Travel series part 6: Tripadvisor (TRIP) – Riding a dead horse ?
So this is part 6 of my little travel series. Previous posts were:
Tripadvisor is clearly one of the most well-known names in Online Travel. The company was founded in 2000, but was then acquired by Interactive Group in 2004 and rolled into Expedia. In 2011 the company then was spun out and listed separately. Similar to Expedia in true John Malone style, there are two entities listed: Tripadvisor and Liberty Tripadvisor.
A quick collection of Pro’s and Con’s
+ Founder still on board
+ financially sound, net cash
+ a certain competitive advantage (brand & reviews)
+ mostly organic growth in the past
+ no exposure to flights
+ good capital management (at least on paper)
- business model change risk
- profits declining for 5th year
- Google expenses / competition for reviews
- Trivago direct competitor for Hotel search seems to have better business model
- fake reviews, relevance of reviews declines etc
- Booking.com and Expedia account for large part of revenues (concentration)
As always, I start the analysis with what I think looks bad at Tripadvisor.
That not everything is great shows the chart:
Over the last 5 years, Tripadvisor has underperformed Expedia (blue) and Priceline (green) significantly.
Business model / Issues
Tripadvisor started out as the classic “review” site, collecting and organizing reviews for Hotels and Restaurants. Money was made in the past by advertising and/or generating “leads” for OTA (Expedia & Co).
This model worked quite well for some time. User creating content and then just monetizing it via ads can be good business. But then seem to have stalled at least for Tripadvisor. Revenues actually declined yoy in 2016 against 2015, profitability has been declining since the IPO in 2011. The net income margin has declined from ~28,6% in 2011 to around 8% in 2016.
This is a comparison of Tripadvisor 2016 against 2011:
|– cost of rev.||-10.9||-1.71%||-71||-4.80%||-3.09%|
|– selling & marketing||-209.2||-32.84%||-756||-51.08%||-18.24%|
|– technology & content||-57.5||-9.03%||-243||-16.42%||-7.39%|
|– service fee rel. party||-9.2||-1.44%||0.00%||1.44%|
|– spin off cost||-6.9||-1.08%||0.00%||1.08%|
|– total cost||-364.3||-57.19%||-1314||-88.78%||-31.59%|
|– interest inc/exp||-0.9||-0.14%||-15||-1.01%||-0.87%|
The most striking differences are that Tripadvisor needs to spend much more on advertising /marketing than 6 years ago and also the “technology & content” part has become relatively more expensive.
The “Mobile issue”:
Reading the 2016 annual report, Tripadvisor mentions among other issues the following with regard to mobile:
Consumer adoption and use of mobile devices creates new challenges and, if we are unable to operate effectively on mobile devices, our business may be adversely affected. The number of people who access the internet through mobile devices, such as mobile phones, has increased substantially in the last few years and we anticipate that the rate of use of these devices will continue to grow. The mobile market in general remains a rapidly evolving market. As new devices and platforms are released, users may begin consuming content in a manner that is more difficult to monetize. Advertising opportunities may be more limited on mobile devices. In addition, given the device sizes and technical limitations of these devices, mobile consumers may not be willing to download multiple apps from multiple companies providing similar service and instead prefer to use one or a limited number of apps for their hotel, restaurant and attractions activity
Even having an app does not do the trick for Tripadvisor according to this Bloomberg story:
Visitors to TripAdvisor’s mobile site or app become paying customers at about a third the rate that they do on desktop, Kaufer said on a conference call Wednesday.
Alphabet Inc.’s Google is also pressing into TripAdvisor’s territory, both in referral fees for hotel booking and in the core business of reviews. The internet giant unveiled a new app last year that helps travelers plan and navigate their trips, a space TripAdvisor says is core to its strategy as well.
I think mobile this is one major issue for the classical advertising business models. However, after looking at the competition I would personally see other principal issues with Tripadvisors business model:
- The advantage of own ratings has declined. Both, the OTA’s as well as Google have caught up in this area for hotels and might have already surpassed Tripadvisor with regard to quality of the ratings. Tripadvisor’s ratings are often subject to criticism. Personally, I prefer Booking.com ratings for hotels. For restaurants, in my experience the ratings are pretty ok.
