U.K. imposes new rules for selling hotels online

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Several OTAs and metasearch sites have agreed to adhere to new rules for selling hotel rooms, following a probe by the U.K.'s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). 

The CMA on Wednesday said Expedia, Booking.com, Agoda, Hotels.com, ebookers and Trivago will be subject to new regulations addressing search result transparency, pressure selling, discount claims and hidden charges. 

According to the CMA, the companies cooperated with its investigation and voluntarily agreed to its provisions. The CMA also said not all the companies engaged in the practices it identified.

All have agreed to clearly state how hotels are ranked in search results; not falsely inform consumers about the popularity or availability of a hotel, for instance highlighting that other consumers are looking at the same hotel, even if they're searching for different travel dates; be clearer about discounts and only promote deals actually available at that time; and disclose all taxes and fees upfront.

The CMA launched its investigation last year due to "serious concerns" around those issues. The CMA said it "was concerned that practices such as giving false impression of a room's popularity or not displaying the full cost of a room upfront could mislead people, stop them finding the best deal and potentially break consumer protection law."

The authority has not found any of the sites in breach of consumer law; according to the CMA, such a ruling could only come from a court.

Booking.com and Agoda are Booking Holdings brands.

"We are pleased that the CMA has closed its investigation, without finding admission of infringement on behalf of Booking.com," a Booking Holdings spokesperson said in a statement. "We are constantly optimizing the consumer experience on our website and mobile apps in an ongoing effort to deliver a best-in-class experience for our customers. We test many iterations of content as part of this optimization process to ensure that the information displayed to users is relevant to their booking experience. 

"Many of the commitments named by the CMA are already in place for Booking, but we have agreed to test and implement new commitments, like pricing inclusive of all fees."

The remainder of the sites -- Expedia, Booking.com, Hotels.com, ebookers and Trivago -- are Expedia Group brands.

In a statement, Expedia Group said it "invested significant time an energy into working closely with the CMA to create a helpful industry standard for all U.K. booking sites offering accommodation search and booking services."

The company noted that the CMA closed its investigation with Expedia Group admitting no liability and the CMA not assigning any liability.

"We continue to believe our practices did not breach any consumer laws," the statement said. "That said, we are surprised and disappointed in the CMA's description of our partnership with them in the CMA's press announcement, which we believe mischaracterizes the collaborative and good-faith approach taken in establishing industry standards which are new and result in more transparency for consumers than in offline markets. We are, however, pleased the CMA has been clear that it views this new standard as one applicable to all participants in the industry, whether online travel agents, search engines and metasearch sites or the direct sites of accommodation providers."

While the six websites that have agreed to the CMA's requirements are some of the biggest in the industry, chairman Andrew Tyrie said the CMA will urge others to comply.

"The CMA will now do whatever it can to ensure that the rest of the sector meets the same standards," he said in a statement.

Changes must be made by Sept. 1, but the CMA noted the sites have already begun making changes. The competition authority said it will monitor compliance, and that it expects other OTAs, metasearch engines and hotel chains to adhere to the same timeline.

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