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CEO Spotlight: Ariane Gorin of Expedia Group


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Expedia Group

Prior to assuming the CEO role last week, Gorin held executive leadership roles at Expedia Group for more than 11 years, most recently serving as president of Expedia for Business since 2021.

Gorin sat down for a one-on-one interview the day before the opening of the company’s Explore partner event in Las Vegas last week.

This interview was conducted prior to last Friday’s news from Expedia
Group that chief technology officer Rathi Murthy and senior vice president Sreenivas Rachamadugu had
been dismissed
. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The
Expedia Group story of the past few years has been the complete overhaul
of the tech stack
and the launch of the unified
loyalty program, OneKey
. As you think about taking on the role of CEO, what
is top of mind for you that still needs to be fixed or updated?

As I
look forward, I’m talking a lot with the team about how do we make sure
we’re just the best at the basics. Do we have the right traffic? Are we
attracting the right customers? Is the product converting the way that we want?
One of the superpowers of brand Expedia is the idea of multiple trip elements
and attach. So are we doing that well?  All of those are made possible by
our platform and artificial intelligence. … But sort of the mantra for me
with the teams is really how do we make sure that we’re the best at the basics
and as we do that, we’ll have a great traveler experience and we’ll be able to
serve more trips to travelers. 

One
of the biggest announcements
out of Explore is the launch of Romie
– an AI-based trip planner and travel
assistant. How did you determine there is a need for this?

When you
look at the way people plan their travel, they still tend to look in a lot of
different places. They shop around, they ask people for advice. … What we are
trying to do with Romie – which is really what we try to do with all of our products
– is to accompany a traveler as they’re in their planning and to help them
collaborate with others as they are doing it. And when we bring together our
travel expertise with the new tech capabilities of generative [artificial intelligence], that can
help. And I think that does take us one step closer to having a truly
personalized agent that accompanies a traveler wherever they go.

What you’ll
see about Romie that I find particularly exciting is it travels with you even
outside our app. So you might have it in your WhatsApp conversations or your
text conversations, and it learns from you, and it learns what are the things
you like? What are you interested in? And it actually displays to you what it
[has] learned, therefore it is recommending these things to you. We’ve taken our
learnings over the last almost year with generative AI and have tried to put
those into Romie. 

Phocuswright
recently hosted a webinar
to analyze why trip planning startups have such a high failure rate
. How is
Romie better than those attempts?

From
what I’ve seen, trip planning startups sometimes fail because what’s the
monetization model? But if you can really go from the envisioning and planning into
the booking, into the experience in-trip [it can work]. So let’s say your
flight is delayed – can we inform the people in your group or your spouse maybe
at home that the flight has been delayed? I think so much of the value that
you’re able to bring to the traveler is that end-to-end experience from
planning to booking to during the trip. And it can be complicated. 

Social
media and influencers have become huge factors in travel inspiration
and planning, especially for younger generations. The new
“Travel Shops”
feel like an acknowledgement that this is happening and
maybe an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” kind of response. How did this
idea develop and what do you see as the potential there?

Our
brands do a lot of work in social media, both organic and paid. So we’ve got
great expertise in how our travelers are using social media as part of their
trip planning or sharing after. The idea for these Travel Shops really came
from our marketing team’s deep insights … and realizing that if we found a way
to integrate it into our product, it would be both something that’s attractive
for the influencers themselves and also really value-add for our travelers. And
I love this because it’s come from expertise, insights and an understanding of
traveler behavior – and we worked with creators to help build it – and then we
put technology behind it, and we’ll see where it goes. 

And tell me more about the opportunity for
advertisers in these shops and how they can partner with influencers to sponsor
a collection. 

Let’s
say you are a destination organization and you’re interested in really showing
off the various places in your destination. You can work with creators to have
them create more content for your destination. The
pandemic demonstrated to many countries around the world the importance of
tourism to their local economies. Destination organizations and tourism
boards, in many cases, are tasked with bringing more travelers to their
countries, so we work with them on display advertising and other products. With
Travel Shops we’re finding ways to connect them with creators, but we’re also
in our spring release giving them the possibility to work in our loyalty
program – so to give travelers the ability to earn additional OneKey cash if
they’re going their destination. When I
think about the travel ecosystem we all operate in, it has travelers, it has
hoteliers, airlines and the like – and the destinations are a really important
component to it. And something that inspires me in our business is how we as a
company can help them achieve their goals.

As
I think about both Romie and some of the other AI-based updates and then also
the Travel Shops, it  sounds like a very intentional way to try
to reach some of the younger generations. Is that some of what this is?

That seems to
be a question that’s out there – do younger people really go to traditional OTAs [online travel agencies]
and how do you bring them in? When I think about it, I would say our brands are
very insight driven, and they are looking at who are the travelers that travel
with us today, who are the travelers we want to attract in the future and how
do we make sure that we have brand value propositions and product experiences that
are going to delight them all. And I actually think many different demographics
are going to be interested in having a travel assistant that helps them spend
less time searching and more time with their match. So it wasn’t necessarily
thought of as, “This will help us go after a certain demographic.” It was more
thought of as how do we help travelers in general find their perfect match
faster. The advent of the OTAs – the online travel agent – was how do you have
a real agent but have it be through technology. And that’s the promise of
Romie.