- Compared to Trivago, which only aggregates ratings from OTAs, Tripadvisor’s approach costs more effort and money. Curating and maintaining the community doesn’t come cheap. Hotel & Restaurant ratings are perishable goods. A 5 year old rating for a hotel and especially a restaurant is worth very little, because things can change quickly. So you need to make sure that you get enough new ratings. I also think that younger people don’t write reviews on Tripadvisor any more. They will rather share some pictures etc. via Facebook and Snapchat instead of sitting down and typing a nice review on a computer. Personally, I don’t see a big “Moat” in Tripadvisor’s hotel ratings anymore. It is clearly still an asset but one that is perishable
- I think they didn’t realize how important the “meta search” functionality would be and therefore enabled Trivago to enter and dominate this market within a very short time. They seem to catch up to a certain extent but it is not clear if this is enough
- they also underestimated TV advertising. Looking at Trivago, TV still seems to be a powerful advertising channel
The instant booking feature (story).
Since around 2014, the company focused on doing the booking itself through what they call the “instant booking” feature. Here is an article from 2014 explaining the business model behind this. Interestingly former parent Expedia joined the platform later than the “400 pound gorilla” Priceline.
The story for the last 2-3 years was as follows: We need to spend money now, we will see lower revenues in our “traditional” business (pay-per-click), but in the mid- to long-term, revenues from booking will increase and we will make more money as this is better than pay-per-click (referrals).
However, according to the Bloomberg story mentioned above, this seems to have been mostly just a “story” so far:
TripAdvisor Inc. said it’s pulling back from a major strategic effort to get travelers to book hotels directly on its website after the initiative cut into revenue growth and sent the stock to its lowest price since 2012.
A massive online repository of hotel and restaurant reviews, TripAdvisor is “increasingly agnostic” about how its customers book their accommodations — whether through the site directly or via links to hotel booking sites — Adam Medros, senior vice president of product at TripAdvisor, said in an interview. The company has changed its website to make its “Instant Book” feature less prominent.
Slowing down on Instant Book just means the company is listening to its users, Chief Executive Officer Stephen Kaufer said on a conference call Wednesday.
“We believe Instant Book plays a role in that but not as big a role as we anticipated a couple years ago,” he said. “And that’s okay for us.”
That sounds good but personally I think they could have recognized this earlier. You shouldn’t roll out a feature aggressively to all your users and then decide it doesn’t work the way you thought it would work.
Theoretically, it sounds like a good idea to offer a single point of login (including credit card info etc.), but this only works if you really can ensure that customers can book the cheapest price. As far as I understand, this has been a problem so far as only certain offers could be booked directly.
It also blurs the line between them and their major customers which are the big OTAs. Being a Meta-OTA is much more dangerous for Expedia & Co than being a specialized search engine.
Why does Trivago grow so rapidly then ?
When mobile is such an issue then the question remains: Why is Trivago growing so quickly ?
In Q1 2017, Tripadvisor’s Hotel revenue grew by +4% (vs. Q1 2016), whereas Trivago could increase revenues by +68% and is expecting a 50% revenue increase for total 2017.
Although they do not full disclose how the graph is compiled, Trivago shows the following graph in their IR presentation:
How do those guys achieve this ? In my opinion the answer is quite simple: they just outspend everyone else on traditional advertising channels. Those are the Q1 numbers, comparing Tripadvisor and Trivago:
|– cost of rev.||-17||-4,5%||-1,1||-0,4%||4,1%|
|– selling & marketing||-207||-54,9%||-231,5||-86,5%||-31,6%|
|– technolgy & content||-59||-15,6%||-11,7||-4,4%||11,3%|
|– total cost||-345||-91,5%||-255,2||-95,4%||-3,9%|
Although Trivago is only around 2/3 in sales compared to Tripadvisor, they are already outspending Tripadvisor with regard to marketing and selling. According to Trivago, 95% of their selling & marketing” is actually plain advertising:
Advertising expense (which made up 95% of total selling and marketing expense) was driven by higher advertising spend across all regions with €86.6 million, €81.8 million and €50.5 million in Americas, Developed Europe and RoW, respectively, compared to €50.0 million, €58.0 million and €24.2 million, respectively, in the first quarter of 2016.
If we look at Tripadvisor’s annual report 2016, only (554/756)= 73% of selling & marketing are direct expenses, the rest represent salaries of own employees, Adjusted for this, Trivago’s advertising spend in Q1 was 219,5 mn USD vs. (0,73*207)~152 mn USD for Tripadvisor.
Also Trivago’s other expenses look a lot slimmer than Tripadvisor’s. Maybe the former good years have put a lot of “fat” onto Tripadvisor’s organization.
Overall, in comparison, Trivago’s business model looks more streamlined than Tripadvisor in its current form.
The question is clearly if Tripadvisor is “riding a dead horse” with relying on its ratings and content. For the moment, the much slimmer Trivago approach looks more succesful, but in online travel things can change very quickly.
As the post got quite long, I will follow-up on the positive side with another post very soon……