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26, Dec 2011

Johan Svanstrom Reveals Hotels.com’s plans in Asia Pacific

Johan Svanstrom

Hotels.com is the hotel booking arm of Expedia that have had a presence in Asia for about nine years. The company believes that local accessibility, customization and local knowledge will capture greater market share and build the trust. In short, “familiar local look-and-feel”, comfortable online reservations and local language call center support are the key points to their success.

With almost 40 percent of the world internet users being in Asia-Pacific countries and 70 percent of them have social media network accounts, Hotels.com uses social networking sites to differentiate themselves on attributes beyond pricing. Those sites play crucial part in before, during and after the trip process. They were amongst one of the first travel websites in the world to implement Facebook social plug-in on its pages as one their strategy of seamless integration with the largest social networking site which is expected to hit one billion members mid next year, according to SocialBakers.

They now offer the choice of over 140,000 hotels, both chain and boutique, in more than 60 countries worldwide. More than 2.5 million guest reviews are available to help the travelers finding the best deals on their preferred destination. A 24 hour phone support is provided. Price Match Guarantee, a program where wherever and whenever the consumers finds a lower hotel deal on another site, at any time, right up to the hotel’s cancellation window, the difference will be refunded, is one of their promises.

In one of ZDNetAsia articles, Forrester’s analyst, Henry Harteveldt says “Our research shows that 84 percent of travelers in countries where English is native prefer to have Web sites written in their local language. Booking processes, availability of fares and hotel rates also have to be tweaked to suit local consumer habits.” To assure this, Hotels.com have set up a multilingual call center, reliable backend payment system, and human resources (to oversee each local site). “We have a backend structure and customer management system, along with a modularized frontend, that allow us to quickly set up in a new local market,” said Marketing Director of Expedia for Asia Pacific, Abhiram Chowdhry.

We interviewed Johan Svanstrom, Managing Director Hotels.com of Expedia for Asia Pacific, based in Hong Kong, to know more about their target, program, accessibilities, and perspectives on travel market in Asia Pacific.

How important is Asia Pacific for Hotels.com nowadays in terms of market size and growth?

Asia is very important for everyone and for Hotels.com too. They are the third largest continent in the world after Europe and Latin America. In the last two years, they are the fastest growing region in our global portfolio. Japan and Australia still lead the share of wallet and market growth while China and India are our fastest growing market in the region.

We have read that consumers are given a site with “familiar local look-and-feel” and call center support with local language capabilities in order to transact online comfortably. How many localized site and call centre have been set up to accommodate Asian consumers?

Until present we have fifteen web sites with ten languages set up to outreach local markets. Ten call centers have been established thus far in six cities: Melbourne, Sydney, Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi, Manila and Beijing to deliver better customer experience especially when doing the online transaction. Both serve our millions of members.

Customer can book through hotels.com via six channels: web, phone, ‘HotelsWithMe‘, iPad, iPhone and Android apps. What are the use percentage for each channel and which one is mostly widely use?

Majority of our customers rely heavily on our website. iPhone is the fastest growing device while most of our customers are shifting to use Android device to do the reservation. In addition to that, we have different applications for iPad and iPhone. Frankly speaking, we are bleeding when developing BlackBerry app. It’s pretty imminent and our plan is to launch it at the end of December. Another apps in the pipeline is for Meego platform, targeted to launch this month and Windows Phone 7 on January next year.

How was the response of the recently launched latest Facebook app, ‘HotelsWithMe’ in Asia Pacific? Does the correlation between site and social media now expand to more than just “developing”?

It’s pretty attractive. Asian continent is the second largest Facebook users. As we aware Asians are crazy with, not just love the social media. Statistics estimated that three out of four Asian consumers are social networks active users. The app and ‘HotelsWithMe’ are presented to generate and maintain the awareness in our customers mind shares. Facebook is our main channel whereby we can share deals, offer recommendations and interact intimately with our customers. We are certainly seeing traffic directed to our website from social media sites.

Social media sites have marked their important roles in the pre-trip, during and as well as post-trip period. Users post comments, reviews, ‘like’ status that will influence other travelers’ decisions. These are the features been integrated into our web site, and it’s in our Facebook app.

It doesn’t mean that if they have downloaded and used the app, automatically they will do the reservation with us. We need to drill down to know how they are involved whether they just simply observe or actively engage in the conversations. We are trying to turn it into revenue-generating conversations. The challenges are with those countries who have limited number of Facebook users such as China, Japan and Korea since their local social networking sites are also dominant.

Hotels.com has a loyalty program, Welcome Rewards, which started three years ago and have 65.000 hotels participated. How is it going and consumers’ response?

We received good response from our customers. They are happy and we received plenty of positive feedback about it. With the program that now tied up with more than 70,000 hotels, we know our customers better such as but not limited to which program elements they like at the most, which and what types of loyalty program they prefer. Our main target is people who travel frequently especially those who already enjoy benefits from our services.

As we can read from the website, there is a lot of useful information such as hotel facilities, rates, infrastructures and availability. How does hotels.com maintain its accuracy and validity?

We receive thousands of reviews per day. To be able to generate it, we have 500 dedicated personnel to do the reviews as well as we rely on our customers’ review. A template is provided to our customer so they can easily fill-in when writing the review and this is also to make sure we receive the key points and messages. We have great numbers of curators to localize by doing the translation and edit the reviews in terms of the wording. Both feedback, positive or negative, complaint, concern, compliment and the substance are remains unchanged. At the end, the objective is to have more accurate reviews. Accurate content is “King”.

What are Hotels.com target countries in Asia Pacific?

We keep our big eyes on Japan, Australia, Hongkong, Singapore, South Korea, India and China since these countries are our biggest market. Of course, the market characteristics are unique. The booking window is extremely short while it’s dominated by light travelers. 90 precent of Singapore hotels are always occupied and travel agents in China allow customers to make bookings over the phone, after which an agency rep will collect the payment are few examples.

From the great number of programs Hotels.com has launched, which one attracted Asian consumers the most or enjoyed the most frenzied response?

The first one is Marketing program called “Flash Deal”. This is a big discount 30 – 50 percent off in six until eight hotels in a destination. Usually it lasts for 72 hours from Tuesday to Thursday. We have done it for those who want to travel to Bali. Second, we have a social concept to those who want to travel along with their friends. For example, they form a group of 15 people then they can occupy special hotels at special rates.

Will there be any new program, partners or features launch in the near future, let’s say, until end of this year?

Our marketing and campaign department have already prepared a program for Chinese New Year which will be took place in January next year. We are tying up with Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore and American Express in Australia to give their card holders special discount if they do the reservation with us.

Last but not least, how does Hotels.com see the Indonesia market, including Indonesian consumers and hotels?

The market is really promising. The economy is growing rapidly, plenty of local carriers, high numbers of inbound and outbound traffic. Indonesia should make development and improvement their infrastructure and transportation method especially mass/public transport as top priority compared to promote and advertise their destination sites. We have heard great news that Lombok have its’ own international airport, Lombok International Airport. The government should play a vital role to make this things happened.

Goutama Bachtiar

Goutama Bachtiar

Goutama is a Technologist, Consultant, Trainer, Writer & Courseware Developer mostly in enterprise space. Having written for a number of other outlets on technology and business, he is fascinated with Tech Investment and Social Tech. The e27 Senior Contributing Writer based in Jakarta counts travel, culture, culinary, coffee and soccer among his myriad interests.

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