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For readers who have been following our Online Travel Updates since its inception, we thank you for your continued support. In this year of 2021, June will mark our six-year anniversary of publishing these weekly updates dedicated to keeping our readers up-to-date with legal, regulatory, and market and industry trends related to the online travel space. We hope you continue to find them informative and helpful as the online travel industry keeps evolving.

This week’s Update includes several stories spotlighting a few Expedia Group companies – Expedia, Trivago and Vrbo. We’ve also included another story on the so-called “digital health passports.” Whether you agree with their use or not, we suspect the passports will be part of travel (and life) for the foreseeable future. Over the past several weeks, we’ve spent a lot of time with clients considering the role of COVID-19 testing, the pros and cons of offering testing to guests as an onsite amenity, and how best to leverage the test results (and soon vaccination records) via the many available digital health passports. This is one part of our practice that we would have never anticipated delving into just 14 months ago. Enjoy.

Unlike our short Update last week, this week’s edition is filled with several important stories.

Have a Unique Cancellation Policy? Not AnymoreBooking.com
(“Booking.com changes hotel cancellation and deposit policies,” February 5, 2021 via Hotel Owner) (subscription may be required)
Last week, Booking.com announced plans to limit the number and types of cancellation, and advance deposit policies that its platform will support. The change takes effect on April 6, 2021. This is not the first time Booking.com has announced its own approach to cancellations regardless of the policies maintained by its hotel supplier partners.

As evidenced by our list of stories below, it was a relatively quiet week for online travel.

Tripadvisor Introduces Virtual Voice Tours for Amazon AlexaTripAdvisor
(“Tripadvisor creates virtual destination tour via Amazon Alexa,” January 29, 2021 via Phocus Wire)
Working with tourism authorities in Abu Dhabi, last week, Tripadvisor launched what it claims to be the first virtual destination voice tour for Amazon Alexa. Users in the United Kingdom can summon the voice tour by asking their Alexa-enabled device “to explore Abu Dhabi.” The voice tour is part of a larger campaign between Abu Dhabi and the review/distribution platform and, according to Tripadvisor, the feature will be made to other destination partners.

This week’s Online Travel Update features updates to a number of stories that we covered previously – online vaccination records, Apple’s privacy policy and the many challenges associated with regulating online platforms’ algorithms.

Expedia Dominates Early 2021 Television AdvertisingExpedia
(“Vrbo and Expedia Dominate Online Travel TV Advertising in the U.S. So Far in 2021,” January 21, 2021 via Skift Travel News) (subscription may be required)
Although overall television advertising spending by OTAs (online travel agencies) is dramatically down this year (approximately 81 percent lower), there has been a change at the top of the television advertising leaderboard. At this time last year, Booking.com, dominated U.S. television advertising among its OTA competitors. This year, Expedia Group companies, Vrbo and Expedia.com, have dominated U.S. television advertising spending with their common “togetherness” campaigns. Some may say that the effort at a time when COVID-19 infections across the country are an all-time high is a crazy waste of money. I disagree. I believe the campaign is entirely consistent with Expedia Group’s previously announced plans to re-focus its efforts on its core travel businesses by ramping up advertising while its largest competitors lay low.

This week’s Update contains something for everyone – currencies and payments, infringement claims and acquisitions. Enjoy.

Want to Get Away? TripAdvisor Can Help TripAdvisor logo
(“Tripadvisor tests tool to aid socially distanced travel,” January 11, 2021 via Phocus Wire)
Tripadvisor has recently launched a platform that enables travelers to identify and avoid crowds at businesses and public places. The platform Crowdfree.me, which was created by a team from Tripadvisor, Slack, Amazon Web Services and other technology companies, uses historic traffic data from cell phones to provide users “crowd” information by the hour and day of week for their chosen location.

This week’s Update features a variety of stories (all of which pale in comparison to the tumultuous events last week in Washington, D.C.), including two stories about the recent antitrust claims brought by Fareportal against JetBlue for its refusal to allow Fareportal to distribute JetBlue’s fares and flight content. Enjoy.

Trump Administration Bans Alipay Alipay
("Trump bars U.S. transactions with eight Chinese apps including Alipay," January 6, 2021 via Reuters)
Citing concerns over Chinese access to certain sensitive personal information, last week, the Trump administration issued an Executive Order banning transactions with eight Chinese applications, including the popular mobile payment applications Alipay and WeChat pay. The Order requires the U.S. Commerce Department to identify the types of transactions banned by the Order within 45 days. What effect the Order might have following the remaining 10 days of the Trump presidency is unknown. Joe Biden, the President-elect, who could revoke the Order immediately upon taking office, has not commented on the Order or more generally on the alleged Chinese trade abuses. Should the ban remain in place, it could pose potential challenges to those hotel companies that rely heavily on the mobile payment applications for bookings and other products and services in China.

