Global travel giant Expedia has been growing significantly in the Caribbean, and it looks like that will continue in the next few years. To learn more about the company’s plans for what it says is a “thriving” market, Caribbean Journal caught up with Mario Ribera, vice president Latin America and Demetrius Canton, director – Caribbean at Expedia in an interview at the CHTA’s Caribbean Travel Marketplace conference at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. Here’s what they had to say.
What’s new in 2017 for Expedia in the Caribbean and Latin America?
The Caribbean is a thriving market and we’ll continue to work to strengthen our presence and efforts in the region. We’ll also continue to partner closely with our valued hoteliers; we’re about helping them reach incremental customers through our technology and offering resources for them to optimize their revenue. We encourage our partners to fully utilize all of Expedia’s tools and technology including Expedia Partner Central and the features it offers.
The region has showcased strong growth over the past year. The CHTA data center reported that hotel occupancy throughout the Caribbean for November 2016 was at 65 percent. And as of November 2016, CHTA reported an increase in the number of hotels in the region; therefore, in 2017, we hope to add more hotel inventory and continue offering the best rates on the market to consumers.
What has the advent of vacation rentals done to change the market landscape for Expedia?
Companies like HomeAway and Airbnb have helped to increase demand from a traveler that traditional OTAs and hotels weren’t reaching. Allowing access to alternative types of accommodation ultimately introduces new customers into the travel funnel. Any time you add more customer choice, it is better for the industry overall.
We see home sharing as complementary to Expedia.
We believe alternative accommodations and hotels generally appeal to different sets of travelers. For example, travelers who book with HomeAway, are looking for a whole home to rent for a week whereas a business traveler may be looking for a standard check-in process and room service for a shorter stay.
HomeAway is particularly complementary because it focuses on different areas rather than the urban settings.
“The Caribbean is a thriving market.”
How has the consumer experience changed at Expedia lately?
Customers are so savvy these days and what we focus on is meeting their needs and delivering the best experience that makes them want to come back for more.
Expedia is investing heavily in how best to serve this new connected customer, and we’re evolving our products to provide greater value to travelers through all stages of their journey – a shift away from simply thinking in terms of single transactions. As customers continue to become connected through different devices and modes of transactions, it’s our responsibility as e=commerce platforms to react accordingly.
A couple of good examples of us evolving our customer experience is Scratchpad, Real-time feedback, EPC Conversations, and integration with Amazon’s Alexa Service.
· Scratchpad neatly stores and organizes a customer’s search queries for easy retrieval on Expedia. We found that customers will search for a flight online an average of 48 times before booking a trip. Scratchpad ensures that whenever they return, they have access to previous searches. Clicking on the Scratchpad button on the Expedia.com homepage expands the search history and refreshes the data, showing the latest prices and inventory.
· Real Time Feedback is a communication system that sends a notification to a guest who has booked through Expedia portals as soon as they have checked in asking how they are feeling. The guest is presented with a simple choice between happy and sad, with the results fed back in real time to the hotel.
· This feature allows partners to identify any issues and provide hotel partners a chance to resolve them while guests are still at the hotel – potentially averting negative reviews
· More than 8.3 million RTF reviews to date have resulted in a 10% uptick in positive reviews for hoteliers engaging with guests.
· EPC Conversations is a dialogue tool which allows hotels to create first impressions and set guests expectations with a custom welcome message and enhance their experience by sharing check-in details or alerting them when their rooms are ready. EPC Conversations also allows hoteliers to instantly acknowledge, confirm and manage special requests from their guests and provide information about the property’s services, such as the spa, concierge or restaurant, helping to enhance engagement and create further revenue opportunities.
· We have launched a new travel updates skill for the Amazon Alexa service, giving customers the ability to interact with Alexa-enabled devices such as the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot to receive important travel updates and information in an easy, intuitive way. The Expedia skill for Alexa offers a voice-activated method to hear details on upcoming trips purchased on Expedia.com with other features embedded within the skill that allow travelers to ask for specifics regarding hotel bookings, flight status, loyalty points balance, rental car reservations, and more.
As a tech company, we are constantly testing and learning to get the best experiences for our consumers. We iterate and test quickly through AB testing. We let the customers and partners tell us what they like/don’t like through their actions/usage. Our innovation is in-line with customer preferences vs. trying to predict.
