Interview: Booking.com CEO Darren Huston

The relationship with OTAs and how Dubai is keeping the team busy

Previously with tech giant Microsoft and international coffee company Starbucks, Darren Huston became CEO of Booking.com in 2011, and has been CEO of parent company Priceline Group since 2014. The group’s websites include Booking.com, Priceline.com, Agoda.com, Kayak.com, Rentalcars.com and OpenTable.com.

The hospitality industry has often discussed the Booking.com vs OTA struggle, as well as brand.com vs Booking.com, but it’s also true that OTAs struggle to sign up hoteliers.

Huston says: “[Addressing the issue] between brand.com, and Booking.com — first of all, we always pride ourselves on being the cheapest way to do your marketing. If you ask any owner, or any hotel, why they’re all on Booking.com, when they can all leave tomorrow, the reason is, it’s the cheapest way to do paid marketing.”

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Huston is in Dubai to strengthen relationships and explore new venues, and he reveals that Priceline Group’s recent activity includes launching a new B2B booking vertical, Booking for Business, as well as restaurant booking site OpenTable.com.

“The amazing thing about Dubai is that it’s one of the most mobile cities in the world. In fact, for [Booking.com], we get a higher percentage of mobile bookings in Dubai than any big city in the world,” says Huston.

He continues: “I’d say Saudi Arabia is the other one that’s really advanced in terms of bookers. This part of the world is amazing. People are e-commerce enabled. They’re advanced, and they’re thinking about these things. Makkah is actually the most-searched-for destination in the world.

“The [Priceline Group’s] products should work here because people want to do stuff on their phones – more than just Facebook or making phone calls. They want to have more transactions on these devices. And that’s exciting for us.” In the UAE, Priceline’s property count increased by 25% this year, with smaller hotels in the region joining the big chains.

“For the [Priceline] group itself,” Huston continues, “90% of our business is done by international brands — of the Fortune 500, we’re one of the most international companies. Travel inherently is global, right? It’s an origin and a destination.

“The challenge we often have is more with the big chain hotels,” he admits. “The chain — the franchisor — is trying to provide value to its franchisees. It’s trying to express to them that: ‘Hey, we can bring you bookings, too’. There’s sometimes friction there.”

However, says Huston, the conflict is less than people think. “I think that anyone who really knows the industry knows it’s about getting a healthy balance [between brand.com bookings and OTA bookings].”

Huston continues: “Look, if you’re a hotel, you always want to have all your guests come direct. But there is a large segment of guests who will stay at your hotel and never, ever stay there again. They’re just transient leisure guests and they come from all over the world. The best way to get at them is through a platform like Booking.com.

“If I was running a hotel, I’d want as much demand as I could see, and then optimise it. Because even direct bookings aren’t free. You’ve got customer service. You’ve got maybe a points or a mileage programme. You’ve got all sorts of things you do on that side, too.”

Discussing the group’s new vertical, Booking for Business, Huston describes a platform tailored specifically for those making group booking for their company, and also suited to frequent business travellers. The venture started when Booking.com began reviewing how to enhance the experience for different categories of travellers.

“Driven by data and insights from travel organisers, as well as learning and feedback from the millions of business travellers we already serve every year, we decided to launch Booking for Business,” says Huston. Through the new booking tool, which has been live for around two months now, the company will aim to target SMEs, and Huston confirms that “thousands of companies across the world have already joined Booking for Business”.

The other big news for the Priceline Group CEO is the upcoming launch of restaurant reservations and review site OpenTable.com. Much more comprehensive than any similar site in the GCC, Open Table allows diners to read restaurant reviews from other diners, make restaurant reservations immediately and earn points towards free meals.

A statement from the group claims that the site seats 15 million diners per month worldwide. Just launched in Dubai, the plan is to roll it out to the rest of the Middle East in phases.

Speaking about the launch, Huston says: “It’s like I have a lot of energy for [Open Table] because I think it’s an amazing experience. “You don’t have to phone [reservations are instant and online] and you can check the availability of all the restaurants in the city for a certain seating time, by food type, with user reviews and everything all combined into one.”

Discussing possible competitors, Huston is confident that the site has no peers: “Even Zomato’s booking is on request. It’s like ‘you book, and we’ll tell you in an hour if you got a table’ — but they’re just phoning the restaurant.”

“Open Table is fully wired in so that all of the tables that are bookable online are inventoried on the site,” he enthuses.

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