Happy New Year. Our inaugural 2021 Online Travel Update is below. In addition to sharing a new story about Expedia Group, we are once again providing a roundup of some of the major developments and trends that impacted the online travel industry in 2020, including how hotels and other industry members have responded and adapted in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Enjoy.

Largest OTAs Withdraw Forecasts for 2020 | March 2020 
(“Expedia Withdraws Full-Year Forecast Amid Coronavirus Spread,” Bloomberg Quint - Stories on Mar 13, 2020)
On Friday, Expedia Group joined its cross-pond rival Booking Holdings in withdrawing its full-year earnings forecast. At the same time, Expedia updated its first quarter guidance stating that the negative impact of the coronavirus outbreak on its adjusted EBITDA would exceed the previously predicted $30-$40 million. Expedia’s rival, Booking Holdings, withdrew its two-week old full-year earnings forecast on Monday.

We end 2020 with a heavy dose of antitrust/competition stories (which is a theme likely to continue into 2021), including updates from Russia, Croatia and the European Union. Those of you with properties in those markets may soon find new opportunities and methods to compete.

Agoda Adds Installment Payments Agoda logo
(Agoda launches regional instalment payment option with Atome, December 20, 2020 via Markets Businessinsider.com)
Not to be outdone by its competitors (see our prior story here), last week, Agoda announced that it is partnering with “fintech” provider Atome to offer installment payment options for travelers booking accommodations in select Asia-Pacific countries on the online platform. The new payment options will first be made available for bookings of accommodations in Singapore and Malaysia, but are expected to expand to accommodations in eight additional APAC markets in 2021. It will be interesting to see what effect these no or low interest installment payment options will have on the return of leisure travel in 2021.

This week’s Update features a variety of stories – short-term rental, airlines, resort fees and antitrust developments in both the United States and the EU. Enjoy.

vresortsSay Hello to the First VR Booking Platform
(VResorts Launches Virtual Reality Booking Platform, December 15, 2020 via Hotel Business)
Gimmick? Maybe. I’ve been quite skeptical of the many purported uses for virtual reality in the travel industry. Singapore-based, VResorts wants us all to think differently. VResorts announced last week the launch of its virtual reality-enabled booking platform that allows users to browse and book hotels using only their VR devices. Hotels participating on the platform will be given the choice of providing VR videos and 360 degree photography or traditional static photography. No information was given on the source of the platform’s inventory or the costs associated with participating, though VResorts CEO and founder, Vladimir Varnavskii, claims that the platform will offer the same competitive pricing found on traditional online booking platforms, Expedia and Booking.com. 

Last week’s news headlines were dominated with a major milestone in the short-term rental industry as Airbnb’s long-awaited IPO finally arrived. While many will continue to debate Airbnb’s initial valuation, one thing is clear: Having just raised $3.5 billion in the public markets, Airbnb has formally arrived. It presents formidable competition to the two current online travel behemoths, Expedia Group and Booking Holdings.

Airbnb’s IPO Was Really, Really Big Airbnb
(Airbnb valued at $100 billion following blockbuster IPO — equivalent of more than five Expedias, December 10, 2020 via GeekWire)
Airbnb priced its IPO at $68 per share. Shares closed on the opening day at $144.71. The closing share price translated to a $100.7 billion market valuation – five times Expedia’s market valuation (closed at $18.4 billion) and greater than the combined value market values of Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt. Founded in 2008, Airbnb now features four million hosts offering accommodations around the world. For the first nine months of 2020, Airbnb posted revenues of $2.5 billion (compared to Expedia’s $4.2 billion) and losses of $696 million (compared to Expedia’s $2.2 billion loss). Let the debate begin.

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Greg Duff
Editor
Greg Duff founded and chairs Foster Garvey’s national Hospitality, Travel & Tourism group. His practice largely focuses on operations-oriented matters faced by hospitality industry members, including sales and marketing, distribution and e-commerce, procurement and technology. Greg also serves as counsel and legal advisor to many of the hospitality industry’s associations and trade groups, including AH&LA, HFTP and HSMAI.

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