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‘We’re seeing plenty of signs of demand:’ Expedia CEO on travel demand amid pandemic

Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous and Melody Hahm discuss travel outlook with Peter Kern, Expedia CEO.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Well, while the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has brought hope for our health and for our economy, it is still a long road to recovery for the battered down travel industry. The travel website Expedia reported a 67% drop in revenue, marking the fourth consecutive year over year decline. Gross bookings were also down 67% compared with a year earlier. But there are signs of a rebound on the horizon.

Joining me now is Expedia's CEO, Peter Kern. We're also joined by Yahoo Finance's Melody Hahm. Peter, good to see you. Before 2020, the year of the pandemic, Expedia had gone, I think it was eight years, without a decline in revenue. So let's talk about the future for a moment, at least in the short term. Are you seeing some signs of recovery?

PETER KERN: Yeah, I think, as we said yesterday on our earnings, Alexis, we are seeing some signs of improvement in the first month of the year. It started around the holidays. And we've been slowly modestly improving from there. January was better than December.

And I think that's not really an everywhere story. It's kind of a story of waiting. And there are some countries like the US that are stronger, where people are moving around more. There are areas in Asia as well. And then there are places like Europe, where things are still fairly locked down.

So it's really where people are feeling more confident about travel, where people are allowed to travel. We're certainly seeing plenty of signs of demand. It's just a question of consumer confidence and risk tolerance and what governments are allowing people to do.

MELODY HAHM: You know--

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Melody.

MELODY HAHM: --it's not an exaggeration, I think, to say that you were tasked with a turnaround. And that was April of 2020, a month into the lockdown and shelter in place for a lot of states. When you think about how you have been able to manage the last nearly a year, how would you assess your own performance? Do you feel as though, given the parameters and the limitations of the pandemic, you've been able to invest in the right areas?

PETER KERN: Well, I'm one of those people who's probably never happy with his own performance. I can always do better. And we as a company can always go faster and get more done. But I think we've done a lot of really important work to stabilize the business, to raise capital, to make sure all our customers were taken care of. We've shrunk the size of our company. We felt like there was opportunity to be more efficient. So we've done that.

And then we've reinvested an enormous amount of energy in rebuilding all our technology, our products for customers, making sure our relationships with suppliers were good, and that we were helping them as best we could to weather the pandemic. So I think we've done a fairly good job. You know, I'd like to see the pandemic end. I'd like to see us come roaring out of this. I know we will be much stronger. But we can't control that, so we've been focused on the things we could control. And I think on that score, you know, I'd give us good marks.

MELODY HAHM: You know, Peter--

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Probably not bad--

MELODY HAHM: --when you look at your portfolio--

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Go ahead. Go ahead, Melody.

MELODY HAHM: Just to follow on that, when you look at your portfolio of brands ranging from, of course, Expedia.com, Orbitz, Hotwire, hotels.com, and of course, Vrbo, which is Airbnb's competitor, a lot of it is geared toward the leisure traveler, right? You're looking at individuals, couples, families, who are looking to get back up in the vacation booking side of things. What do you make of the business traveler? Do you think he or she will ever return in the way that we did see in the past? I'm curious your thoughts there.

PETER KERN: You know, I would say I'm reasonably optimistic. I think everybody thinks business will be-- take longer to come back. And I think that's probably rational. And I think it may not be back to quite 100% fighting weight, you know, in a year or so. I think we all believe leisure will be back sooner. There's a lot of pent-up demand in leisure. We're all-- I'm sure both of you and myself, we'd all love to be able to travel again. So I think that will come roaring back, relatively speaking.

But I think corporate will be back. And business travel, you know, we do have some in those brands. We have brands that are very well equipped to serve the frequent small business traveler. And clearly, there has been continuing business travel if you look at things like trucking and other things that have kept going, as we've had to supply the country and other countries with everything they need.