How do you differentiate all of the brands under the Expedia umbrella?
We want to own and empower the best travel brands in the world. We know consumers are loyal to lots of different brands and we try to scale what we are able to do. Right now, we are able to bring a number of brands on to a common technology and supply platform. Our multi-product/platform strategy positions us as a global full-service travel company, great for consumers and hotel partners.
The brands are differentiated in that they each have their own personality, loyal customer base, and these customers are different – as an example, Orbitz and Hotels.com skew younger than Expedia and Travelocity customers – these recent acquisitions result in new demand for our hotel partners and increased online visibility.
How are activities and on-island attractions integrated into Expedia offerings? Is this business growing?
We want to provide the best experience to our customers, so we work with partners, and destinations themselves to offer activities and attractions to travelers. Additionally we offer Expedia Local Experts (LX) which is a service that helps travelers discover, book activities and destination services around the world. The service has proven to be popular with travelers, who are connected to activities they might otherwise have missed and can book and manage a complete travel itinerary through a single partner.
Expedia LX insights are available to consumers across a wide variety of platforms (mobile app, mobile web, desktop) In addition, more than 400 Expedia concierges serve Expedia guests 365 days a year, face-to-face, at hotels and other retail locations worldwide.
Expedia LX has more than 2000 activity partners and insight into more than 15,000 activities around the world. Travelers are presented with options that run the gamut, from the functional – ground transportation, dinner reservations – to the experiential, such as ATV adventures through the Mexican jungle. These recommendations are tailored to the particular traveler and are optimized for individuals, couples, groups and families with children. And because LX insights can be accessed via mobile, they can be chosen in real time in any location.
Expedia LX is growing rapidly, driven by consumer demand across the globe. This growth demonstrates that, more and more, travelers rely on Expedia for insight and advice at every stage of the travel process, not only with planning and booking but in real time throughout the life of the trip.
How are airlines and hotels packages integrated at Expedia? Are you selling more packages in 2017?
Package bookings are popular because it allows consumers to book hotel + flight and other travel products, streamlining and packaging their travel purchase. In fact, one of our key differentiators is our package business because they are a great way to build a strong base of customers without eroding your retail rates. Package travelers are valuable to our hotel partners because they typically book further in advance, stay longer and are less likely to cancel due to the non-refundable flight element.
The traditional package booker was often a travel deal seeker. Today, budget and luxury travelers alike find package booking not only cost efficient, but time efficient as well. With the continued growth of this category, hoteliers have the opportunity to leverage travel data and partnerships to enhance their offering and make package bookings a key component of their success.
While we can’t comment on 2016 package demand or 2017 package bookings, we can say that globally, we generated 7.1 mil packages in 2015 (as of Dec 31 2015). Additionally, the Caribbean has seen the benefits of package travel demand. The following destinations showcase significant increases in package demand during the third quarter of 2016 compared to the same time in 2015:
- Punta Cana, Dominican Republic with an increase of over 20 percent
- Nassau, Bahamas with an increase of nearly 20 percent
- Ocho Rios, Jamaica with an increase of more than 55 percent
What new technologies do you see for 2017 and beyond that will make traveling with Expedia better?
We’ve made tremendous progress in 2016 and are augmenting the capabilities of the Expedia travel marketplace. It makes sense for Expedia to expand to a service provider rather than just a distribution channel. As a company, we’ve invested in technology. If you look at what the industry is spending in tech, marketing, and access to data, it’s enormous.
We’re currently testing experiences in AI, Natural Language Processing (NLP) as I mentioned through Amazon’s Alexa, and VR – you can see some of that today via experiences like our Expedia Bot for Facebook Messenger where customers using Facebook Messenger can interact with an Expedia bot to fulfill hotel search requests. The bot operates on a structured conversation flow: it analyzes information provided and prompts the user. We’ve also done some unique experiences with 360* technology with St. Jude and with Tourism Australia.
It’s early, but we’d love to do more on this – with our partners, for our customers, and to explore cool technologies. You’ll see more in this space from us related to customer service and booking options and we are excited to experiment in both capacities.
— Guy Britton and Alexander Britell in Nassau