Why Booking.com is betting heavily on sports travel

Booking.com's country head for India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia, reveals why sports tourism is a big hit, speaks about his new role, challenges in the space, USP of the Indian market and a recently launched brand campaign

Oct 16, 2022 08:51:00 PM | Article | Eularie Saldanha

Booking.com has taken flight for its campaign for the ICC Men's T20 World Cup 2022, which kicked off on 16 October.

 

The campaign is titled 'unforgettable experiences start with a booking’ and features former Indian cricketer Suresh Raina, who is also the newly appointed brand ambassador. Accompanying him are international cricketers Pat Cummins (Australia) and Jos Buttler (England). The TVC aims to give the message of how most happy experiences start with a booking.

 

The film begins with a father and his son sitting on the couch and watching a match that’s taking place in Australia. Seeing how excited his father is, he uses Booking.com to surprise him by booking their travel and stay in Sydney. The next shot shows the duo taking pictures in the cricket stadium. After that, all events that follow are serendipity for the father and son. They catch the ball that accidentally reaches them. When they walk in the hotel corridor after leaving the stadium, they have an encounter with Raina, who looks at them and smiles, while he’s on his way out.

 

 

To understand more about this campaign and why the brand is big on sports, we caught up with Santosh Kumar, who was recently appointed as country head for India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia at Booking.com.

 

Edited Excerpts:

 

What are your priorities as country manager for the Indian market?

We want to stay consistent with our mission and values - to make travel easier for everyone to experience. That’s the journey that we want to continue, even in these markets. India has done very well, just like the other markets. All we want is to be able to offer consumers a fantastic choice. We started with accommodations, then flights and are now into rental cars and attractions. However, the gold for us remains to offer choice.

 

What was the insight behind the campaign featuring Suresh Raina?

Sports-inspired travel and experiences are making up this journey. The ICC partnership has been ongoing for the last three years and will go on until 2023. We will also continue to be a part of the next ODI World Cup, which is coming to India. For us, it is what sports can do for you in terms of getting out and exploring the world. These mega-events inspire thousands of people from all over the world to get together at one destination. It’s a celebration of teams, fans and also of all the destinations. This time it’s in Australia which is a great country. Hopefully, it’ll be the same when it comes to India next year. We thought about how we can have fans experience India. For us, it was a great fit because a lot of our consumers today are travelling to these destinations. This campaign is an absolute investment for us.

 

Booking.com provides end-to-end services for the customer’s entire travel experience. Nevertheless, what is the offering that you still don't provide?

From the Indian perspective, there are still some parts of the connected trip journey, like insurance that we don’t offer yet. We do a lot of research before we launch a product feature and are very measured in terms of making sure that it’ll work before we make any noise about it. We’re a global platform that has already taken a lot of steps, but still has a lot more to do.

 

How different is the Indian market from the other markets you're catering to? Tell us something unique about India…

As a country, we have the wealth of domestic options. India has been able to sustain itself globally, despite all the headwinds, and this also reflects in the way we see our business. Previously, we couldn’t offer our inbound travellers the opportunity to come into India due to border restrictions and whatnot. But we’ve seen that the domestic market continues to remain busy, despite the rates of average properties which have gone up massively across the board and especially in metro cities. The demand is still very resilient and that is the unique thing about India.

 

Indians are known for wanting the most economic deals. Every other platform in this space also tries to sell with this in mind. While you have the 'Genius' membership, what is the lure that Booking.com has, apart from its price points?

We want to make our platform very transparent when it comes to pricing. For us, what you see is what you get. Our customers get their services for the same price that they see on our listing. There are no hidden fees that get added magically on the last page of the booking. Secondly, we have a lot of filters, one of which is the sustainability filter. More than 90% of the travellers exhibited that they wanted to travel sustainably and that reflects on our website.

 

What are the sustainable choices being offered?

The sustainable travel initiative is a badge that is given to accommodations, which are surveyed. They are required to come up with a response on various things - whether it is water consumption or electricity. The problem today is in the identification of choices, like wanting to travel to an offbeat destination sustainably. Our responsibility is to make sure that our users are getting sustainable options. Post that, it’s up to the accommodation partner how they want to take it ahead.

 

How important is India as a market for you?

We have very big ambitions for this market. India, without a doubt, is a priority market for us. You will see a lot of things being launched in the weeks to come. We’d like to have Indians wherever they are - in tier-two and tier-three cities all across the world. A lot of India is coming online. We see more than 60% of our bookings done through the app. Therefore, we want to be the medium of choice when Indians are looking to get out of the room, even though we already have a very good market share. Very soon, we intend to launch Hindi for the website and the app. That’s a major push towards localisation for us.

 

You've got 'Explorers' in the form of Sania Mirza and more recently Shanaya Kapoor. What made them the perfect fit?

Sania Mirza was a natural fit for us because she’s into sports. Shanaya Kapoor is an emerging personality of her own and is very well travelled. Hence, it was a good fit in terms of her own inclination to travel and her ability to incorporate it into her work.

 

Any reason why sports is such a big push for the brand?

Sports bring out a lot of emotions, including an innate need for somebody to be able to experience the sport in some way - whether in person or connecting with a group of people at a base on an occasion. The experience of going through that ultimately leads to what we’re providing for the brand.

 

Name some of the travel trends that you're seeing in India this year…

The end of the year is a high season for us. We will get into festivals in October and also leading into the year's end. It’s a great time for Indians to be able to hit the road. We expect to see travel demand being very robust in Q4 and also in Q1 of next year. We’re seeing very healthy usage across the board - whether it is properties like traditional hotels or alternate hotels, which are also being used more and more. People are sometimes combining work with leisure. Being outdoors and able to enjoy large spaces will hopefully continue for some time. People are still in revenge travel mode.

 

What are the challenges in this space? How do you plan on tackling these?

We’ve traditionally always felt that we have to continue to provide choice in terms of availability. That is something we constantly work towards, with our partners as well. Different people have different needs when they travel. You might be a city person or you might love going to offbeat destinations which are off the beaten path. When you start to do that, you might not find accommodations that suit your needs. We’re also very big on diversity.

 

What efforts has the brand taken, in terms of diversity?

We’ve done campaigns around 'Booking Proud'. We’ve rolled out other campaigns addressing the needs of the LGBTQ segment. It’s about making sure that people are ultimately finding accommodations. We have a proud-friendly filter that gives labels for such accommodation partners. We want to have a very fair platform for everyone.

 

Where do you anticipate the brand to be, five years down the lane?

We are very happy with where we are today. Travel was probably the hardest-hit sector in the pandemic. There’s not a lot of pivoting you can do if you’re in the business of moving people from place to place. We want to continue being the platform of choice, even five years down the line.