So there is an element of business travel that's still taking place. And some of those hotel companies that cater to that have done better than others. But I think it will take some time for corporate to come back. But I'm a believer that ultimately, corporate travel will still be a great necessity. And there is plenty of opportunity in that space.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Peter, I know that Expedia does not break out Vrbo's earnings. That's the home rental company. But I understand that was a bright spot last quarter. What are things looking like there? And is that the area of your company that's sort of growing the most right now?

PETER KERN: Yeah, well, I would say it would probably be just about the only part of our company that's growing. You know, growing in travel in this environment is pretty tough to do. And actually, Vrbo has been quite strong. We've grown share in all of our strongest markets. And obviously, it's because it's a use case that people really like. You know, families are trying to get away. People are trying to get away. They want to be in an enclosed space that they can control. So it's been a very attractive model for a lot of people. And it's been well used.

And as we look ahead to this year, it's clear that booking trends for the summer and further out are very strong in the home rental business. But we cover everything. And I think, like most travel companies, there's some bright spots, and there are some tough spots. We're also the biggest in international travel and big city travel. And those are obviously hard hit.

So it's a balance of good and bad. And we're happy to have the good. And Vrbo's been doing great. And we've been leaning into that, spending more on marketing than we ever have on the brand and driving that business. But I think it's likely that everything rebalances as we come out and more people are traveling again.

MELODY HAHM: Peter, the Vrbo story in particular fascinates me. Because, you know, you folded HomeAway into the Vrbo business. And Vrbo was actually founded in 1995, right, and acquired-- was acquired by HomeAway in 2006, both of which predate Airbnb, right? The he who shall not be named during this conversation.

How do you think about really bolstering your business? I know you mentioned additional marketing spend and being able to really make it accessible and a go-to household name. But going forward, do you anticipate a spinoff? How do we really extract the value out of Vrbo here?

PETER KERN: Yeah, so we're not planning to spin it off or do anything to try to isolate the value. We believe the long-term value for us as a company with Vrbo and with alternative accommodations generally is to just make it another weapon in our arsenal of being the everything online travel company. And that's what we want to be. We certainly can and are pushing into the Vrbo brand.

We're actually in some geographies across the world, we have stronger local brands that HomeAway purchased along the way that are more powerful than Vrbo. So we're leaning into those brands in those countries. And that's been quite effective for us as well.

But longer term, to your question, I think the opportunity for us is twofold. In addition to driving the brands themselves, is we want to push you into allowing people to purchase and easily book alternative accommodations, the Vrbo supply, on all our OTAs, so on Expedia, on hotels.com, et cetera, which can be done now, but in a limited way. And we really want to make that a robust business. It not only gives a different consumer base access to it, but it also allows us in countries where Vrbo doesn't have a strong brand to push in with our stronger brands, which might be Expedia or hotels.com or other names.

And then the second part is we have a quite strong B2B business, where we power other online travel agents. We power rewards programs, airline travel programs, et cetera, even offline travel agents. And we think there's a big opportunity to merchandise alternative accommodations and Vrbo supply through that. So those are two big avenues for us. We're doing a lot of work to enable that in the future. So that's how we're going to compete in the alternative space, as opposed to necessarily trying to stand up the brand everywhere all over the globe, which doesn't always work.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Now I know that you had to go through some painful restructuring measures last year, including laying off about 3,000 workers. Are you going to start realizing those cost cutting measures this year and when? And also, are you done with the restructuring, at least for now?

PETER KERN: Yeah, I think we are largely done. There are some pieces left to unravel because certain things take time, just things like getting out of leases in parts of the world and things like that. But to a large extent, we have accomplished everything we want to accomplish on the restructuring side. And we're already seeing the benefits.

Now, our revenues, as you started off saying, are greatly reduced from where they used to be. And so it's hard to read it all the way through to the bottom of the P&L. But we're definitely seeing those savings already-- in fact, a lot of the impact of those savings. And we will realize even more of them across this year.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Well, we're going to continue to follow your story. Thanks for your time, Peter Kern, CEO of Expedia. Thank you.

PETER KERN: My pleasure.