America, meet Booking.com (Part 1)

The Booking.com lobby

The Booking.com lobby in Amsterdam, vacant only for this photo

If travel is about seeking adventure, then it is also about embracing uncertainty.

There are inherent uncertainties in every trip we take. When we hit the road, or rails, or sky, we relinquish the perceived omnipotence with which we reign over our undisturbed daily routines. We opt for the unfamiliar. We accept a reality in which we can’t know all that awaits us, and we embrace it as adventure.

Whatever new or important business drives us outside our comfort zones also crowns us champions of our lives away from home. In these lives, we are free to write our own stories, to inspire change in ourselves—to make a home of somewhere new—because we have traded in familiarity, certainty and acquired comfort. This is the agreement. At home, we can plan, and imagine, and speculate, and dream, and still find ourselves no closer to knowing what awaits us out in the world. And so we go and find out.

And hopefully, we find we chose the right place to stay:

Have you seen this ad?

It’s a Wieden + Kennedy creation, and (so naturally) it’s pretty on-point—funny, memorable and, as is so often a stumbling block these days, loyal to the product and value proposition it hopes to empower. Adventure, it reminds us, has its limitations.

All of us who’ve ever booked accommodations ahead of time have been caught in the illogical storm of stress and self-doubt swirling in that first turn of a door handle. Will we find behind it what we’d hoped for? More? Less? We want lobsters and massages, perhaps even just a nice bed to recharge for the morning, but what if we find a room with only lobsters and no beds? We’d lose our booking minds.

As Booking.com reminds us, there’s a place for certainty when booking accommodations (at least for most of us). We want to get them right, and the right online booking engine is critical in achieving that end. Is “Planet Earth’s #1 Accommodation Site” really that? And who is Booking.com really? At the company’s first-ever Booking Summit, I had the chance to find out.

In the Booking.com offices

In the Booking.com offices

Inside Booking.com
The Booking Summit was an opportunity to get to know the Booking.com brand from the inside—literally, from inside company headquarters in Amsterdam. Representatives from six online travel publications (including JohnnyJet.com) were invited to attend, and questions were encouraged.

Several two-way conversation and office tours later, I know a whole lot about Booking.com. And while all six of us are each due our own takeaway, I, at least, say there’s reason to be excited about what Booking.com is about to bring to the American travel world.

Outside Booking.com main HQ

Outside Booking.com main HQ

Despite being new to the American market, Booking.com already is the world’s leading online hotel and accommodation reservations company, and the virtuosity such standing commands was fully on display in Amsterdam. The numbers we were presented were striking; the model, overrun by innovative thinking. But striking, too, were the hints of nerves, so humanizing and engaging, from the giant’s heaviest hitters.

This, I learned after mingling my way up and down the halls and hierarchy, was in fact indicative of a larger, perhaps more encouraging truth: At Booking.com, the people behind the computer screen are real.

In an age where you probably shouldn’t watch The Matrix when you’re high, the Booking Summit was a resounding victory for emotive and reliable human interaction. Every good idea still needs the right people behind it, and I’m now pretty sure all those people are currently employed with Booking.com. Everyone, from CEO Darren Huston and CMO Paul Hennessy to the guy hanging on the coffee lounge couch, figured seamlessly into the big picture, and will at this moment be rained with complimentary adjectives: genuine, approachable, passionate, engaged, clever and innovative. Yes, the context was a PR event, but still, the rain comes.

Booking.com coffee lounge

Booking.com coffee lounge

The people behind the product matter, because back-end algorithms and powerful servers can only take you so far in an industry so connected to the human experience. The Booking.com model is stand-alone impressive (more on this below), but as the market changes, it (and its competitors) will have to adapt. Decisions will have to be made by entities capable of empathy, instinct and human collaboration. Most importantly, entrusting the fate of our accommodations—of our whole trips, even—to a so-called online travel agent (OTA) should mean a relationship, not a single transaction. And at the Booking Summit, that’s what Booking.com showed me it’s capable of.

These were people I wanted to talk longer with, hang out with and engage more deeply. More importantly, they seemed to want to be at the office as the bookings (on average, 475,000 a night) keep piling up. And why not? The culture thriving inside HQ (the customer service team works out of building down the road, by the Anne Frank House and the Westerkerk) was to the right travel-inflicted person, awesome and empowering.

The building’s interior is modern, warm and welcoming. Flat-screen televisions in the lobby, wired to some Google Maps-powered operation, tease viewers with zooms into the company’s 100+ offices all around the world. Floors are unusually open and intimate (only CEO Huston has an office). Clean, transparent glass, adhered with the giant, smiling faces of team members, lights up the hallways with the Amsterdam sun.

