Big Interview: Booking.com still on the runway, says marketing chief

By Travolution
By Travolution
February 21, 2014 10:17 AM GMT

Booking.com may already be a global online giant in the travel sector, but it has set its sights on significantly broadening both its customer reach and product offering.

Speaking to Travolution as it launched its first brand advertising campaign in the UK this week, chief marketing officer Paul Hennessy exuded an air of confidence in future prospects for the site.

The UK television advert, which debuted on Sunday night on ITV 1, is an adapted version of one that marked its foray into brand advertising in the US last year.

“We’ve got this really cool, awesome product and want to tell the whole world about it. Search engine and comparison shopping is only of use to certain segments of the market,” said Hennessy.

“We want to expand to reach broader segments. Those [search and price] engines are very good at lower end [sales] funnel activity but we’re also about planning and dreaming.

“In order to do that we need to move up the funnel and we think brand marketing is excellent upper funnel activity.”

It is this difference between a customer searching on price and another looking for value and relevancy that Hennessy says distinguishes Booking.com from sister Priceline-owned site Kayak.

Although the average consumer may struggle to fully appreciate the difference between Kayak’s metasearch and Booking.com’s marketing platform models, Hennessy said: “I think they are different. We are both part of the same group of companies but I think we are after different sets of customers with different sets of value propositions.

“The metasearch sites, broadly, are more of a searching and distributing platform for flights, cars and hotels with a bent on pricing.

“What Booking offers is a holistic end-to-end experience that may start with searching but may not be based on price.

“It may be based on a review score or whatever other elements are important that helps consumer book and allows them to share and write reviews or even destination endorsements.

“Out loyalty rates show us there is something different. Customers are coming back to us.”

Booking’s scale is already hugely impressive with 555,000 transactions handled each day and an average of one million guests staying on accommodation booked through the site every day.

It also claims to have 424,000 properties in total globally, 14,600 in the UK and 25 different property types.

But, mixing his metaphors somewhat, Hennessy said Booking is only “scratching the surface of the iceberg” in terms of product, while he admits most consumers still have not heard of Booking.com.

Future plans include expanding the product mix, adding more B&Bs and even holiday cottages, while winning customers by stopping at nothing to make sure it is the best shopping portal out there.

It will also increasingly help users not only find their ideal accommodation but destination too by matching their specific requirements to known location attributes.

With enormous scale comes the possibility of capturing ever increasing amounts of consumer data with which to hone its offering.

The 25 million “real, relevant and recent” reviews it has from customers, as well as the mining of data from social media, means Booking.com has a treasure chest of data on product and customers.

And occupying the intermediary space between supplier and customer, Hennessy is aware of how vital it is that Booking.com keeps both sides of the equation happy.

The site sees itself as having a “symbiotic” relationship with its thousands of room suppliers putting them in control of how they use it; more a marketing tool than an OTA retail partner.

But ultimately in areas like mobile, logging in to get a more personalised service and paying up front or on checking out, Hennessy said Booking.com will let the customer decide what suits them best.

The site has been built on the ‘book now and pay when you stay’ philosophy with free cancellation and although other options are available, this is will remain the case as long as customers want it.

Hennessy said customer service is embedded in Booking.com’s DNA and adding a ‘brand voice’ was aimed at connecting with customers on a more emotional basis.

“Customers that used us in the past viewed us much more of a tool without a brand.

“What this has helped us tremendously with is giving us a voice, an emotional connection, while staying close to our DNA of serving the customer well.”

And as for where Booking.com is in its evolution? “We think nothing but runway. It’s early days.”

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