Do
you have any opinion to share on the potential
implementation of a TikTok ban
in the United States? Because Expedia, Vrbo
and Hotels.com are all very active on the platform.

Our
marketing teams are always looking at where their opportunities for us to reach
travelers, to help them understand more about our brands. And how we can help
them in their travels. We’ll keep a watch on what’s happening and make sure
that everything we’re doing is, obviously, compliant. I think there’s a lot of
unanswered questions. I’m not a deep expert in it, but what I can tell you is we
will run our business according to the laws … so we’ll keep an eye on how it
evolves.

Airbnb
recently had several announcements
of its own and on the company’s recent
Q1 earnings call
CEO Brian Chesky spoke about building what he called a “solar
system” of products serving people around the world – which sounds very much like
a full-service global OTA. Is there room for another entrant in this space?

I
think there are a lot of industries in which people will ask the question of, “Is
there room for this?” For Facebook people probably thought there wasn’t room
for another social media brand. So I don’t spend too much time thinking about
that. What I spend my time thinking about is how do we make sure that our brands
have a really clear value proposition for our travelers that gets pulled
through in our product and that the travelers who come to us are able to get
great experiences. Whether it’s on Expedia, having the full trip and being able
to bundle flights and hotels in a dynamic way that I think no one else can do. Or
whether it’s Vrbo and being able to find a whole home. Or on Hotels.com finding
your perfect match and being able to compare hotels. I’m quite focused with our
team and making sure those are great experiences And then we’ll see where the
markets go. 

Speaking of Vrbo, on the recent Q1 earnings
call
there was acknowledgment that it’s been a bit lackluster, a little slower
in the recovery from the tech migration. Anything you can share about your
thinking on how to spur some growth there?

The Vrbo performance is related to the migration we did in the
second half of last year, during which we knew, from a product perspective, we’d
take a step back before we could go forward. And because we knew that we pulled
back marketing at a time when our competitors leaned in. So as a result, we’ve
had a slower period than we would have liked. We have definitely been leaning
in to marketing and bringing back more travelers.

Quote

We can’t have partnerships with people who are misusing inventory or creating experiences that are problematic for the industry.

Ariane Gorin – Expedia Group

We are innovating at a faster
pace at Vrbo than we were able to do before. And because it’s now connected to
our unified testing platform, we are seeing green shoots with OneKey – the idea
that you can earn and redeem OneKey cash across all of the brands. And what we
found is that 25% of people who are redeeming on Vrbo had earned on Expedia or
Hotels.com – they are brand new to Vrbo. So we are capturing more of those
travelers’ trips. It’s going to take time, but we believe in the Vrbo brand. We
believe it is differentiated, it’s got very strong supply and great positioning.

Let’s
talk a bit about the B2B business, which I know is near and dear to your heart.
There’s been tremendous growth there – now 60,000 B2B partners and in 2023 they
sold about 100 million room nights. But aren’t all those sellers competing with
Expedia Group’s own B2C brands? 

Travel
is a very big industry. And people still shop in a lot of different places and
ways. People use their points from their credit card, they might use their
points from their airline program. They might be traveling for work and using
their corporate travel program. They might be living in Indonesia and booking with
a local OTA, where our brands aren’t as present or as strong. So this idea of
serving the travel demand in places that maybe our own brands don’t reach or serving
demand in a big market is an opportunity for our company. And it’s especially a
way of delivering more value to our supply partners, because it means we’re
helping them extend their reach without them having to do additional work. 

Also
related to your B2B business, there was the very
public split with Hopper last year
, which seemed to have been based on the
fact you weren’t happy with the way they were selling and interacting with
their customers. How closely do you watch your B2B partners?  

We
keep a close eye on what our partners do. This is a big, important part of our
business, and if we have B2B partners who are misusing our inventory, that
impacts the whole channel and that impacts our relationship with hotel partners.
So our team looks quite closely – are our partners using our inventory properly?
And also who do we want to partner with? We can’t have partnerships with people
who are misusing inventory or creating experiences that are problematic for the
industry. 

Can you tell us about any results you are
seeing from OneKey? 

It’s
been almost a year in the United States. We launched it to drive more
membership signups, more member engagement and repeat rate and shopping across
our brands. We’re pleased with what’s we’ve seen. A loyalty program isn’t a big
bang, snap your fingers and it has massive impact on your business. It’s
something that builds over time. We have very good progress with our hotel
partners, for example, and how are they using the loyalty program to take
advantage of our members – the travelers get benefits. our supply partners are
getting benefits. And as part of our spring release, we’re giving the
opportunity for destination organizations to participate in it. We have big
plans for continuing to grow OneKey and the capabilities there will continue to
grow over time. 

Thinking ahead to one year from now, what do you hope to be talking
about at Explore 2025? 

I
would hope that I would say we have accelerated our business over the last 12
months, and I would hope to be on stage sharing more product innovations that
are solving travelers’ needs. We’ve been through the last couple of years of
platform migration where so much of our capacity has been focused on migration
and building the platform and now we have more capacity that we can put toward
traveler- and partner-facing features. So
a year from now I want to be on stage talking about all of those things we’ve
done for travelers.

The Phocuswright Conference 2024

Make plans now to attend The Phocuswright Conference, November 19-21 in Phoenix, Arizona, where Expedia Group CEO Ariane Gorin will be featured on Center Stage.



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