On the corkboard at Booking.com

On the corkboard at Booking.com

By the chilled-out coffee lounge, there’s a social corkboard, at once a space to get people together for drinks, sell a bike (it’s Amsterdam, someone will buy it) and serve as an open reminder to the team that outside-the-office passion is invited to thrive here. Most people seem to eat in the cafeteria, because it’s actually good (I particularly enjoyed the tomato and basil soup), not to mention health-conscious (I didn’t see it, but it felt like the kind of place you could find quinoa). Maybe it’s just the quinoa, but a start-up style atmosphere is immediately, and then supportingly, pervasive, and you just get the feeling that even now, at the world’s leading hotel and accommodation booking site, big things are about to happen.

Clearly, Booking.com has invested in its people—or perhaps more accurately, in the philosophy that fuels its success. Booking.com incentives (discounts, free stays) have no place here, I was told, and that has everything to do with how organic the investment reciprocated by the entire team really is (everyone I talked to still used Booking.com, for whatever that’s worth). This is a company whose founder sold the shares his hard work inflated to spend time with his family, and then came back to work as a mid-level software engineer (he’s not on the board; he just does what he loves, and eats his salad in the cafeteria like everybody else). It’s a company whose social media maverick, a cool Australian dude named Julian, made waves by piloting the Adventure Taxi—a refitted retirement home bus powered by social media, passenger donations and ingenuity, from London to Bangkok. It’s just a cool place, a home for this international family bound by a shared spirit for innovation and travel-minded pursuits. And they’re changing the game entirely.

In the heart of Amsterdam, I found a lot of reasons to feel good about Booking.com—to crown it the newest king of the online booking game, even—but none stood out as memorably as its people, culture and philosophy in this world of online booking engines until now dominated by faceless, number-crunching machines. But of course, that’s not all that impressed me. Here’s my top five (then check out Part 2, my walkthrough of my first Booking.com booking):

1. The largest selection of accommodations
Booking.com is new for us Americans, but understand it’s not a new company. It was founded in 1996 in a garage just a tram ride from today’s expansive main office, and in those early years, it was just a few enterprising (or desperate) Amsterdam-area hotels that comprised the selection. Now, the numbers speak for themselves:

  • 315,000+ properties
  • 46,000+ destinations
  • 183+ countries
  • 25 property types

It is quite literally the largest selection of properties available in one online space. And that last, smallest number is as big as any in conveying the diversity available in that selection. In all those destinations, in all those countries, you’ll find not only hotels, but B&B’s, villas, apartments, bungalows, hostels, farm stays, boats and much more to choose from. It’s worth noting that Airbnb has a larger inventory of its trademark home-stays, but it also has more legal issues (not an issue with Booking.com’s home-stays).

2. No booking fees!
Booking.com does not charge booking fees. Simple as that. And that’s game-changing, because in today’s travel marketplace, the wholesale or merchant model is pretty standard. That means pretty much all the biggest names—Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotels.com—act as a middleman in the accommodations transaction you entrust them with control of. And for their services, they charge a service fee, meaning you end up paying more than the accommodation has actually asked for.

Instead of acting as the middleman, Booking.com provides only the platform for the transaction (that’s just as secure and trustworthy as the merchants). In other words, the hotel, hostel or wherever it is you’ve decided to stay sets a price, and you as the consumer pay that price, and nothing extra. As for the dollars that would have gone towards a booking fee? Buy a croissant or something, because now you can.

Plus, they offer a Best Price Guarantee that does exactly what you’d expect it to: If you find the same accommodation priced for less on another site, and you provide the evidence within 24 hours, Booking.com will give you that price—and still minus the booking fees the other site undoubtedly charges. Keeping that policy in mind, you are incapable of anything but the lowest price possible with Booking.com.

3. Pay when you stay
Because Booking.com is only a platform for finding accommodations, it has no need for your money. You keep it, it says, and pay the property once you arrive—or when you check-out, or however the property wants to do it. The point is, Booking.com won’t charge your card, even as you guarantee yourself the perfect accommodations match, and price, using its product. It’s between you and the property, and Booking.com is just happy you met.

Perhaps in response, other sites like Expedia have begun rolling out their own takes on the pay-when-you-stay concept, but so far that option is only available on select properties.

It’s worth noting that at times it’s more convenient to pay ahead of time so you don’t have to worry later, or bring more money on your trip. Well, maybe. But it’s hard to argue with the Booking.com policy when you consider it means no cancellation fees on all but the most discounted rates.

