It's been another busy - and, indeed, buzzy - year for the online travel sector.
There have been massive investment rounds going into numerous businesses, illustrating that the financial community still sees huge opportunity to be had in the industry.
The status quo at the top of the sector has inevitably changed very little, but there are always developments that give hope to those who feel that challenges should and could be made to alter the ecosystem.
PhocusWire's annual list of the newsmakers over the course of the last 12 months (for reference, here is our 2018 list) features three of the brands that have had the most impact on the news agenda.
Each has, in our opinion, captured the most attention across the whole industry, not just their own sector.
In reverse order...
Third place - Google
"Ugh, Google again!"
We make no apology. Here's why... The words "Super App" had barely entered the common vernacular amongst travel executives during 2018, perhaps only when describing brands in Asia such as Alibaba.
But as 2019 comes to a close, Google and the word used to describe an array of services under one umbrella are now regularly mentioned in the same sentence.
The Google jigsaw for travel has been coming together for over a decade, including the addition of flights, hotels and inspiration (Explore) elements of its travel products into a single point during 2018, giving users the ability to click between searching for products without having to re-enter dates and destinations.
This year, some estimates say that there have been at least 10 strategic initiatives or the introduction of new services in the Google ecosystem for travel.
In isolation, they are sometimes considered minor moves. In total, however, they are an illustration of the power that Google now wields over large parts of the planning, shopping and booking process for travelers.
This considerable influence and its strategy to contain as much of a traveler's touch points with services in one place will continue, there is no doubt about it.
Perhaps for the first time, Google's power is finally getting called out in detail in the earnings reports of some of the biggest brands in the sector. The industry is watching, but it is yet to make a substantial (read: financial) move to perhaps hinder Google's progress.
Second place - Expedia Group
The events of just the past week would likely be enough to put Expedia Group on our list of newsmakers of the year: After all, it’s not every day the CEO of one of the biggest travel companies in the world is forced to resign, and not due to any apparent scandal - he simply missed the mark.
Okerstrom, who took over the reins of Expedia Group from now-Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in August 2017, had a vision of a company whose brands worked with - not against - each other, powered by unified technology.
This was a message he spoke of often and with certainty over the past year, and one his executives echoed - the ideas of “breaking down siloes” and “frictionless travel” were referenced ad nauseum at Expedia Group’s massive Explore event in Las Vegas last month.
While this was going on internally, Okerstrom also had to reckon with Google - and his shareholders - when he blamed the search giant’s actions to weaken SEO efficiency for Expedia Group’s disappointing results in the third quarter of 2019.
Ultimately, Expedia Group chairman Barry Diller wasn’t having it. So much so he stated publicly that senior management and the board “disagreed on strategy” and Okerstrom’s reorganization efforts “resulted in a material loss of focus on our current operations.” (In Diller’s statement, he also announced the resignation of CFO Alan Pickerill.)
Despite this, Diller said he believes the company “can accelerate growth in 2020.” How this is accomplished remains to be seen, but Expedia Group made a number of notable moves over the past year it would certainly like to see contribute to longevity.
In March, Expedia Group debuted a massive rebrand in its vacation rental division, with Vrbo getting a new logo and style/pronunciation and HomeAway taking a back seat.
Vrbo’s vice president of global brand marketing, Lish Kennedy, told PhocusWire that while HomeAway isn’t fully going away, no marketing investment will be going into the brand as the energy turns toward Vrbo.
Expedia also signed a deal with Marriott International, which was announced in September and went into effect in October, that gives the online travel agency exclusive distribution rights to the hotel chain’s wholesale room rates.
The move is an interesting twist on the longstanding “frenemy” relationship between hotels and OTAs, and executives say expanding the deal to more brands isn’t out of the question, so long as rates are exclusive to Expedia.
Expedia Group - and, it should be noted, Okerstrom - also made a major push around diversity and inclusion in 2019, with the company signing and championing a travel subdivision in the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion pledge. (Northstar Travel Group, parent company of PhocusWire and Phocuswright, is also a signatory of the initiative.)
While it’s easy to see how the stock market impacts the makeup of a public organization, there’s much to be done from inside an organization itself. Expedia Group has recognized - and invested in - this, and as it enters its next chapter, hopefully it remains a priority.
Expedia Group doesn't end the year in disarray but it certainly has a lot of thinking to do (and a new leader to find) as it enters a new decade.
* Watch Okerstrom's interview in the PhocusWire Studio at The Phocuswright Conference last month (it may turn out to have been his last official one with the media before his sudden departure).
Expedia's Mark Okerstrom on SEO, capital and diversity (PhocusWire @ Phocuswright Conference 2019)
Newsmaker of the year - OYO Hotels & Homes
OYO has, during the course of 2019, turned into a brand that completely polarizes opinion in the industry, like so many newsmakers often do.
On the one hand, it attracts admirers for the blisteringly fast strategy that has been implemented to become a global player that encompasses both traditional hotel accommodation and that of the private kind that its peers elsewhere in the industry have been busily figuring out for years.
With each new round of investment (it emerged earlier this year that its mega round of $1 billion in September 2018 had participation from Airbnb) comes a brave and ambitious plan to conquer something else.
At PhocusWire we lost count of the almost weekly releases in the first half of this year about a "new focus" for the company on Country X or Country Y.
Significantly, entries into the Western hemisphere (Europe and the U.S.) have caught the attention of other accommodation providers in the sector, not least as OYO claims to be moving up the ladder to become of the largest hospitality brands in the world.
Perhaps its most important corporate development took place in May, when it flexed its acquisition muscles in a major way and bought @Leisure Group in a €360 million deal.
The importance of the addition of private accommodation to its arsenal of interests, right in the heart of Europe, cannot be underestimated and, again, has put new competitors in the industry on alert.
But for all its speed and ambivalence towards how things are usually done elsewhere in the industry (slow, measured, etc.), OYO remains an enigma of a brand, led by its rather enigmatic CEO Ritesh Agarwal.
There are many in the industry that are both openly and privately questioning the OYO model and its chances of success.
At a product level, quality is often cited as being substandard or inferior to what else is available in the market. The reality here is that the truth is in the eye of the beholder.
Where it gets trickier to decipher is in the business model for property owners - some critics believe the terms are not sustainable for those managers, and the company's relentless strategy to attract as many new units as possible cannot continue without some major hurdles along the way.
But perhaps most crucially to the OYO story are questions around its funding and, in particular, the investment house funding it: SoftBank.
The collapse of office-sharing business WeWork's IPO during the summer directed an extremely focused light on the role of investors such as SoftBank and its portfolio of businesses that many believe are not made on firm foundations.
There is nothing to suggest at all that OYO will suffer the same fate as WeWork, but the shared investor and similar model has put many in the industry on notice.
Still, as one CEO of a major travel brand said recently: "If something happens there in the future, one upside is that thousands of now-independent hotels will have lovely new paintwork and facilities."
* Watch Agarwal's presentation and interview on Center Stage at The Phocuswright Conference 2019.
Keynote: OYO Hotels & Homes - The Phocuswright Conference