Booking.com is ahead in India compared to any online travel agency since it launched its India office back in 2012.With more than 36,000 India-specific properties comprising mainly hotels, this year it also ventured into the homes segment with a special team.
Unlike Airbnb, its new competitor in India, which has moved from home stays to hotels, Booking.com has taken the opposite course by graduating from hotels to homes.
In an interview Vikas Bhola, the head of the Indian subcontinent, gives an overview of how he intends developing the business in the region, especially in the context of competition from Airbnb entering the same segments. Excerpts:
Booking.com has crossed 5m milestone in private accommodation and reported listings grew by 27 per cent in 2017. How much of this can be attributed to the Indian market?
India is an exciting and important market for Booking.com. We know there is a demand for accommodation options, beyond the traditional hotel, among Indian travellers. Our recent revealed that almost half of the Indian travellers (48%) prefer holiday home or apartment to a hotel. Four in ten of them said they would consider listing their own home on a travel accommodation site, further evidence that there is growing demand and supply in the space in India.
However, we’re not able to break down exactly how much of the growth in listings can be attributed to the Indian market.
How do you differentiate from Airbnb and Expedia as they are also emerging as full-service travel companies, and is also into hotels and homes and everything in between?
We have been actively building our supply and business in this space for many years. More than 5 million reported listings in homes, apartments and other unique places to stay makes us the largest potential source of inventory in the homes and unique accommodations worldwide. In fact, globally, more than 70% of the stays on Booking.com are something other than a traditional hotel. And they’re all instantly bookable. We make it quick and easy. We never charge booking fee. That’s something our customers love and what differentiates us.
In India Booking.com has entered into partnerships with Paytm and MakeMyTrip for overseas properties. What has been the outcome and how much additional business has it resulted in?
We are always open to exploring partnerships with other businesses where we see a mutually beneficial outcome, and Make My Trip and Paytm are two examples of this.
What are the challenges in the Indian market with respect to issues like cancellation of bookings?
On Booking.com, any rate that includes free cancellation within a certain time of booking, is set by the property owners themselves, including the terms without chargingthe customer. We work to ensure that whatever prices and policies a property has determined for themselves are displayed clearly and accurately to anyone searching our site. We recommend to accommodation partners to offer a variety of rate policies (including free cancellation) for their property, whenever possible. This enhances customers’ choices and helps the partners win more bookings. Our primary goals are to seamlessly connect customers with their perfect accommodation and the unique travel experiences they crave, whilst empowering our partners to grow their business via our platform.
What are the kinds of offline channels being explored to generate business and would you also look at new segments like flights in the future?
Since day one, we’ve focussed on what we do best — connecting travellers to the widest choice of incredible places to stay and this remains our core focus. However, we also offer our customers in India the option to book rental cars and airport transfers directly from our site through partners.
How is India different from the Chinese market in terms of travel bookings? Since you have a local product for the Chinese market, are there also chances of having exclusive travel products for India as well?
We don’t break down our market success between countries unfortunately, so I can’t comment on the specific differences between China and India. What I can say is they are both important markets for our platform.
Who are the tech channel managers for India and what are the kinds of new innovations planned for the market?
Our technology operations are based in our headquarters in Amsterdam. We focus on incremental innovation throughout every layer and department within the organisations that happens around the clock on a daily basis. We run hundreds of experiments on our platforms 24/7, testing to see what enhancements resonate with our Indian customers to ensure continuous improvement of the digital experience. We also have an internal Idea Lab, where any employee from India, or anywhere in the world, can share ideas to improve our product. We foster a culture of entrepreneurialism and innovation throughout every level of our organisation. We believe that truly innovative ideas can come from anywhere in the company, and that’s why we maintain a flat, bottom-up organisation.