journey. Again, I think we may see a two-stage process with deposits being taken in the simplest way possible and any complexities being aimed at the balance payment process.

The key conclusion from this article is that Mobile is forcing not only a shift in booking flow but also a fundament review of booking process and the infrastructure supporting OTA’s, with caching and two staged booking process soon to become the norm. Well it would be boring if the rules didn’t keep changing in my view!

Easyjet Holidays trade launch and a further evolution of dynamic packaging in response to the European Travel Directive implementation.

Travel Agents quickly adapted to the dynamic package (DP) revolution, developing their own systems or buying relatively cheap pre-built Dynamic packaging platforms, that allowed them to combine low cost carrier seats with multiple bed bank XML feeds.

The initial DP battle was all about “Price and Range”, with agents looking to have the biggest range of hotels and the most suppliers per hotel, to ensure they could always offer the cheapest price. Many smaller travel agents and OTA’s have never moved past this “Range” is everything model.

However, over time, bigger OTA’s like On the Beach have consolidated consumer demand into a much smaller range of “Recommended Hotels”, so that they have enough volume to justify contracting the hotels directly via an in house buying team. This in turn yields lower rates and/or higher margins, which has allowed them to advertise these hotels harder and create a virtuous circle of growth, with 65% of all sales going into directly contracted product and expanding sales over all.

The introduction of the European Package directive, which comes into force in June 2018, effectively bans “Flight Plus” ATOL’s and will force all UK Dynamic Packaging companies to move from their current status as “Agent” of the Hotel to full “Principal” status.

We are told by legal experts, that this will not affect the VAT status, keeping DP agents out of the extra £20 per passenger cost imposed by UK TOMS VAT, however there is no avoiding the extra-legal responsibilities that principal status gives.

As “Principals” each agent will be responsible for implementing their own Health and Safety checking procedure and have at least one person in the company trained and responsible for implementing their policy.

In reality, H&S is a relatively low cost issue as there are a number of independent industry experts, offering off the shelf “Self-Assessment” systems that can provide the required protection. In my experience, it is very difficult for DP agents with relatively scattered sales, across 1,000’s of hotels, to actually influence the H&S implementation of an individual hotel. However, it is vital to identify any high-risk properties and to drop them immediately. In a world where you have 100’s of alternatives to offer your customers, not doing so is reckless and potential commercial suicide. Agents should also be warned, that the worst possible outcome is to implement a H&S policy and not follow it 100%, as this ratchets up the criminal liabilities of the management of the business.

In my opinion the biggest issue facing agents when they become “Principals” is the cost of Public Liability Insurance.

Currently, either customers or more beneficially the ambulance Chasing” lawyers powering the wave of “Sickness” claims sweeping the industry, do not bother with DP Agents who are acting as the agent of the hotel, as they cannot effectively sue them in the UK and would have to take cases to the hotels home country.

However, from June 2018, DP agents will become UK principals allowing customer to sue them in the UK for any accidents or sickness issues, which is obviously a major concern for the insurance companies providing Public Liability quotes. Currently, most agents have just extended their current policies up the change of law date in June 2018, as Insurers simply will not quote yet or are asking for up to tenfold increases in premiums.

I personally expect that the cost of Public liability insurance will quickly stabilize and reduce as claims histories under the new Principal status are understood. However, the need to reduce Public liability cost may force agents to cut the number of bed bank suppliers based on the H&S policies and public liability indemnities that each supplier is willing to give. This is because these “pass on” indemnities will have a major influence on the agents own public liability costs.

Conversely, not having a bed bank provider to pass on Public liability costs may make the benefit of direct contracting less attractive where passenger volumes are lower in the major OTA’s, although I expect this impact to me minimal.

It is also likely that DP agents will ask the question “Why have 1,000’s of hotels on sale, that we have not sold in the last year? as doing so increases costs.

Chuck into the mix, the need to have a 24-hour duty office and emergency procedure training for all senior management and you quickly get a strong case for consolidation of product supply.

Therefore, within the next two years, I therefore expect all major consortia such as TTNG, Advantage, Global, Hays Travel etc. to be powering not just part of their agents DP operations, but 100% with there also being an increase in sales for Low cost carriers holiday operations.

Jet2 Holidays have lead the rush to replace the supply of “Standard” beach holidays to the independent travel agent sector, as both TUI and more recently Thomas Cook, abandoned the “Commodity” beach holiday market, in favor “Differentiated hotels”. However, the appointment of Johan Lundgren, the Ex Tui Boss, as Chief Executive of Easyjet must spell a major move by Easyjet into the Holiday sector.

I have previously been critical in articles of Easyjet insistence of finding outsourced partners to run their holiday division, but believe that given Johan’s vast experience in the holiday sector, he will quickly move the holiday operation in house and launch a major program to the UK Travel agent community in time for Summer 2019. I may be wrong but I willing to take some large wagers if anybody but Johan is willing to make them!!!

Focusing on service to boost brand

I must confess to be a “Brand” convert, believing nothing is more important than building brand traffic to reduce ever increasing Google advertising cost and its nice to be Chairman of a brand like Teletext Holidays, which I’ve interacted with an for over 25 years now.

