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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

How Booking Holdings Makes Money

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In classical economics, no concept is more important than that of utility. The theory of utility is that every transaction we make in the marketplace is an attempt to maximize our satisfaction, however we choose to define that.

While utility is at the top of the list, convenience isn’t far behind. A company that makes it as effortless as possible for a customer to make a purchase, replacing hours of drudgery with a few keystrokes, can write its own ticket.

Or, to borrow a phrase, Name [Its] Own Price.

Priceline Group Rebrands

The Priceline Group announced its decision to re-brand as Booking Holdings Inc. in February 2018 in recognition of its largest revenue-generating subsidiary, Booking.com.

Key Takeaways

  • Booking Holdings Inc. is the parent company of sites including Priceline, Booking, Agoda, Kayak, OpenTable, and RentalCars.
  • The sites’ product offerings overlap but each maintains a distinct user base and geographic focus that evolved with the site.
  • All of the sites make money from travel commissions and advertising revenue.

Booking Holdings Inc. (BKNG) is the largest online travel company in the world. In addition to Booking.com and Priceline.com, Booking Holdings operates a number of other sites that at first glance seem to offer the same products and services.

All of the Above

You can book a room, a cruise, a car, or a flight at Priceline.com or Booking.com. At Agoda.com, you can do all of that, but it also gives prominence to vacation apartment rentals. Kayak.com does all of the above, but the focus is on a metasearch function that compares prices and offerings across all web travel sites.

All of the above are now Booking.com operations, as are the restaurant booking site OpenTable.com and the car rental site RentalCars.com. 

Same, But Different

The differences among Booking Holdings’ travel booking sites largely are an outgrowth of their independent origins. Agoda, purchased in 2005, is headquartered in Singapore and still caters mostly to customers in Asia and the Pacific region. Booking.com originated in the Netherlands and draws most of its clientele from Europe. That said, both sites are happy to book anyone for a destination pretty much anywhere on Earth. 

Owning similar and seemingly redundant travel sites isn’t particular to Booking Holdings. Expedia (EXPE) owns Hotwire, Trivago, and Hotels.com, as well as the Orbitz and Travelocity sites. 

Beyond U.S. Borders

Perhaps inevitably for a global travel company, Booking Holdings makes most of its money outside the U.S. But the U.S. is the world’s largest economy, so surely it should account for more of Priceline Group’s business, right? 

It doesn’t, and for several reasons. The American hospitality industry is dominated by chains to a far greater extent than in the rest of the world. If you’re in the U.S. and want to stay at a Carlson or Vantage hotel, chances are fairly good you’re going to book via the chain’s own website. Your loyalty will be rewarded with discounts and complimentary rooms, giving you less incentive to browse Priceline Group’s services.

Internationally, independently operated properties and smaller chains hold a greater share of the market. It serves those properties well to be associated with a globally powerful brand like Booking Holdings. 

Following the Money

Booking Holdings organizes revenue into three categories: agency, merchant, and advertising/other.

  • Agency doesn’t refer to a brick-and-mortar travel agency, a concept quickly becoming extinct. Rather, Booking Holdings acts as the agent for the third party that’s selling its services. Book a room at the Hilton through Agoda, and the travel commission is counted in this category. 
  • Merchant revenue comes from transactions in which Booking Holdings, which doesn’t operate hotels and car rental lots itself, is the merchant of record. When you use the “Name Your Own Price” option on Priceline, the sale counts here. Booking Holdings takes a few dollars for itself while the rest goes to the hotelier. 
  • Advertising revenue is an underrated and under-appreciated stream for the modern online travel business, and Booking Holdings capitalizes on it like few others. Those square inches of screen space on Priceline.com and Kayak.com are paid advertising. 

As of mid-October 2020, BKNG stock was trading at more than $1,600 a share and has been trading above $1,000 a share since September 2013.

$15.07 billion

Booking Holding’s total revenue in 2019. That’s up from $14.53 billion the previous year.

Unlike many second-generation online darlings with astonishingly high prices, Booking Holdings makes money. Its year-over-year balance sheet data shows revenues rising every year.

On August 9, 2018, Booking Holdings released its 2019 annual earnings report. Total revenue for the quarter was $15.07 billion, up from $14.53 billion the previous year. Gross profit was $15.06 billion, a 3.71% increase from 2018.

Just as impressively, cost of revenue has somehow managed to decline each year — not just in relative terms, but in absolute terms. Extrapolate the trends into the future and Booking Holdings may someday be spending practically nothing to make money.

Booking vs. Expedia

To a casual observer of the markets, Expedia Inc. would seem to be the big player and Booking Holdings the up-and-comer. Expedia is better publicized, carries greater name recognition, and has more notable subsidiaries.

But Booking Holdings is far more successful. By establishing itself with Priceline’s uncommon business model – the buyer setting the price within reason – and then transitioning into a more conventional model while retaining the quirky option, Booking Holdings positioned itself to broaden its base through acquisition.

It bought Booking.com on the cheap, for cash, and turned it into a vital part of the core business. It did the same with Agoda, more or less.

As the family of Booking Holdings sites continues to offer steep discounts to customers while generating enough business to make the arrangement more than worth the providers’ while, continued growth and success seem inevitable.

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