Dizzying, perplexing, intimidating and exciting are all appropriate adjectives to describe hotel distribution in 2015. More developments impacted the manner in which hotels offer their accommodation through election sales channels to potential guests in 2015 than in any year in memory.

First of all, as Cindy Estis Green mentioned in her piece on the digital marketplace, it was a year filled with acquisitions and business consolidation. Among online travel agencies, Expedia acquired Travelocity, then Orbitz and finally HomeAway, this third buy moving Expedia firmly into the vacation rental marketplace. At the same time the Priceline Group, already highly active in the vacation rental sector, intensified its hotel revenue management focus with its purchase of PriceMatch, a move that was quickly overshadowed by its decision to participate in TripAdvisor’s Instant Booking Program.

Suggestions were heard that the Expedia purchase created an OTA “duopoly”. While that is yet to be determined, several developments in 2015 complicated, and possibly challenged, the marketplace domination of that twosome, if in fact it exists. First, in the hotel sector, ACCOR transformed itself to AccorHotels and decided to add independent hotels to its AccorHotels.com availability display, strengthening its appeal to travelers. Then, as 2015 wound down, AccorHotels announced that it had acquired FRHI, adding Fairmont, Swissotel and Raffles to its brand portfolio and its online clout.

Second, in a totally unexpected move, after purchasing Delta Hotels and Resorts Marriott International moved to acquire Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide. With 30 brands between the two flags, the combined company may itself be a counterbalance to the perceived OTA “all brands” shopping convenience.
In the meantime Google and TripAdvisor kept us intrigued with new reservation production possibilities through their respective introduction of Google Instant Booking and TripAdvisor Instant Booking, the latter suggesting “Book through hotel and online travel agency partners without leaving the TripAdvisor site.” The TripAdvisor move was an interesting next step in the life of a company that has evolved before our eyes from a traveler review site, to reviews plus metasearch, to now those two plus a direct booking opportunity. Oh, and yes, Amazon moved into travel booking and then back out again.

Predictions of consolidation in the vendor community came true, although not necessarily where expected. 2015 saw Amadeus buy HotelSystemsPro and then Itesso, Constellation Software acquire Springer-Miller, TravelClick purchase ZDirect, Sabre Hospitality Solutions acquire Trust Group (including Trust International and Nexus World Services) and AccorHotels buy FastBooking. Wow!

While all of this was taking place, an array of other developments vied for our attention as well.  They included:

  • The surge in visibility of metasearch, challenging the value of search engine optimization and raising the question of which offers the best ROI to a hotel.
  • Smartphones and tablets increasingly became the hotel shopping (and booking) devices of choice.
  • The “to be or not to be” discussion about rate parity grew more complex. So did initiatives to use guest data to increase personalization as regional and national data protection legislation stymied some of those efforts. The major disrupter in this area was the decision by European courts that the 15-year-old Safe Harbor Act was immediately invalid. (For more information on this change, please click here.)
  • The GDSs reminded the hotel industry of their continued importance as they headed toward what TravelClick projected to be record production in 2015 – more than 62 million hotel bookings.
  • Content – the photos, videos, and yes, the words, that we use to describe our hotels – took on a heightened priority as we were reminded that travelers, whether seeking an experience or just a room for the night, evaluate and select based on the facilities and attributes of our hotels, characteristics which we need to present clearly and appealingly – especially on our own brand websites.
  • The continued transition of “distribution” from a being a reservations function to being a revenue management responsibility as increasingly skilled and empowered revenue managers assumed broader responsibility for all of their properties’ revenue-generating activities.
  • The growing demand for and use of analytics at every level of hotel operations. Driven in no small part by data-focused revenue managers, the expectation was clear: assemble full and accurate data on which to make rate, distribution (and all other) decisions.

No review of hotel distribution in 2015 would be complete without mention of the “sharing economy” and of Airbnb in particular. The lodging segment of the sharing economy grew in legitimacy (as Airbnb agreed to pay hotel taxes in more and more cities), in breadth (as Airbnb launched its Airbnb for Business program), in size (PwC reported 150 million Airbnb guests in 2014), and in influence (as hotels moved to be more conspicuous and cordial hosts, the last point not a bad impact at all). The sharing economy, and Airbnb in particular, forced hotel operators to rethink what motivates people to travel – their guests and potential guests – and to address those motivations effectively.

Yes, the year ended with 2015 being dizzying, perplexing, intimidating and exciting. It also ended with unlimited distribution opportunities open to the creative, engaged and empowered hotelier. I doubt that 2016 will be any different.