By Mary Alice Kellogg
Are we deluged with television ads for hotel booking sites? We are. Are we confused as to which give the best prices and customer service? It goes without saying. Can we trust the hotel reviews on the sites? Caveat emptor, say savvy travelers.
Recently this reporter was given unlimited access to the world’s largest hotel booking site, the one until this year nobody in the U.S. had heard of. Which seems odd, since Booking.com books 1 million guests a day worldwide, with a total of 3 billion bookings in 2012 (up from 1 billion in 2010).
Founded in Amsterdam in 1996, Booking has 102 offices worldwide, with customer service by e-mail and phone in 41 languages 365/24/7, offering 317K+ lodgings in hotels (chain and independent), B&Bs, apartments, hostels and villas – 25 categories in all — in 183 countries. Even igloos … in season. Oh: it also won the JDPowers best travel site in America award last year. So why don’t you know about it?
You’re starting to. In February 2013 Booking decided to advertise in the U.S., which happens to be its largest global market, with a series of whimsical television spots. “For years we’ve been the elephant behind the tree, a global success story but with little brand recognition in the states,” says Booking’s CEO Darren Huston, who came aboard 21 months ago after executive stints with Starbucks and Microsoft, “If you’re not on TV in the U.S. it’s not real.”
It took some gentle convincing and hard demographic evidence for Huston and Marketing Officer Paul Hennessy – both Americans – to counter a cornerstone of Dutch corporate culture: don’t toot your own horn and let the results do the talking. This low-key approach made Booking a global leader, but also created confusion in the U.S. because, well, Booking wasn’t on TV. Even though the U.S. is Booking’s largest market, it had no media presence, no brand awareness. “I had never heard of Booking.com when I was asked to be CEO,” says Huston, “I said it can’t be that big.”
It was. And is.
While U.S. awareness is beginning to change, what hasn’t been changed are the elements that made Booking the world’s largest site in the first place. Part of the Dutch corporate culture includes keeping everything internal with no outsourcing and letting the product speak for itself. Inside the company’s headquarters, two state-of-the-art contemporary buildings on one of Amsterdam’s most picturesque and upscale canals, employees from more than 100 countries work in sleek, light-filled offices – all with postcard views of the city. Energy and enterprise are palpable, much like stepping off the plane in Hong Kong and being plugged into the electric grid.
Particularly so in the Customer Service offices. To stroll through the main call center in Amsterdam them is to hear 22 languages being spoken at once, a present-day Tower of Babel as reps pace with headsets on conversing with and solving problems of customers at the end of the line. And, as this reporter heard firsthand, there are no corporate scripts. Each customer service rep is empowered to make far-reaching decisions, from contacting an individual hotel’s management directly to switching a client’s hotel – including paying for the taxi to get to that new hotel.
There is no outsourcing of call centers; the only time you’ll get someone in Bangalore is if you are from India and call Booking to solve a problem in your own language. Every Booking call bank worldwide is in-house, with employees fluent in 41 written languages (on the website) and 22 by phone. In all, the company employs 3000 native language speakers worldwide. This is key as said employees are well-versed in their country’s customs, and the ins/outs of getting things done (Americans want problems solved yesterday, Japanese clients like to spend five minutes or so of establishing contact before getting to the problem at hand, etc.). On an average week Customer Service fields 2.4 million calls, 94% of them reservation-related. The result is a 90.2% customer satisfaction rate, something that caught J.D. Power’s attention last year.
A potentially thorny issue for all hotel booking sites is the price quote. Booking is alone among sites in the U.S. to include all taxes/extras in its quote. Only a few countries – Holland, Germany, Australia – have laws requiring internet sites to include all fees, much like airline sites. The rest of the world doesn’t, hence the disparity in pricing. A recent New York Times piece about booking sites had Booking coming in highest for a particular hotel … but also mentioned that on arrival there was a whopping 36Euro surcharge per night, which hadn’t been in the price quote on the site the reporter booked. Booking CEO Huston is in the vanguard of wanting all extras to be included on sites globally so the consumer playing field is leveled.
Having 130,000 new properties added to its reservation base every year only adds to the challenges of another key consumer hotel website issue: customer reviews and client trust. How do we know that rave review wasn’t written by the hotel’s PR rep, the B&B’s journalism student nephew? Conversely, were those negative comments possibly written by a competitor? Such questions have hounded booking sites since their inception, as any tech-savvy consumer knows that comment factories can be bought in bulk for pennies. Booking tackles this problem by insisting that someone can only do a review if they have actually booked with the company and stayed at the hotel. More than 100,000 reviews are submitted globally every day, and Booking’s special Fraud Team verifies every one. All reviews are posted – good and bad – and none are older than 14 months. Past reviews, 21 million in all, are archived. The average hotel has around 65 posted reviews, all fresh, all user-driven.
CEO Darren Huston says his goal is “To paint the world blue,” the company’s signature color. Ironically, Booking.com already has. By doing things its own way, thank you very much.
Mary Alice Kellogg, a New York-based writer and editor, is a recipient of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for Consumer Reporting. A contributor to many national publications, including Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Bon Appetit and GQ, she has reported from 120 countries and five of the seven seas to date… and counting.Visit MaryAlicekellogg.com