The man who leads the world's most valuable travel company's M&A activity, Glenn Fogel, spoke at Travolution's sister publication Travel Weekly's Business Breakfast, Lee Hayhurst reports
Yesterday morning Travel Weekly hosted Priceline’s head of worldwide strategy Glenn Fogel at our latest Business Breakfast in Google’s new offices in central London.
It was not known at the time that the world’s most valuable travel company was poised to announce possibly the biggest ever deal in the online travel sector.
However, within hours of the event ending the announcement came through that Priceline had agreed a deal to buy price comparison site Kayak for $1.8 billion.
Although Fogel was not able to talk a great deal about future plans for Priceline during the one and a quarter hours he was on stage, he did give an insight into the firm’s merger and acquisition strategy.
Fogel leads Priceline’s M&A activity and was responsible for the deals which brought the UK-based Active Hotels and Dutch booking.com into the group, which came to form the booking.com we know today.
Fogel described the process of integrating Active Hotels and Booking back in 2004 when they were brought together under one brand as “very difficult”.
Interestingly this time with Kayak, Priceline is saying it does not intend to integrate technology platforms but run the business as a separate entity while sharing best practice and ideas where appropriate, a philosophy it has followed more recently following the buyout of Agoda and Travel Jigsaw.
Speaking about the Active Hotels and Booking acquisitions, Fogel told the Business Breakfast: “The key thing about putting that together was that the people really wanted it to happen.
“Every deal I have ever done I have made sure that the people running the business have an incredible incentive to make this work. The best way to ruin a business is to buy it and have the people running it leave.
“When we did the Active deal we left the management interest with those founding managers. Then we started talking about the Booking deal and they wanted to do it, so we all had the right way of looking at things.
“Putting them together was still an extremely difficult thing to do. It took more than a year.”
Fogel went on to explain what he, and therefore Priceline, looks for in a possible acquisition target.
“One thing you want to look for is someone doing something different because if you are doing what everyone else is doing you have not got much of a competitive advantage.
“Active and Booking were doing something different from Expedia or Lastminute. They were operating an agency model.
“What that meant was when a customer went on to a site to book a room in the merchant model their credit card was charged when they booked. The difference with the agency model is you pay the hotel when you stay at the hotel, also it was refundable.”
One of the key things Priceline bosses said Kayak will bring to the group is a more advanced approach to mobile.
And here Fogel revealed one of the more important aspects of the deal, saying the secret of success is firstly getting people to download your app and then to ensure they choose to use it.
So an established brand like Kayak puts the Priceline group in a stronger position to ensure it is the app of choice for travellers rather than trying to introduce a new brand into the market.
Priceline is also famously brilliant at online marketing, but this means it will be paying Google vast amounts to ensure it retains top visibility on the world’s dominant search engine.
Fogel said: “When you download the booking.com app and keep on going back we do not have to pay anyone anything, that’s direct to us and less expensive.
“Of course you are going to have to get people to download your app. So it’s a land grab. It’s good if you are already in that space – usually it’s better to be bigger.”
Priceline has set up Priceline Ventures – a vehicle to invest seed money in non-competing start-ups.
Fogel mentioned specifically when talking about this that it might want to invest in a company specialising in mobile, underlining how important a channel this is for the company.
In their investor call last night, Priceline bosses also talked about how the deal will see a potential for cross-pollination of ideas and expertise.
Talking about the purchase of car hire specialist Travel Jigsaw, Fogel said: “We went into the car hire business with a company that did car hire.
"We are not asking them to book flights. There are potential synergies. We believe we have a high level of knowledge in terms of certain things on the internet like customer acquisition and PPC. That knowledge can be transferred, perhaps to help teach people in the car hire business how to do things.
“We bought Agoda for $14 million and the guys from booking.com in Amsterdam went to Thailand and now it is one of the leading companies in their space.”
Fogel added one of the reasons US firms fail when they step outside of the US is an “arrogance” that they know best how things should be done.
So having played such a key role in building the world’s most valuable travel firm, was Fogel willing to explain the secret of his success?
Maybe a mixture of not wanting to reveal too much in public and humility prevented him from doing so. But he said this as he recalled the time in the early 2000s when Priceline was “bleeding money like a stuck pig”.
“There is no doubt most people thought Priceline had disappeared. We had stabilised the business just, but it was not growing very much. When we bought Active Hotels in 2004 we were profitable but not very much.
“It really was putting Active and Booking together that was the jet fuel, the rocket fuel, that really launched us.
“We never expected something like this, it’s just fantastic. Why did that happen? I do not really know. I can come up with lots of reasons. One of the things was execution – we really focused on the single things we were trying to do.”