Teletext is lucky to enjoy unprompted brand recognition levels of 40%, which puts it on a par with UK travel giants such as TUI, Thomas Cook and Expedia. This alone delivers significant volumes of direct brand traffic via SEO and PPC channels, reducing average customer acquisition costs compared to other OTA players such as Travel Republic, On the Beach and Love Holidays.

Unfortunately, our customer “Consideration” is much lower as many customers lost touch with Teletext when it ceased to power the pages behind their TV and moved fully online. We are obviously addressing this with above the line TV advertising and sponsorship deals such as the recently announced tie up with newly promoted Sheffield United (Another historic giant on the rise).

Legacy brands such as Teletext Holidays also offer a key advantage that customers already know what the brand stands for. Extensive research shows that customers view Teletext as a “late deal” offer site for beach holidays booked by phone.

To offer the “by phone” service we outsource call fulfilment to Truly Travels Indian based call centre, at a considerably reduced cost versus an equivalent sized UK call centre. Conversion levels are extremely healthy compared to any UK call centre, and our ability to switch and directionally sell products means we have enjoyed strong margin growth, however the NPS scores were not at an acceptable level when I joined and have been a KPI that we have been looking working hard to improve.

It’s my belief that in today’s world of social media and review scores, focusing on the customers that do not book with you has never been more important as word of mouth and review scores can kill or make a brand. However, like many call centres our metrics and focus was primarily on conversion levels and profitability per call alone.

In order to find a cost effective solution to this problem we looked towards our sister technology business Zen3, and worked with them on the development of their Sayint Speech to Text system which has revolutionised our approach.

Sayint allows us to record every inbound and outbound call into the call centre and then translate these in too written words, so that they can be data mined using the latest big data AI (Artificial Intelligence) algorithms.

Sayint has allowed us to create “Sentiment” algorithms weighting basic factors such as call length, hold times, silences etc. and then overlay them with scoring based on the presence of both positive and negative phrases. Some examples of negatives are phrases such as “Can you repeat that, pardon, that’s more expensive, I don’t want that” and phrases like “Can I talk to your manager”. Over a period of time we have built algorithms that we use to automatically rate a call, in terms of customers satisfaction levels.

These allow us to generate a ranking by agent and an understanding of which agents are scoring well for service whether the customer books or not. The correlation between top seller and generator of highest customer satisfaction over all is often not what you may expect. The tool also allows managers to walk through calls with an agent, using drill down tools that allow them to enter the written conversational record where that negative phrase occurred, so they can then listen to that exact section of the call and coach a better approach.

This has allowed us to focus management review and training precisely where it was needed, which in turn has increased the average satisfaction levels on non-booking calls by 26%, as well as increasing call centre conversion by 15%.

It is however the improvement in satisfaction levels on non-booking calls that Teletext continues to focus on because this is both where its ability to increase profits lies and the biggest numerical influence on its average review scores in sites like Trust Pilot and Feefo. Good scores in these areas in my opinion make customers more likely to click on your brand adverts when they see them or book with you if they are looking for that third party reassurance.

Sayint also has allowed Truly to reduce its call audit team from 10 to 4 whilst increasing the volume of audited calls by 400%, by being able to accelerate the speed at which keywords in booking calls can be found.

Like most large call centres, I know we have and continue to have quality issues to deal with due to a relatively high staff turnover, but at least management now have a tool in Sayint that gives them the measurability and visibility to force the required action to make improvements.

Will Easyjet Holidays ever catch up with Jet2 Holidays?

At the recent Travel Weekly lunch briefing, Easyjet CEO Carolyn Macal admitted that EasyJet Holidays tended to get lost in the priorities of an airline carrying 58m customers and needed a separate management team to focus on it.

Having provided the technology powering Easyjet holidays for the last three years and the launch platform for Jet2 Holidays, I feel reasonably well positioned to contrast both company’s approaches.

Philip Meeson has relentlessly driven the growth of both the low-cost airline Jet2.com and Jet2Holidays on a very personal basis. Philip quickly realised that having a tour operation to complement his low-cost airline distribution, offered some major strategic opportunities.

Yield management

Low cost airlines use a yield model where they move prices up from launch, as buckets of seats are sold, depending on how its computerized algorithms estimate the required rate of sale, based on historical sales patterns by destination. However, the yield program also looks at the comparative price of other low cost airlines, since this obviously impacts the rate of sale. Price competition between airlines based on highly transparent flight only prices often suppresses yield.

Jet2 quickly realized that “package holiday” sales not only gave it another distribution channel, but because prices are “opaque”, gave it the ability to dump the prices of seats on slow moving routes, in a hidden way without impacting the higher volume flight only prices.

Early sales.

Low cost carriers tend to achieve higher average sales prices, the earlier the sales pattern is on a route, as early sales allow it to move seat only prices up faster and still achieve the targeted load factor.

Package holidays have an earlier booking pattern than flight only and thus have been credited with allowing Jet2.com to achieve higher average yields than some of its competitors.

Route development.

