Being the official accommodation booking partner for the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023 has worked well for the brand, says Santosh Kumar, country manager for India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia, Booking.com. He spoke to Storyboard18 about the company’s association with cricket and other sports, how Indians are travelling today, and much more.
How has the association with the ICC’s Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023 been for Booking.com? What were your business expectations and to what level have those expectations been met?
The partnership with ICC is a continuing one for us in terms of our focus on sports tourism. And if you see some of the investments that we’ve been making over the last few years, we have zeroed in on a few priority markets globally. That has also meant focusing on a few priority sports that are popular in those parts of the world. For example, in the US, we are focusing on Major League Baseball. We’ve been doing the Super Bowl (American football—NFL final) ads for a couple of years now. In Europe, we have been doing the UEFA Soccer League as well as Eurovision.
And then more relevant to Asia-Pacific, we’ve done the FIFA Women’s World Cup earlier this year that was in Australia, New Zealand. Also the partnership with the International Cricket Council (ICC) has been ongoing for the last five years, where we’ve partnered with them on all their events across the world. And specifically this World Cup, the highest priority is India, because most of the eyeballs, 90% plus fans of cricket globally are located in India. Plus, additionally, we have a few focus markets like Australia and New Zealand as well. In Europe, it would be England. It is helping us in all of those markets.
For the ICC’s Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023 specifically, I would say, it was kind of on the back of what we aim to do in India. India is already at an inflection point with all of the key leading indicators coming together very nicely, whether it’s the GDP, whether it is our demographics with our young population, whether it is the rising cohort of Gen Z and Tier 2, Tier 3 markets, , Internet penetration, smartphone penetration, all of this is great news for an e-commerce company like us. Therefore, for us, it made a lot of sense to focus on cricket, which is a preference for most Indians. We have been very happy with the way things have gone right. We looked at both in-stadia advertising / fan campaigns and off the pitch, through our TV commercial, through social media campaigns.
What business impact have you seen in the country and in the region?
I would say that in all host cities we have seen a spike in demand. So, if you look at the searches that we have observed, across the board, especially the matches where India has played and also some of the other big-ticket games, we’ve seen a definite increase in demand as demonstrated by the searches that we are seeing on the platform. We’ve also seen an increase in inbound, as well as domestic flight bookings. Overall, inbound flight bookings are up about 15% year-over-year to the same period. That also factors in a little bit of the organic growth that the market is seeing, because obviously India’s growing as well. When I compare with what the inbound traffic into the country has been otherwise over the course of the year, I would say definitely during this period we have seen a spurt.
What are some of the key trends that you are observing, you know, in this extended festive period that started in August with Independence Day and Raksha Bandhan and up to Diwali, because this is also a time when Indians travel?
Travel combined with the Cricket World Cup, combined with the festivals, has really led to a spurt in travel, both Tier 1 cities as well as Tier 2 cities. We have also observed that there are different segments of accommodation that are benefiting from this.
So, it’s not just the traditional hotels, but it’s also some of the alternate accommodation, you know, whether it is homestay, as well as bed and breakfast, etc.. They are also benefiting because in a lot of cities the supply is a bit constrained when it comes to traditional hotels. So, that has led to a spillover in demand for the alternate accommodation segment, which is great news overall for the industry, because it’s also helping those micro entrepreneurs, it is helping give back to local communities, it is leading to people travelling more authentically, where they are experiencing local cultures and cuisines, etc. So we’ve seen all of that. Recently we put out a ‘How India Travels report’ in partnership with McKinsey as well as ‘Travel Confidence Index’ a little earlier in the year where we saw that Indians in general were travelling more for experiences. They want to be able to travel to off-grid locations. And then the other one is the rise of responsible travel—they all want to travel more sustainably. So, if given a choice, people will want more sustainable options, but they’re not necessarily willing to pay more for it, at least at this point.
And how has the past year been for Booking.com India? You, too, just completed one year at Booking.com. What has the past year been like for you?
It was action packed. If you see the trajectory over the last three years or so, the industry has been through a lot; 2020 and 2021 were arguably two of the worst years as far as travel and tourism are concerned. But 2022 and this year as well, we have seen a significant return. It helped to a large extent that people had a lot of discretionary spending money that they had saved. We saw people travelling, taking more trips last year than they would in a normal year prior to the pandemic.
When it comes to my journey, it’s been action packed because we’ve really benefited by going back to the basics in terms of focusing on our partner relationships. We have built some really strong relationships in this particular market. We really owe it to our partners across the board, across all segments. We have started to invest a lot more in India now. We have Hindi now, which has been launched on the website and the app. We want to be able to be more relevant to Indian consumers outside of the metro cities as well.
We have a great brand name, but not a lot of Indians outside these metro cities are aware of our name. So, we have a lot of work left to do in terms of making sure that our brand name is better recognized across the country.
We have always been very big on digital marketing. We are one of the biggest spenders on Google in general. But in the last few years there has been a little bit of a shift towards brand marketing, because we recognise that brand marketing is also very important.
So, therefore these investments in sports tourism in the LGBTQ plus segment, which we are also investing in, in a few priority markets globally… I’m sure this is only the beginning. We will hopefully continue to do more as far as the brand marketing is concerned, because we recognise that ultimately digital and brand is very important because we want to continue to be on top of mind for the Indian consumer.
What are some of the key trends that you foresee in 2024?
We just released our last quarter earnings report and the numbers continue to be very strong. When I look at what is on the books for at least the next few months, the travel demand continues to be strong and we are not seeing people sort of trading down just yet. What I mean by that is somebody who is staying, let’s say, in a five star hotel previously continues to stay at a five-star hotel. They’re not suddenly spending less and staying at a four-star hotel. So, as of now, consumer sentiment is still strong. But having said that, if prices continue to increase as they are at the moment, at some point it might have a knock-on effect on the consumer. But I would say the outlook for 2024 is cautiously optimistic.