Three giant brands in online travel are attempting to capture some of the so-called pent-up demand for trips as lockdowns ease in some markets around the world.
Two of the trio - Expedia Group and Booking Holdings - are putting their faith in age-old performance marketing tactics that have served them well for over a decade, although the former is taking a slightly different approach.
Airbnb, for its part in what is now a hugely competitive landscape, is all about brand and in stark contrast to its peers.
As all three are publicly listed companies (Airbnb joined the fray with its IPO in December of last year), there are numbers and commentary available.
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Expedia Group, operator of the Vrbo brand, which competes directly with Airbnb, spent $664 million on sales and marketing in the first quarter of 2021 - a decrease of 45% year-over-year and representing 53% of overall revenue, according to its Q1 earnings report.
But the company has signaled a significant change in its approach to marketing, with a shift to brand messaging in an attempt to increase its brand "up the funnel."
This has coincided with pulling Vrbo from Google’s vacation rental metasearch product and other vacation rental meta players over the past quarter, producing what it claims are "excellent" results.
In particular, in April, Vrbo unveiled a campaign to target Airbnb Superhosts as part of its new “Fast Start” program. It is also rolling out an ad campaign called “Your Dream Guest Awaits” to illustrate the value of listing on the platform.
Booking Holdings (Booking.com) is arguably not taking the adventurous path with its marketing strategy, having done so well for many years with its finely tuned performance marketing algorithms.
In the first quarter of 2021, marketing expenses were $461 million, compared to $851 million in the same period of 2020, as per its Q1 earnings report.
But this comes at the same time as the company says it will continue to invest in efforts to strengthen its brand, citing the recent “Back to Travel” promotion in the U.S. as an example of the marketing methods it will use in the future.
These changes for both Booking Holdings and Expedia Group are perhaps in response to their noisy new neighbor on Wall Street.
Airbnb says its marketing expenses fell by 7% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2021 to $219 million (see the full earnings report here).
The company's strategy going forward, it says, is to increase brand marketing and "use the strength of our brand to attract more guests via direct or unpaid channels."
In February of this year, Airbnb launched its first large-scale marketing campaign in five years targeted to hosts. The campaign launched on TV and digital channels in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia and will be expanded to Italy and Spain in Q2.
According to Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky, speaking on the earnings call for its results last week, 90% of the brand's traffic is either unpaid or direct.
He added: "We take a very different approach to sales and marketing than our competition.
"PR, in addition to word of mouth, is the thing that built our brand over the last ten years. And because of that, Airbnb really is a noun and a verb used all over the world."
He claimed that Airbnb considers the role of marketing as "education" rather than "to buy customers."