4. 21 million reviews
That ad from above—what did it promise again? Getting your accommodations right, so important we decided, is more than anything about allowing yourself access to the right information before booking. And while some degree of uncertainty will always be there waiting in that door handle, like a trap for the Sticky Bandits, Booking.com does an admirable job preparing you to combat it.

Its 21 million user-generated property reviews are the most, by a wide margin, among its direct competitors. Across the entire travel-related Internet, only Trip Advisor (with which you can’t book) has more.

While we’re always for engaging all available tools at JohnnyJet.com (and so I’d advocate reading all the reviews you can find, anywhere), it’s also important to recognize that Booking.com restricts reviewing privileges explicitly to guests of the property being reviewed (Trip Advisor, for example, doesn’t have this filter). You have to have stayed at the property to be able to review it. Together with a simple yet detailed review form (that asks for thoughts on the good, the bad, the accuracy of the property’s profile, and more), this streamlines review quality—and limits your exposure to bad, trip-ruining information.

The Booking Truth
Fresh out of the Booking.com labs these days is something called The Booking Truth, an unprecedented exploration of the guest experience mined from the company’s massive catalogue of reviews. The findings, richly qualitative and insightful, have begun to be presented to their partnering properties to draw from as they try to improve. Other applications may be on the way, but for now, it’s just Booking.com innovation at its best. It’s also really interesting, so make sure to click that link.

5. Customer service
I’ve poured on already about the good, capable people powering Booking.com, but I must be clear: When you use their site, these people become your people—there to assist you 24/7, by phone or email. And what’s really amazing—for an online booking engine—is that they follow through.

Booking.com has invested unusually heavily in its customer service team, and with customer satisfaction at an astoundingly high 90.2%, the results warrant my harping on about. Led by Ilse, who in her mannerisms and confident enthusiasm made clear she could be doing nothing with her life but fostering exceptional customer service, the team simply outclasses the competition.

There is no quota on call volume, so the focus never strays from the quality of the conversation. All new staff are trained for four weeks in the art of the Booking.com approach, starting with a visit to Ilse’s home base in Amsterdam. All available help is in-house (in the country most relevant to you), and is available in 22 languages by phone and 41 by email. In an inspiring display of worldliness (or perhaps mindfulness), specific attention is given to dialectal and cultural complexities. As we heard, for example, the Dutch often turn to sarcasm when they are upset. A non-Dutch person might not be able to read that in a conversation, and so at Booking.com, an effort is made to get a Dutch person (not just a Dutch speaker) on the other end of the call.

No issue is too small to earn their attention, and based on the anecdotes we heard, there is a genuine investment in the customer from the moment he or she confirms a booking. If you call from an international destination, the team member on the other end will ask if you’d like to be called back so as to avoid roaming charges. If you arrive to a locked or under-construction hotel in the middle of the night, Booking.com will call the hotel, another hotel, a taxi to get you off the dark streets—whatever it takes to get you into the bed they’d agreed to procure. In my favorite story, a customer who found himself trapped in his Mexican hotel room with a broken phone sought help from the team by email. He was free and eating tacos in under an hour.

Booking.com topped the industry’s most recent J.D. Power survey, which measures customer satisfaction by surveying actual users. The people have spoken: Book with Booking.com, and book a reliable relationship with your accommodations.

I’ve spoken, too, and I say it’s worth a try. Or if you’d just prefer to check out my first experience with Booking.com, click here for Part 2.

Ian Livingston About Ian Livingston

Ian Livingston has traveled to 50 countries and six continents, carrying an unkempt, neck-heavy beard through many of them. Now living in Brooklyn, he has parlayed his passions for exploratory travel and the linguistic lens into his responsibilities as Editor here at JohnnyJet.com. His work has been featured in both local and international publications, in digital, video and print media, and he aspires to be able to continue sharing the world as he discovers it for many years to come. Get in touch at iantlivingston@gmail.com or on Google+.

Comments

  1. I’ve been using Booking.com for years to get great hotels and apartment rentals outside of the US. I didn’t even know that we didn’t have it there. There’s no other option in Europe. It’s just the best. Especially in Greece.

Trackbacks

  1. […] the end of the Booking Summit (if you’re not sure what the Booking Summit is, click here to read Part 1) signaled that it was time to depart company headquarters in Amsterdam. A tragedy really, as after […]

  2. […] forecasts suggesting more of the same may be on the way next week, Booking.com (which I’ve covered before) has offered up at least a little peace of mind to carry with you to the airport—or at least to […]

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