Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Alfonso Castellano Interview - current TripSay Board member, ex Travelocity and Lastminute (part 1)

Last week travel social network and planning site TripSay put out a press release announcing that former Travelocity Senior Vice President Alfonso Castellano (pictured) was joining the TripSay Board. Castellano spent nine years with lastminute/Travelocity and before than ten years with TUI. An impressive online travel resume.

I had a great chance to speak Alfonso last week about this new venture. This is the first in two posts from that discussion. In this post I will share with you the discussion we had around the online travel industry in general. In a later post will go through our discussions on TripSay and the travel content model.

Firstly to the OTAs

We started our conversation around the challenges facing the major online travel companies (OTAs). As Castellano said “Most [of the OTAs] are losing money in air” Castellano identified three themes/scenarios confronting OTAs today:

1. Complexity

The world is complex, the law, technology, fragmentation, environment, globalisation etc all ad complexity and with it costs to the big four OTAs (Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and Priceline).

According to Castellano, this globalisation investment bu the OTAs is not showing the benefits and gains in scale and volume and efficiency that were hoped. Instead this globalisation effort is bringing so much complexity that it is becoming a drag for the big four, placing increasing pressure on margins. Leading to theme 2…

2. Pressure on margin

Even in this economic demolition derby the OTAs are still under pressure from suppliers on margin. Castellano concedes that this pressure “might move a little now but underlying dynamic will remain. Car, air and even tour operators are becoming more and more discriminating in the on online channel.” This margin pressure is made worse due to the third theme…

3. Increasing cost of marketing

The global demand pressure will put pressure on margins but marketing costs will sill be there.

And….in a frightening prediction. Castellano is not surprised by the CEO changes recently “and am expecting more and more traumatic announcements out of the big four.”

Then to the Meta-search companies

He does not spare the bad news for other, newer players. Castellano also expressed views on the meta-search model. If we had talked months ago he would have said that the meta-search future was secured because meta-search supported the direct push by the suppliers.

Prior to this eco-madness (my words), the suppliers were able to be “discriminating about distribution”. Meta-search could play to this as “a marketing tool for supplier direct distribution rather than a complementary distribution” (ie unlike an agent). This meant suppliers could hold back from intermediaries. Today however, the “suppliers are running back to any player with distribution”. Castellano is expecting a shift “like the post 9/11 world”. Suppliers will be “desperate to pay for an extra bed to get back to profitability.” I found the discussion around the impacts on the industry of 9/11 versus this downturn very interesting. It was after the tragedy of 9/11 and resulting decimation in demand that the online merchant hotel business was born.

Finally to suppliers

I asked Castellano what advice he would give suppliers during this crisis to not repeat some of the mistakes of 2001 and 2002 where too much power was given to the intermediaries. He had even more grim news. This time for the suppliers (hoteliers). He sees a “fantastic future for hotel distribution for OTAs.” He goes on “If a hotel does not control big chunk of distribution today and is still dependent on high yield and hight cost distribution models [like agents]. It is too late, they have no room to maneuver. If they have not been building up distribution for the last 3 or 4 years, then the only option they [hoteliers] have is to keep ­ feeding the beast [online agents] then to come back and fight the bigger beast subsequently…Only a handful of hotel companies can get out of this.” Grim words indeed.

More from our discussion soon.


Steve Sherlock said...

interesting interview.

i know i sound like a broken record, but i find it hard to understand why all these site's use the word "trip" in their names.

tripwolf, tripit, tripsay, tripsubmit, tripwiser and probably oodles more...

i just think descriptive names make it harder for consumers to distinguish one brand from another.

i.e. its not online accom its wotif, not auctions its ebay, its not books its amazon, its not search its google, its not travel its expedia, its travel search its kayak...

anyway, thats just my bug bear. i reckon the trip type site that does not use the word trip in the name will probably become the leader.


Joe Buhler said...

I tend to agree with the opinions expressed here by both Alfonso and you. This is pretty much how the scenario will play out. One move forward will be for the OTAs to start attracting the online traveler much earlier, in the planning process by offering improved functionality to find their most suitable vacation option. In this "Perfect Storm" environment is where the action will be in the coming years, with interestingly most of the innovation coming on stream by new players rather than the "legacy" OTAs.