The OTAs compared – Airbnb vs Homeaway vs Booking.com vs Tripadvisor

In a previous article I showed how Airbnb has dominated growth of property supply in the VR industry.

However there are another three major Online Travel Agency (OTA) listing sites that are very important for getting bookings for your vacation rental property.  Here is the list of the big four:

  • Airbnb
  • Homeaway/ VRBO
  • com
  • Tripadvisor

In this article you will see how these big four ‘Gorillas’ compare, and how you as a small VR owner can use them to your advantage.

AIRBNB

The market darling, Airbnb has made it extremely easy for you to list your property and to manage it.  It continues to grow exponentially and in 2018 has around 5 million listings of which most are individual properties with their own personality. Most properties have been located in urban areas, with lower prices, but this is changing as more traditional vacation rental owners are jumping on board.

The business model is to charge the owner a modest 3-5% commission, and to charge guests a separate 0-20% booking fee, often around 11%.  The company looks after all payments and pays you the net revenue soon after the guest stays.

Airbnb changed the industry by allowing the owner to rate past guests, building up some reputation history about guests. So for new booking enquiries, the owner can make a more informed judgement about the guest, even though the guest and owner are restricted to email until the booking is made.

Risk is also reduced by $1 million of damage insurance, that comes with fine print.  Like Homeaway and Tripadvisor, a security deposit can be handled through the system.

Airbnb has a subtle mix of incentives and penalties to encourage ‘desirable’ owner behaviour.  This includes allowing instant booking by guests, avoiding cancellations, and having good guest reviews. Compliant owners are rewarded by higher rankings and more bookings.

The early founder story of sharing a room in the sharing economy captivated journalists who gushed about the new company and helped drive awareness and viral growth, a bonanza for the entrepreneur founders.  The current reality is most listings are for entire apartments and houses and the company is aggressively moving on luxury rentals, China, business travellers and even hotels!  The former lines that were drawn around the sharing economy are now blurring and almost any accommodation is on offer.  This blurring extends to all the OTAs as they push to add more listings.

The ongoing exponential growth in supply of listings has led to growing pains, local bans for short term rentals and a flood of competition into your market!

HOMEAWAY/ VRBO

This company has long specialised in vacation rentals, growing by acquisitions until it too was acquired, by the huge Expedia agglomerate.  It has around 2 million global listings in mid 2018.  It is growing steadily, but at a far lower rate than Airbnb.

Homeaway has specialised in larger houses suited to family holidays, but that is changing to smaller properties as the market expands.  It has many customer facing sites such as VRBO and previously Stayz.

Initially disdainful of Airbnb as an upstart targeting millennials in small apartments, Homeaway found itself having an outdated model, and has now copied almost all of the Airbnb business model.  It now has a similar owner commission/ guest booking fee and has an owner review system of past guests.

Its software is clunkier than Airbnb, but as you would expect of an Expedia unit, it is innovating fast, with various tools to help owners manage their listings.  There are reports that it is working towards earlier payment to owners.

Like Airbnb, the owner / guest relationship is limited to email until after the booking is made, and that has caused much angst with owners as the model changed, who preferred the relationship and informed choice they had in the prior model.

BOOKING.COM

This giant has specialised in renting rooms for hotels all over the world.  It has been very successful in its market and in recent years has aggressively targeted growth in vacation rental listings.  In sheer market size and net revenue, it out-performs the other three Gorillas, but it has only recently become an important option for VR owners as a source of vacation rental bookings.  It claims around around 5 million ‘alternative’ listings in 2018, and 27 million when including hotels.   It has several affiliated sites in Asia like Agoda and cTrip.

The business model is different from the other three, in that its offering is centred around pleasing guests who can instantly book from a big choice of accommodation.  It has also offered guests easy cancellation.  All money is collected by the rental owner, with the owner retrospectively paying a 12-15% commission to booking.com. Unlike the other models there is no information about the guests until after they book.

The model works well for small hotels, where there is someone on site to manage risk as they greet, screen and monitor guests.  Also, multiple rooms gives the hotel owner the ability to over book and manage a constant trickle of cancellations.

For vacation rental owners the booking.com model has its challenges, the main one is assessing risky guests who will usually stay in a remote location unsupervised.  There is no information about the guest, no reviews of the guests, and no ability to refuse a booking without a ranking penalty.  A late cancellation will often mean 100% loss of a booking for a VR owner. However, if you look deep into the options you can specify a stricter cancellation policy and can collect money within 42 days of the stay.

