Kayak-Priceline deal validates evolution of meta model, but Skyscanner rules out immediate IPO
Two years is an awfully long time in travel technology, especially considering how quickly the landscape has changed in the flight metasearch end of the industry.
Lurking in the background (this has pretty much always been its style) was Skyscanner, the UK-based metasearch engine which had grown steadily in its early years but was rapidly becoming one of the major players in Europe and had an eye on Asia-Pacific.
But when Kayak announced in November 2010 that it planned to list on the public markets, many wondered whether Skyscanner (with its recently appointed chairman Ray Nolan adding some financial muscle to the business) would follow suit.
Perhaps within two years, was a time-frame being talked about for Skyscanner to consider launching its own IPO, but the Kayak move (and the subsequent delay in getting the public listing off the ground) threw a light on whether the apparent metasearch upstarts of the industry had the chops (as Americans are fond of saying) to go on the financial markets.
Kayak’s eventual completion of its listing in July last year proved the remaining doubters wrong – but nothing could prepare industry folk for what happened next: after less than five months on the markets, selling up to one of the biggest travel players on the planet in the form of Priceline.
The move not only side-footed almost everyone (and most readily admit that they were surprised) but cast a fascinating light on where metasearch as a concept might be heading and what it might mean for the other players kicking about that were unlucky not to meet the requirements (and healthy coffers) of Priceline.
Although many remain rather underwhelmed by Google’s entry into the world of flight search, strategically it demonstrated that the media model of providing leads to intermediaries and suppliers was going mainstream and if the search giant could make a decent job of it then the rest of the industry would need to think carefully.
So where does this leave the likes of Skyscanner, two years on from at the point metasearch really starting maturing as a model in the industry?
CEO Gareth Williams says the Priceline-Kayak deal says it part of a “market validation of the customer and industry trend from OTAs to leads-to-airline.com”.
“It’s set a healthy line in the sand for valuations – for instance for raising future brand-marketing war-chests.”
At Skyscanner, Williams aims grow the company by 10x to where it is now “in a wider [global] market that, compared to other sectors, has dominant player”.
Fighting talk, indeed, especially when it seems that the company was expecting to end 2012 with some solid figures: over 30 million visits a month; more than 15 million unique monthly visits; north of 11 million installs of its mobile apps; and £3 billion total flight ticket value booked down the line with partners.
It expects to double company (undisclosed) revenue and EBITDA year-on-year over the course of 2013.
As with Google’s strategy around scaling its Flight Search product to a global level, Priceline faces similar issues with propelling Kayak into a truly global business (although only fool would underestimate the expertise contained in the company when it comes to growing web brands in new regions).
But with brand recognition of Skyscanner higher in Google search at a global scale than most of its rivals, does Skyscanner have an advantage?
And could it truly scale (including an attempt to get some traction in the US, where it languishes significantly behind Kayak and Google but ahead of Hipmunk in desktop traffic) without either hitting the public markets itself or taking on more investment?
“I would love to IPO Skyscanner and create a global brand with a long life ahead of it. However, I think an IPO is going to be when we reach a much larger market value than where Kayak went out at. If that means waiting that’s fine.
“Raising private capital will be possible until that point.”
Metasearch was one of the original disruptive models in online travel, with vociferous founders poking at the apparent old way of doing things and an entire new way for consumers to search and “buy” flights and hotels.
Kayak’s exit to Priceline and Skyscanner’s bold growth strategy illustrate that the new kid on the block has grown up quickly, already moving beyond the combative teenage years to somewhere around its early 30s with a mortgage and perhaps a couple of kids under its belt.
Kevin May is a senior editor and one of the co-founders at Tnooz. He was previously editor of UK-based magazine Travolution and web editor of Media Week UK from 2003 to 2005.
He has worked in regional newspapers (Essex Enquirer) and started his career in journalism at the Police Gazette at New Scotland Yard in London. He has a degree in criminology, a postgraduate diploma in magazine journalism and will be publishing his first book - a biography about electronic band, Depeche Mode - soon.