OTAs, or online travel agencies, offer travel services in the web-based marketplace, and are playing an increasingly large role in the marketing, distribution, and selling of travel. In step with the online travel industry’s growth is a steady uptick in court filings in the last ten years.
This article explores where cases are being filed and why. In addition, it spotlights the world’s largest OTA, Booking Holdings, Inc., and what practices have landed it in hot water with European and American regulators recently.
OTA Industry Overview
For a commission, OTAs offer a range of services like flight, hotel, cruise, rental car, and tour bookings as well as travel and holiday packages. Their main sales channels are mobile websites and apps, both increasingly preferred mediums of travel bookings according to Allied Market Research. The biggest OTA names are household ones: Booking.com and Expedia.com, for example.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic hampered the industry, its future looks bright, thanks in part to the quickness and ease of booking online and increasing customer trust in online payment. Allied Market Research further reported that the global online travel market is expected to reach $1,835.6 billion by 2031 up from its $354.2 billion valuation in 2020.
In addition to its projected growth, another notable aspect of the OTA industry is its consolidation. Booking Holdings owns Booking.com, Priceline, Agoda, Rentalcars.com, and KAYAK, as well as a network of subsidiary brands including Rocketmiles, Fareharbor, HotelsCombined, Cheapflights and Momondo. Expedia Group owns Expedia, Trivago, Hotels.com, Orbitz, Hotwire, Travelocity, CheapTickets, Ebookers, and Vrbo. Airbnb owns HotelTonight.
In September 2023, of the world’s top “online travel companies,” and according to CompaniesMarketcap.com, two were well above the rest, with significant separation between number one Booking and number two Airbnb. Entrants from the rest of the world were also depicted as major market players.
Litigation Filings Trend Upwards, Intellectual Property Registrations Downwards
The last ten years have seen a steady increase in filings involving American OTAs, with the last three months being 26% busier than average. Digging deeper, Docket Alarm Analytics show that the majority of filings are with the nation’s patent and trademark processing bodies. However, trademark filings and to a slightly lesser extent, patent registrations, have tracked downwards likely due to their once-off nature.
In terms of litigation, California courts figure significantly into the picture. A closer look at dockets from Los Angeles and San Francisco counties shows that the majority of pleadings concern premises liability, personal injury, and property damage claims.
The concentration of California lawsuits by guests and property owners is perhaps unsurprising given that the most populous state also leads the nation in hotels and motel businesses. Per a 2023 IBISWorld industry report, California has the most with 15,557 registered businesses, while Texas has 14,733 and Florida 9,410. Data from AirDNA, repackaged by Statista, shows the most popular U.S. cities for Airbnb and HomeAway listings in June 2019. Florida is home to the most, trailed by California and New York.
A look at state and federal courts where cases involving Airbnb have been filed shows that California still dominates, though one New York and one Illinois court make the top ten. Worth noting is Airbnb’s San Francisco, Calif. headquarters.
Booking Holdings Makes Recent Antitrust, Consumer Protection Headlines
The last week of September, the European Union’s antitrust watchdog denied Booking’s bid to purchase Swedish OTA ETraveli Group for $1.7 billion. The European Commission blocked the deal, citing risks that the transaction would further entrench Booking’s already dominant position in the hotel OTA market, leading to higher costs for hotels and possibly for consumers.
For its part, Booking responded that it would appeal the decision. “The Company strongly believes the Commission is wrong on both the facts of the case and the law applicable to this transaction, which was cleared unconditionally by multiple competition authorities, including the UK Competition & Markets Authority and U.S. FTC,” its press release said.
In August, Texas sued Booking for allegedly marketing hotel rooms at prices that were advertised as lower than actually available. The Texas state court complaint alleged that Booking also duped consumers by obscuring fees buried in the “taxes and fees” line item at checkout.
The Attorney General said the company’s actions not only mislead consumers but also disadvantage competing websites who transparently advertise prices.