Guest damage is seen by booking.com as an owner problem, whereby the owner can specify a security deposit and collect and administer it themselves with booking.com standing at arms length.   Just this week (June 2018) booking.com made the news when a $1 million rental house in Melbourne was trashed by guests.  Unlike Airbnb, booking.com offers no backup insurance for such events.

In many countries, booking.com uses its market dominance to insist on owners agreeing to its ‘lowest price guarantee’, whereby the owner is not allowed to offer a lower price than the price listed on booking.com.  This effectively blocks direct bookings.  In some countries such as Germany the price fixing arrangement has been seen as anti-competitive and booking.com has been forced to wind back these practices achieved through its market dominance.  In other countries owners  mitigate the price fixing by offering discounts for loyalty. Some VR industry leaders have labelled booking.com as arrogant towards VR owners.  Even the language on the website backend refers to ‘your hotel’.

Unlike the other three OTAs, the owner submits their listing information, and the company decides the wording of the site listing to fit with their guidelines.  With the other OTAs, the owner can make up their own wording.

So why would a VR owner like yourself choose to list with booking.com with all these restrictions?

Many don’t!  Owners like me with an on-site presence can manage risk.  Other owners have used booking.com themselves overseas extensively, and there is a realisation that booking.com has very strong brand strength. The attraction of another good source of bookings is often enough for owners to sign up.

I have used booking.com without problem with a steady trickle of bookings.

TRIPADVISOR

Tripadvisor is a clear market leader in terms of site visits by travellers looking to its extensive database of reviews for travel advice, while checking out a particular destination or accommodation provider.

However Tripadvisor has a particularly low conversion rate for bookings as a fraction of site visits.  In the past it has been hard for travellers to find vacation rental listings, but that too is changing as Tripdvisor chases growth in the vacation rental industry.  Given the large volume of site visits, for some markets Tripadvisor is a good source of bookings.  Just to confuse things a little, vacation rentals are managed through Flipkey, a Tripadvisor subsidiary, and listed on various websites including Tripadvisor itself.

Like Homeaway, Tripadvisor/ Flipkey too has chosen to copy the Airbnb business model with similar commission and booking fee structure, and similar booking, payment process and review process. Payments are received the day after the guest arrives.

Some reports from my colleagues show less bookings via Tripadvisor than from other OTAs.

In the past there have been instances where policy changes have led to review history being lost for many listings. Due to this and other events, many in the VR industry have less confidence in Tripadvisor than their competitors.

Comparison of OTAs

 Aspect  Airbnb  Homeaway/
 VRBO
 Booking.com  Tripadvisor/ Flipkey
  VR listings globally   5 Million   2 Million   5 Million   1 Million approx
  Commission payable   3-5%   5-8%   12-15%   3%
  Guest booking fee   Typically      11%   Typically 11%   Nil   Typically 11%
  Instant booking   Optional   Optional   All bookings   Optional
  Reviews by owner of guest?   Yes   Yes   No   Yes
  Reviews by guest   Yes   Yes   Yes   Yes
  Payments timing   After check    in   After check in   By owner   After check in
  Payments handled by   OTA   OTA   Owner   OTA
  Security deposit   Optional   Optional   Owner handles   Optional
  Conversation with guest prior to booking   Via site     email   Via site email   None   Via site email
  Information for Assessment of guest risk     Good info   Partial info   No info   Partial info
  Overall suitability for VRs  Market leader        2nd market leader   Can expose to risk   Performance unclear 

 

So which of these Gorillas should you use?

Clearly Airbnb and Homeaway dominate the vacation rental industry in terms of ease of use and availability in most markets.  I would recommend owners use both.

You could list on all four and see what works well.   However I always suggest you network with your fellow owners in your area to share information about which OTAs are working well or not in your market.  A five minute conversation with a few colleagues can be as useful as a 12 month trial, and can save a lot of time and effort.

A good choice will deliver you more bookings.  But remember all the big OTAs have serious commissions.

Your longer term goal should be to build up direct bookings by repeat bookings and your own website. Our mission is to help you do just that.

Rex Brown
Holiday Rental Mastery
Helping Vacation Rental owners get ahead of the competition.

Update 21 Jun 2018: Article updated to show Homeaway payments are made to owner after guest checks in, like Airbnb. At Rezfest Sydney 2018 there were reports that HA were working towards earlier payment but were making no promises, and it has not happened yet, my error.  Thanks to Susan and Craig for the heads up.
Article also updated to make it clearer how the owner handles security deposit for booking.com, and the latest Airbnb and HA fee ranges.

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