Among the three U.S.-based public company online travel agencies -- Expedia, Priceline and Orbitz Worldwide -- Jake Fuller sees Expedia and Orbitz closing the gap a bit on a global basis with "outperformer" Priceline in 2010.
Fuller, PhoCusWright's senior research analyst, finance and analytics, says Expedia, Orbitz and presumably privately held Travelocity, will move toward leveling the playing field in the U.S. this year while Priceline will continue to gain share internationally.
One thing driving the tilt toward relative parity in the U.S. is that Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity eliminated airline booking fees in 2009, eliminating Priceline's first-mover, no-fee advantage. Priceline retired its air-booking fees in 2007.
As a group, the Big Four OTAs have been picking up market share in the U.S., with their share of domestic online bookings increasing from 36% in 2008 to 38% in 2009. [Their share of OTA bookings in the U.S. climbed from 94% in 2008 to 97% in 2009, Fuller says.]
In Europe, Expedia, OWW, Travelocity and Priceline had about a 67% market share in 2009, and Fuller predicts that -- based on their marketing power and critical mass -- that share will rise in 2010.
After all, he argues, there is little differentiation among them -- they are all selling the same airline tickets -- so marketing dollars will rule the day.
Fuller was addressing OTA and other issues today in a webinar, "PhoCusWright’s Travel and Finance Outlook 2010."
With Travelport's decision to pull it's IPO, Fuller believes it will be very difficult to go ahead with other GDS IPOs [ i.e. from contenders Sabre and Amadeus] in 2010, and this makes OTA consolidation less likely.
Fuller had earlier argued that GDSs Travelport and Sabre might divest their stakes in OWW and Travelocity, respectively, if the privately held GDSs transformed themselves into stock symbols.
For example, there is less of chance that OWW is for sale today than there was when a Travelport IPO was in the cards, Fuller says.
One reason for Fuller's bearishness on GDS IPO prospects is that he says the markets usually look one year ahead and what they see staring at them is airline-GDS contract negotiations in 2011.
And, uncertainty doesn't inspire IPO confidence.
Fuller estimates that with their fee cuts, the OTAs likely earn less than $10 per airline ticket today, and that after the 2011 negotiations, the airlines probably will pay less to the GDSs, who will squeeze travel agencies -- the OTAs included -- a bit more.
There will likely will still be merger and acquistion activity by OTAs in 2010, but Fuller doesn't look for them to be buying one another in a consolidation wave.
Instead, he believes Expedia might be expected to add to its media portfolio while Priceline will look for hotel-inventory and geographic deals rather than seeking out big brands to scoop up.
"That's not their style," Fuller says, referring to Priceline.
In recent years, metasearch engines have become less of a competitor to OTAs and more of a traffic source, and Fuller sees the OTAs -- given the ever-increasing pressure on their airline-ticket compensation -- experimenting more with their own metasearch or search products, as TripAdvisor has done with Flights and OWW has done with several websites, including its Away.com.
If the OTAs become a casualty of the airline-GDS negotiations, metasearch will "make more sense to them [the OTAs]," Fuller says.