UPDATE: TripTease says relationship with Booking.com is back on track

Back in December EyeforTravel covered the threat of legal action from Booking.com an interesting development in the hotel distribution landscape. Here is a brief update to the story from TripTease

UPDATE: Back in December last year, EyeforTravel published a story (see below) about the possibility of legal action from Booking.com to prevent hotels from using TripTease's Price Check widget. This week, Elliot Pritchard, CMO at TripTease, contacted EyeforTravel to set the current record straight. In November 2016, says Pritchard, Booking.com contacted a number of TripTease's partners to discourage them from using the firm's direct booking tools. "We were able, based on extensive legal checks, able to reassure them that we weren't doing anything wrong," Pritchard says. To cooperate with the investigation at the time, TripTease removed Booking.com tools for just a few weeks to give hotel partners time to respond to their concerns. However, Booking.com has been back on Price Check since January and no further complaints have been received.

Dec 2015: Why Booking.com vs TripTease puts truth and transparency on trial 

Poor taste or not, the letter sent by Booking.com to hotel partners last week shows that the hackles of the world’s biggest online travel agent have risen.

Indeed, the threat of legal action to prevent hotels using TripTease’s Price Check widget shows how seriously Booking.com is taking the situation. The message is clear: play by our rules or don’t play at all.

Price Check, said to be live on 8,000 brand sites, allows hotels to display the rates of three OTAs, alongside the hotel’s own rate on the brand homepage. It pops up when the guest has already found the hotel providing one last push down the booking funnel. This, says TripTease, leads to as much as a 35% increase in direct conversions.

...the threat of legal action to prevent hotels using TripTease’s Price Check widget shows how seriously Booking.com is taking the situation

If it sounds too good to be true, it is. First published on HotelSpeak, the letter from Booking.com to its hotel partners did not mince words.

“For avoidance of doubt,” wrote the world’s biggest online travel agency, we want our hotel partners to know that they could face legal action if they “are in breach of their contracts”.

If hotels were displaying the wrong rates it required “you, as our Partner, to remove the Booking.com brand and rates from the [TripTease Price Check] widget”.

The deadline for this action was last Friday.

Whether TripTease or any of booking.com hotel partners are in breach of contract remains to be seen but the run in raises some interesting questions.

Given the power and influence that the world’s biggest online travel agent wields in the market place, the first must be whether the letter sent to hotel partners is a bullying step too far.

The second: what does a level playing field and transparency for the consumer really mean in a digital age?

True colours 

At first glance, it looks very much like booking.com as the big bully. The news certainly poses a threat to TripTease’s business model because if hotels can’t display booking.com’s data, then the product undoubtedly loses appeal. Hotels also are less likely to want to sign up for something that has legal action hanging over it.

Given the uneasy, sometimes hostile, relationship between hotels and OTAs in the past, it’s perfectly believable that support for TripTease has, as chief executive Charlie Osmond puts it, been “overwhelming”. Behind the scenes, many hotels have even called for the return of booking.com rates to the widget because they felt the “threats were in poor taste,” he says.

According to Osmond, feedback from its customer success team has been that hotels are saying: ‘I don't want someone else controlling what I show on my website’.

However, also unsurprisingly, hotels don’t appear to want to come out in support of TripTease publicly. 

In conversation with EyeforTravel, a senior executive at one mid-sized European chain, which is testing TripTease’s Price Check product in a number of properties, admitted that they were “a bit shocked by the tone of the letter,” which reveals the “true colours of a dominant player in the marketplace”.  

Preferring to remain off the record, the executive said the issue should have been resolved between TripTease and booking.com, and the threatening letter to hotel partners was entirely unnecessary. If parity agreements are in place, and the TripTease Price Check widget is displaying accurate rates, then there should be no issue with hotels using this technology, she said.

After all, most well-known hotel booking engines – for example Synxsis (which is working with TripTease), Guestline and iHotelier - are developing their own tools to allow consumers to access rates directly with no need to visit any of the OTAs sites.

“Booking.com can do nothing about this,” says Sam Wilson e-commerce marketing manager at Shire Hotels.

There would be absolutely no point in us having the facility otherwise as it would compromise trust and ultimately our relationship with guests if we weren’t transparent

Sam Wilson e-commerce marketing manager at Shire Hotels.

In fact, Shire Hotels, a small UK-based chain was ahead of the game and the first hotel brand to develop its own in house OTA price comparison technology. What Wilson understood first and foremost was the importance of accuracy.