Initially Jet2.com saw its holiday program as a volume top up on its traditional flight only routes, but as volumes have grown, it now deploys aircraft based on its holiday company’s requirements and tops up sales with flight only.

The above points only work if you have a “One Company View” of profitability, with one yield team making the crucial seat pricing decisions and flowing those prices into both companies equally or with hidden discounts to the tour operations. For example, agents are often forced to sell Jet2 Holidays simply because the tour operation has access to lower priced seats than they can package up themselves using Jet2.com.

However, in my opinion the most significant decision Jet2.com made was in recognizing that the management of a tour operation is a very different skill set to managing an airline. They therefore recruited experienced operators like Steve Heapy,

who in turn picked up a lot of the staff Thomas Cook made redundant when they closed the Air tours operation in Rochdale.

The proof is very much shown in the results with Jet2 Holidays on the way to taking the number 2 spot in the UK away from Thomas Cook, with holiday carrying of over 2m passengers, whilst Easyjet collaboration with Hotel Beds has generated a much lower number.

In September 2017 the deal with Hotel Beds comes to an end and it will be very interesting to see what Easyjet decide to do next. At the end of the day, they still have the most customer focused brand in the low-cost sector and in my opinion could easily become one of the top 3 UK tour operators. But, only if they achieve the focus that Carolyn has now recognized is required.

The power shift to Spanish hotels will give bed banks headaches and is helping drive consolidation.

When mass market tour operating came to the fore, back in the 1960’s-70’s, the key holiday element was the charter flight, as it often provided the only cost effective route to get to the holiday destination. This led to a tradition where hotels and tourist boards put greater value on relationships with tour operators, giving them better “Package” rates and marketing contributions.

However, the rise and rise of low cost carriers such as Easyjet and Ryanair has flooded the beach leisure market with capacity and effectively turned the flight element into a mix and match bus service, where Online Travel Agents (OTA’s) can offer 100’s of flight combinations for most days of the week. This has negated any real advantage of owning your own charter fleet and turned it into a disadvantage at times, fueling the growth of OTAs using Dynamic Packaging (DP) technology.

The visionary management of TUI, saw this threat early and over a 10-year period repositioned the Thomson and First Choice tour operations into “differentiated” hotels, which they control and have exclusive distribution for, protecting them from the attack of the OTA’s who have taken control of the “Commodity” price driven market. As we all know Thomas Cook were slower to react, but under the leadership of Chris Mottershead are beginning to make progress on their own drive for differentiation.

The growth of OTA’s in turn fueled a growth in Bed banks who consolidated demand and negotiated rates with hotels. The best rates often came from their “Castles” where they paid hoteliers “Early” via large deposits, using working capital funds generated by paying other hotels up to 90 days post departure. The collapse of “Low Cost Travel Group” with massive debts exceeding £100m, severely “burnt” hotels and has caused a major tightening of payment terms. At the same time OTA’s due to competitive pressure have reduced customer balance collections for 8 weeks to up to 2 weeks before departure. Hence, there is simply less cash around in the sector to fund either “Castles” or Early Booking discount payments to hotels.

At the same time the threat of terrorism has re-shaped customer demand with the loss of Egypt, Tunisia and effectively Turkey focusing demand into Spanish destinations. Last year saw record occupancy levels in the Balearics and Canaries, which of course has led to higher prices. However, the bigger impact is how hotels are now seeking to yield manage.

Historically, hotels signed paper contracts with various tour operators allocating their stock between them at fixed rates and then “stop selling” when tour operators reported back sales and hotels realised they were fully booked. This model was replicated when “Bed Banks” replaced tour operators, with hotels able to yield downwards via special offers, but rarely able to increase prices.

Spanish hotels are using the current buoyant market to take control of their own destiny by forcing Bed banks and OTA’s to access their stock via “Channel Managers”. These allow hotels to hold their stock centrally and change rates daily. These rates are either “pushed” to bed banks, to update the rates in their system or availability/price is “pulled” via XML queries on a live basis.

This is a massive shift in power and is a big threat to bed banks as OTA’s can easily cut them out of the chain and connect directly to the hotelier. In a market place where the hotelier is confident of selling its product, why would they bother giving the bed bank a better deal to protect a distribution network they now openly question whether they need?

Cash is still an important commodity in the purchasing chain, but with less cash available hotels are now just as focused on yield management, which in turns requires them to control their stock. Any element of the chain that restricts this or does not add value is likely to be removed.

The best way to counter this threat is to be so big and to dominate the leasuire bed sector so much, that OTA’s direct can simply not complete with you buying power or distribution.

Hotel beds owners TUI did not have the pockets or the will to consolidate the bed bank market to achieve this and it has taken the entry of a major VC to hover up and combine Hotel Beds, Tourico and GTA into a “Super bed Bank” that can easily ride through the storms ahead. However, VC’s are normally only motivated by the “Exit” potential, so don’t be surprised if this new group is quickly sold on. Its now a strategic gem that Pricelines, Expedia and the ultra agrressive Chineese are likely to fighting over shortly.

So yet again we see a continuation of a travel threme. The big get bigger and smaller players need to be gobbled up or simple disappear.