Booking Holdings Takes Solitary Path in Online Travel Debate Over Offering Financial Relief to Partners

While Airbnb is issuing $17 million in grants to some super hosts, and Google, Expedia Group, Trip.com Group and Tripadvisor are offering various forms of advertising or marketing credits, loans or financial relief to partners, Booking Holdings is a holdout and isn’t mounting a financial recovery effort.

Booking Holdings, which includes brands such as Booking.com, Priceline and Agoda, has chosen to forego taking the financial relief route and instead is working on recovery toolkits for partners, sharing data to entice bookings, and is rolling out consumer incentives to generate demand, according to spokeswoman Leslie Cafferty.

Cafferty argued that some of these measures can have a longer-term impact than offering partners a one-time payment.

Some of these travel industry relief efforts — particularly Airbnb and Google’s programs —  have found themselves in the line of fire.

Airbnb ironically is the only hospitality-specific program that Skift found that’s actually handing out any money. Facebook says it is offering a $100 million program of cash grants and advertising credits for small businesses in or near its operational areas. Applications appear to be mostly available in the United States and Canada to date.

Airbnb’s Super Host Relief Grants

Airbnb has a $17 million grant program for super hosts, but many have complained that the criteria for qualifying have been opaque, and they haven’t even received a grant application, let alone any payments. To apply, super hosts must first receive an application from Airbnb.

In mid-May, Airbnb stated that it handed out $7.4 million in grants to 4,000 super hosts, and that qualifying super hosts would receive the remaining $9.6 million, in payments ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, by the end of June.

“The fund will support thousands of Superhosts, but not all of them will receive invitations, which are prioritized according to several factors, like how long they have been a Superhost and how severely their Airbnb earnings have been impacted, for example,” Airbnb stated May 19.

Airbnb added in a community post the next day “we compare a host’s earnings from last year to their earnings this year. We look at the percentage of earnings loss, not the total value of losses. This helps ensure we invite hosts who earn at different rates.”

Airbnb has prioritized sending grant applications to people who have been super hosts for 4-5 years, and the average track record of grant recipients at that date had been four-and-a-half years.

Sera Ignatiuk, who has been an Airbnb super host in Durban, South Africa for four years, told Skift Tuesday that the country has been on lockdown since late February, and that only since June 1 have authorities permitted hosts to rent to relief workers and business travelers.

Ignatiuk said she lost about 10,000 rand ($600) per month since late February because of the Covid-19 crisis, and this money is her only income. She needs the income to support her two children, Ignatiuk said.

That may not seem like a lot of lost income to Airbnb, Ignatiuk said, “but in my currency it is a helluva lot. Here, it’s the earth, it’s the world. Without it we sit in a situation where we have nothing.”

The Durban super host said there is a network of super hosts in the city who cooperate when there is an overflow of guests, and she’s heard of none receiving Airbnb grants.

An Austin, Texas superhost, who declined to be identified, as did several super hosts, out of fear of Airbnb retribution, said he’s been a super host for five years, and Airbnb has given him “no clue” despite repeated attempts about why he hasn’t received a grant application.

Skift conversed with two other hosts — one who received a $1,000 grant and one who didn’t even receive an application — who had fairly kind words to say about Airbnb’s grant program.

Meighan Depke, a Chicago super host since 2011 and a moderator of Facebook forum for Airbnb hosts, said her “personal take is that the grant, if received, is intended to help hosts, not replace lost income. Hosts around the world should be looking at other options for financial assistance, whether from their government, bank or elsewhere.”

Depke hasn’t received an application, but has received some government assistance, and has been able to host locals to cover some expenses. Depke said she prefers the grants go to Airbnb hosts who are struggling.

Asked if Airbnb’s grant program is too little, too late, as some super hosts have alleged, Depke said: “As for too little, too late, I don’t personally feel that Airbnb employees (who donated to the grant) or it’s founders have a responsibility to support me at this time. It’s a gesture and it honestly pisses me off that any host would be crying about not getting it at this point.”

The $17 million grant monies come from Airbnb’s founders, employees, and private equity investors.

It should be pointed out that among the various travel industry relief programs for partners, Airbnb’s is the only one we found that is actually handing out money that doesn’t need to be repaid. Facebook has a small business grant and advertising credit program, as well.

There are some apples to oranges comparisons in evidence about various relief programs. Separate from the super host grant program, Airbnb agreed to make $250 million in payments to hosts to compensate them for about 25 percent of the cancellations that occurred from mid-March to the end of that month.

But that $250 million came only after Airbnb earlier decided to refund guests for cancellations without compensating hosts. Through the end of March, Booking Holdings paid around $63 milliion in refunds.

So these weren’t recovery programs, per se, but were part of cancellation refunds paid to consumers or property owners.

Google’s Credits Capped at $1,000

Google is handing out $340 million advertising credits for future campaigns to small- and medium-size businesses, not just in travel, and the search engine caps the credits at $1,000. The program, which took weeks to roll out because Google had to build the technology for it, has come under fire from German and French travel companies for not offering refunds on millions of dollars in advertising spending that didn’t lead to bookings because of the pandemic.

The Google program has stringent requirements: For example, partners had to advertise in Google in at least 10 months in 2019, and January and/or February 2020.

“The Covid-19 crisis has deeply impacted small businesses globally and we designed our SMB ad credit to reach our small business customers broadly with a gesture of support,” a Google spokesperson said. “We hope this will help to defray some of the cost of re-engaging with their customers at a time that is right for them.”

Expedia Provides Credits Toward Future Campaigns

Expedia Group debuted an estimated $275 million relief program for partners that is mostly in the form of advertising and marketing credits for future campaigns. Expedia’s program is geared to provide credits up to 25 percent of partners’ 2019 advertising spend for upcoming marketing campaigns; credits would range from $200 to $100,000.

Many of Vrbo’s short-term rental hosts are ineligible for the Expedia Group program.

Trip.com Group Loan Program

In the first quarter, which ended March 31, China’s Trip.com Group paid customers around $1.2 billion in refunds, a move mandated by the Chinese government.

Trip.com Group’s financing arm also provided 17,000 loans worth about $1.4 billion to small businesses as of the end of May.

Tripadvisor Provided Relief to Restaurants and Hotels

Tripadvisor hasn’t publicly disclosed a dollar value on a relief program for its restaurant and hotel partners.

But Tripadvisor Chief Financial Officer Ernst Teunissen said in May that the company was “pushing out,” meaning delaying, some partner payment requirements.

The company also provided free subscription services for a couple of months  to restaurant and hotel partners during the height of the pandemic, and subsidized some partner advertising placements in coronavirus-impacted markets, a spokesperson said.

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