“We tested and monitored thoroughly before launching to ensure that the correct rates are being displayed. There would be absolutely no point in us having the facility otherwise as it would compromise trust and ultimately our relationship with guests if we weren’t transparent,” he says. 

The accuracy of TripTease’s data is what is in dispute and what we know is that Booking.com believes that: “TripTease is unlawfully accessing Booking.com’s data in order to collate the Booking.com information shown by the widget”.

Booking.com also has reason to believe that “price and availability information shown by the widget is often misleading, inaccurate and misrepresents the prices and availability being offered for rooms on Booking.com”.

TripTease says it gathers rates using a number of techniques and sources, and uses a blended methodology to ensure high levels of accuracy.

“We display the widget when the hotel is in parity, when the hotel is cheaper and when the hotel is more expensive,” says TripTease chief executive Charlie Osmond. “The last thing we’d want to do is misquote the truth.”

In fact, says Osmond, many of their approaches to rate gathering mirror those used by the OTAs themselves.

The last thing we’d want to do is misquote the truth

Charlie Osmond, CEO, TripTease

“We’ve taken extensive legal advice. We aren't doing anything wrong or illegal,” he says.

The nub of the matter

TripTease says it has requested a meeting Booking.com with the intention of finding “a resolution that's in the best interests of the consumer”.

And what matters to consumers really is the nub of this matter.

So what do consumers want? Well we know that first and foremost they want the truth. We know travellers visit up to 38 sites before booking a holiday, so it’s clear that they want to know they are getting the best deal. Very often this is about price, but it can also be about value. Convenience is another factor for consumers - and maybe even a reward.

Today few would argue that it is more convenient to find a hotel in the converging world of OTAs and metasearch. Most consumers start with Google and then hop from there to TripAdvisor, booking.com, Expedia or whatever. Here they can compare hotel prices, locations and facilities all in one place. If they find something they like they may visit the hotel site to check out the property’s ‘look and feel’ or to see if they can get a better price - luckily for hotels, most consumers don’t know about parity agreements. And so this is where price comparison tools come in handy. Because if at this point, when the consumer is right at the end of the funnel, and they see that the hotel is not out of whack with the rest of the market, they may just book direct.

So the decision for hotels to use technologies like TripTease is not really about the consumer, it’s about increasing direct bookings. For hotels, which are not traditionally tech players, technologies that help them increase session time on the brand site and drive direct conversions can only be a good thing.

Wilson, who is currently fine-tuning Shire Hotels’ price check tool, agrees but he also understands that parity agreements with OTAs, which he “likes working with because they have to be in that space”, must be adhered to.

…it’s no longer about banging the big bad OTA drum; it’s about understanding, and making the most of all distribution channels including the brand site

In other words, it’s no longer about banging the big bad OTA drum; it’s about understanding, and making the most of all distribution channels including the brand site.

Michael Levie, chief executive of technology focused citizenM hotels has an interesting view. “What is clear to me in the hotel industry is a lack of detailed knowledge of online marketing by many hotels involved, and unfortunately this leads to unnecessary controversy,” he says.

He is clear that: “Contract terms, rate parity, similar setup of taxes, inclusions and so on should all lead to a fair playing field and transparency to the guest.”

For Levie a level playing field is when “all constituencies stick and keep themselves to the rules we contract and agree upon”.  

When it comes to transparency, he says the guest should be allowed to book in any channel they wish; it’s also important that hotels do not become channel dependent in service delivery.

Ross Weber, CEO of ClickTripz, a competitor of TripTease, agrees. He argues that in a world where metasearch, OTA, and hotel brand sites are converging true price transparency will add value to all parties: the traveller, the hotel brand and the OTA. “I don’t believe that a model that provides value to one party has the ability to scale,” he says.

TripTease, which aims to improve connections between hotels and guests, is definitely not in the game of adding value to the OTAs.

“We are not an OTA advertising company. That is not our purpose. Booking has a huge marketing budget, their adverts are clickable just about everywhere online, they don’t need us to add to that,” says Osmond.

This is one reason consumers can’t click through to the OTA site from the Price Check widget – a feature some users may find frustrating especially if they have stumbled across the hotel site in the early stages of search.  

So while booking.com flexes its muscles, TripTease is putting on a brave face. What we know for sure is that booking.com is prepared to take “whatever action is necessary to protect its reputation and data”.

But whether the outcome of this takes consumers further down the road to a truly transparent market remains to be seen.

EyeforTravel contacted Booking.com to comment on this story but for the moment mum is the word.

Read the full interview with TripTease CEO Charlie Osmond on EyeforTravel.com tomorrow

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