Will OTAs become less powerful or more relevant after COVID?

There is no doubt that shocks to our industry bring about significant changes, and COVID-19 won’t be an exception. I believe that hotel guests’ buying behavior and motivations will be very different tomorrow from what they were yesterday.

So, how will OTAs fit into this new equation? And, will the time be right for the battle cry of “book direct” to finally resonate with travelers as being truly meaningful?

Hotel brands historically have viewed OTAs as direct competition to their value proposition. Beyond financing requirements, owners typically select a brand for one primary reason: the promised power of their distribution network. OTAs clearly have interrupted distribution in hospitality, and on top of that, hotels have to pay franchise fees on all revenue streams, including those that originate from an OTA, so that multi-layered expense becomes a significant pain point in terms of profitability.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Born of a time when accommodations were considered by many travelers to be a commodity, where options were plentiful and both amenities and guest experience were relatively homogenous, booking efficiency became paramount and price was a primary consideration in the selection process. It then becomes easy to understand how OTAs were well positioned to serve as intermediaries at the top of the transaction funnel.

The trouble is, because of COVID- 19, we have now moved from the fast-paced transactional environment we once lived in to a more thoughtful place, where the relationship between accommodation provider and individual guest is even more important.

In my opinion, guests will be asking three main questions when booking hotel stays in the future:
1. What is there to do at the property and in the destination that is safe?

2. How will I know that everything in my room and at the property has been properly sanitized?

3. Will the property be flexible and work with me if my plans change?

In other words, in a post COVID-19 world, it comes down to a traveler trusting that the accommodation provider will take care of him or her as they would a guest in their own home. I believe that building this trust will engender loyalty in the truest sense of the word. It also means that the playing field for independent properties has been leveled to a very real extent as the conversation shifts from amassing loyalty points to assuring personal safety.

OTA risk

OTAs are now under tremendous pressure since they have several business models that may not recover quickly in the months ahead, including:

Opaque booking: Will guests really take a chance on not knowing where they will spend the night in exchange for a cheap price? I am certain some will, but this model is not that relevant at this very moment.

Package trips: People are more likely to forego a complicated international trip consisting of air, car, accommodation, transfers and sightseeing and opt instead for a local getaway or escape to a destination that is within driving distance. This will change, of course, but it will take some time before it does.

Corporate travel: This segment will certainly recover also, but, as with packages, it will take some time for volumes to get back to where they were pre-COVID-19. Rates will also likely be lower due to a combination of pricing and travelers trading down in terms of product tier, so OTA revenues will be suppressed to a degree.

Leisure travel: This is where OTAs will need to pin their hopes for recovery in the near term. And with that, some interesting scenarios may play out.

OTAs are in a unique position to assist travelers – should they choose to do so – throughout the travel journey. They can provide travelers with proactive support while en route and can provide up-to-the-minute notifications and guidance to help ensure a smooth travel experience from beginning to end. Hotels simply aren’t in a position to do that today.

Hotel owners and operators remember all too well, based on their experiences following the financial crisis a decade ago, the dangers of relying too heavily on expensive distribution channels and the impact that can have on profitability. As the industry begins its recovery, the historical actions of OTAs, including an aggressive push for exclusive discounts, higher margins and unilateral departures from rate parity, will be met with sharp resistance by brands and by the vast majority of independents.

This brings us to the point of this article. There is no doubt that the hospitality and tourism sector will thrive. The question that remains, then, is: Who will be more agile and will adapt more rapidly to win the hearts and minds of travelers as we emerge from this crisis and return to profitability?

Game theory suggests that there is a solution where everyone can win. Will we as an industry seek out that solution or will we revert to our old ways of thinking? If it’s the latter, be prepared for a protracted recovery.