Expedia Bosses Say Vrbo Will Drag 2024 Growth

expedia symbol at pathway to entrance to expedia headquarters in seattle source zgf

Skift Take

Incoming CEO Ariane Gorin said she plans to focus on driving traffic, lifting conversion rates, and expanding margins after taking the helm from departing chief Peter Kern on May 13.

Expedia Group trimmed its 2024 outlook for growth on Thursday mainly because of a slower-than-anticipated recovery at Vrbo, its vacation-rental booking brand.

The company lowered its full-year guidance to a range of mid-to-high single-digit top-line growth, with profit margins mostly in line with last year.

It was the last quarterly earnings call for Expedia Group CEO and Vice Chairman Peter Kern, who will step down and be replaced by Ariane Gorin on May 13.

Gorin and Kern said Vrbo’s rebound had been slower than they expected. Other issues: “Overall trends” in its consumer business through June and Hotels.com’s slower-than-hoped-for rebound, makes them expect Expedia Group growth to be lower than what they had anticipated for the full year.

“While it’s going to take somewhat longer than we’d anticipated to see the benefits come through in our numbers, the investments we’ve made rebuilding consumer business will pay off,” said Gorin during a call about Expedia’s first-quarter earnings.

Ariane Gorin’s ambition as incoming CEO

Gorin introduced herself to analysts on the call.

“My immediate priority as CEO is to work with our teams to accelerate our growth and sharpen the longer-term strategy for our consumer business,” Gorin said.

“[The group’s consumer business has] undergone an extreme transformation over the last few years, from technical migrations and changes in our loyalty program to changes in how our teams operate the business,” Gorin said. “So we’ve dealt with a lot of turbulence.”

“To get the acceleration we want from our consumer business, we need to focus on the basics: driving traffic, increasing conversion, and expanding our margins through higher attach, take rates, and more efficient marketing,” Gorin said.

Vrbo’s slow recovery

The backstory: Expedia Group wanted to streamline operations, so it fused the front-end tech stacks of its major brands — Expedia, Hotels.com, and Vrbo — onto one platform. Finished late last year, this tech migration is supposed to make the company more nimble at quicker at innovating. But fine-tuning will take time.

“For example, a recommendation algorithm gets smarter faster because of our scale, but it has to be trained on the differences between a traveler shopping on Vrbo compared to one on Expedia,” Gorin said. “And tests that work on one brand may behave differently on another.”

Hotels.com also struggling

Executives said the Hotels.com brand’s relatively sluggish performance was impacted by a number of things.

“Hotels.com was the most impacted by our migrations,” Gorin said. “It’s not where we want it to be.”

The second was Expedia Group made a big change in the loyalty program, replacing an old 10-stays-get-1-free model to a more nuanced, cross-brand One Key program.

“For Hotels.com, it is a bigger change in the loyalty program with less earn [for customers],” Gorin said.

Hotels.com was the most international of the group’s brands, and the group has spent less on performance marketing internationally in recent years, hurting the brand.

AI and machine learning potential

Gorin said she remained confident that the tech migration would enable the group to speed up product change tests more quickly as well as to adopt artificial intelligence and machine-learning techniques to improve sales efficiency.

“The opportunities with AI are going to be bigger than ever … and delivering traveler experiences that are truly personalized,” Gorin said.

“It is true that with machine learning, you can get a lot smarter in understanding what is the next best thing to propose to a traveler,” Gorin said. “What are [customers] most likely to attach, given what we know about them, given what we know about what they’re doing in that trip plan? So I think we have lots of ambitions around cross-sell and attach and what machine learning can do to help us there.”

Loyalty program growth

Membership in Expedia’s new One Key loyalty program is up after a relaunch of the program.

“In terms of member growth on our loyalty programs, new membership is up 40% year-on-year,” Gorin said.

North American weighting

North America remains Expedia Group’s slowest growing geography relative to major international markets, though executives said it was “growing share” in the U.S.

The Seattle-based company drives a lot of business from its home market. In 2018, international business was 44.7% of its revenue.

In the first quarter of 2024, approximately 38% of its business was international, showing how pandemic-era cuts to overseas marketing set back the group’s effort to diversify globally.

Expect Gorin to try to rebalance to a more globally relevant company.

“Having lived in Europe for the last 23 years, I’ve seen firsthand opportunity for us in international markets,” Gorin said.

Expedia’s first quarter

  • Revenue rose 8% year-over-year to $2.9 billion. The gains were driven by performance improvements across multiple segments, especially business-to-business operations.
  • The company officially suffered a net loss of $135 million. But its adjusted EBITDA, a measure of profit, rose by 38% year-over-year to $255 million.
  • The company had $6.25 billion in debt as of March 31. Its free cash flow was $2.7 billion.

Expedia’s room nights

  • Booked room nights rose 7% to 101.2 million in the quarter.

Cutting headcount

Expedia Group had 17,100 workers as of year-end 2023. In February, it laid off roughly 8% of them.

“In February, we announced cost actions that will impact approximately 1,500 employees through this year,” said Julie Whalen, chief financial officer. “We expect that these actions will unlock substantial savings.”

“We’re going to be taking some of that savings, which is implied within our guidance, and reinvesting it back into marketing,” Whalen said.

Hear from Ariane and many others on-stage at Skift Global Forum this September in New York City.

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