The travel industry has conquered the sale of hotels online. The big four (Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and Priceline) as well as local players (Wotif, Rakuten, Ctrip, HRS) have been aggressively and successfully selling hotels online for nearly a decade.
I have often looked to the very under developed market for the booking of vacation rentals and wondered when it will be ready for the same level of online sales as hotels. When will the structural and supply roadblocks impeding online vacation rentals be removed to allow for the massive amounts of online research for vacation rental and pent up demand for vacation rentals translate into bookings. Actual online transactions rather than the listing and referral models that dominate.
With that background HomeAway CEO Brian Sharples took to the centre stage at PhoCusWright yesterday with his vision for the company and the vacation rental business. As a reminder HomeAway is the biggest of the vacation rental aggregators. They have raised more than $450mm in venture funding including a massive $250mm round in November 2008 - specifically targeted for acquisition spending.
Brian shared with us that they have been very active in spending that money having completed fourteen acquisitions 5 years. He made one of the most acquisition positive statements I have ever heard from an online travel CEO. "If you can't compete with it, buy it" was his rallying cry for growth through consolidation.
The potential for Vacation Rental online is substantial given the difference in the online percentage of sales for vacation rental compared to hotels. According to the recent PhoCusWright report on the industry called "Vacation Rental Marketplace: Poised for Challenge" in 2008 the total vacation rental market was about $25bb in the US and $100bb globally. But only 12% of the vacation rental market is online. PhoCusWright predict that the online market in the US will hit just $4.6bb in 2010 compared to online hotels being a $100bb plus market.
But as the report and Sharples both say, the biggest impediment to the industry is the challenge of securing inventory from property owners. To enable consumers to be able to secure instant confirmation bookings rather just kicking of an email conversation with the property owner. To enable the aggregators like HomeAway to generate merchant level margins by shifting from being a listing business to a merchant.
Sharples indicated that he is determined to get to the merchant model. Two of the fourteen companies bought by HomeAway are property management technology companies. Sharples will use these to supply property owners with the means (and rewards for) providing real time inventory. He is backing that up by "first time in three years increasing our tech budget as a percent of revenue" That is not surprising. The biggest player in the online vacation rental market should be working day and night on finding a solution.
What is surprising is how far away the industry is from the solution. Sharples believes that "it will take 5-7 years for vacation rental to be properly online" (instant confirmation). Dara Khosrowshahi (Expedia CEO) was similarly pessimistic about how long it would take. During his executive interview the next day Khosrowshahi said that instant confirmation vacation rental transactions were 3-5 years away.
It has been five years since the launch of HomeAway (crunchbase profile), seven-eight years since Cendant first started to put together a consolidation play of European vacation rental sites and 11 years after Expedia bought Vacationspot and Rent-a-holiday. Yet according to two of the best placed execs in the market we are still half a decade (or more) away from instant confirmation bookings at scale. Clearest evidence imaginable of how hard it is and will be to crack instant confirmation on the most distributed and fragment accommodation sector.