Early-September in Beijing, a Christmas jingle is playing in the lobby lounge of the GeHua New Century Hotel.
Glenn Fogel, executive vice president of corporate development of Priceline, is here for coffee.
We look at each other and laugh at the surreality of it. It’s what I love about travel – moments like this that make you chuckle and store away in the hard disk that’s your brain.
I take out my iPad to take notes. “Have you tried Evernote?” Fogel asks, before going on about how great it is.
Fogel has an almost evangelical air about him when he speaks about something he is passionate about.
But equally, he’s highly cautious when speaking about matters related to Priceline because it’s publicly traded.
“Do you make it a point to keep up with everything new on the web?” I ask.
“It’s hard to do that, there’s so much stuff, a flood of information coming down. Can you imagine our customers also managing that information?”
So how important is it to be at the leading edge doing what you do?
“I call it bleeding edge. We stay away from that. We are rarely the first to anything. There’s a great cartoon of the American West a long time ago – a man face down in the dust with an arrow in his back. He was the first mover. We look at what we think are the best opportunities for us.”
“There was a time in the industry when everyone said dynamic packaging was the way to go. We discussed that but we didn’t invest a lot of time in it – we stuck to hotels. It’s good to stick to your knitting.
“People talk about the fox and the hedgehog – the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one thing. We know one thing – hotels – and that’s not changing in the foreseeable future.”
It’s an obsession that has obviously worked. Priceline sold almost 80 million room nights for the four quarters that ended in June 2010, and has a market capitalization of US$15 billion.
For Fogel, price is paramount, then comes content, speed and ease of use.
“Price is everything from beginning to end.”
And while others may talk about how search is going beyond price to information and how social networks will change the way people search, Fogel says: “After they decide where to do and where to stay, they look for the cheapest price, right?”
Ask Fogel about Priceline’s plans for the Asia region though and you literally feel his spine bristle and he curls into a ball like a hedgehog.
“Never talk about what you’re going to do next,” he says.
So I move the conversation back to more comfortable territory. What is he proudest of?
“There was a time when people said Priceline was going to disappear, it was going to be a dot-bomb. Today we are the leader and I am proud of the people that we have, to have achieved what they’ve done.
“What we did correctly was to let local people decide what is the best thing to do and not bring or have an American-centric viewpoint and push it downwards. We have seen the failures when a headquarters of anything tries to dominate a local organization thousands of kilometers away.”
Thus, for him, identifying the teams rather than the business models is often more important.
“We met with many, many companies but the reason we acquired what we did was for the people.”
Getting to know people versus just looking at the numbers may be a longer process but, as Fogel says: “Love at first sight happens but I think chances are a longer engagement ends up as the more successful marriage.”
With Booking.com, he knew the team less than a year before acquisition. “That’s shorter than usual for us.”
With Agoda, it took a longer courtship. He bought the Thailand-based company at the end of 2007 but he met the team leadership in 2002-2003.
“The company was in an earlier stage and we weren’t ready,” he says.
Of all his acquisitions, including Active Hotels and car rental firm, Travel Jigsaw, which one has paid off the best?
Fogel tells a story.
“When Dr Henry Kissinger first met Premier Chou En Lai, and knowing the Chinese head of state was a great scholar of French history, he asked the question: what do you think of the impact of the French Revolution on the world? The premier’s answer was, too soon to know.”
When evaluating teams or individuals, Fogel says the questions he asks are, has the person achieved things in the past and has he executed well? Past successes, he says, are the best evidence of how someone will act in the future.
How about people who’ve had failures – do we write them off?
“There have been instances of people who’ve previously failed but went on to succeed, like Abraham Lincoln,” he says. “But it’s a longer shot than someone who’s got a track record of success.”
Have you made any mistakes?
“Many,” he says. “One of the good things about failures and mistakes is you do learn from them.
And, finally, he quotes George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”