Expedia CEO: A mission to simplify helped during the pandemic

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Peter Kern of Expedia Group was interviewed by Yeoh Siew Hoon of Web in Travel.
Peter Kern of Expedia Group was interviewed by Yeoh Siew Hoon of Web in Travel. Photo Credit: Jamie Biesiada

Before the pandemic began, Expedia Group had already embarked on a mission to simplify a complex company, a task that CEO Peter Kern believes helped better position Expedia as it headed into the coronavirus crisis.

After a December 2019 management shakeup that saw the ouster of then-CEO Mark Okerstrom, chairman Barry Diller announced his plans to streamline the company. Kern, who was already vice chairman, was named CEO of Expedia in April.

Kern reflected on the work at Expedia's virtual Explore 20 conference Wednesday in a conversation with Web in Travel founder and Travel Weekly Asia editorial director Yeoh Siew Hoon.

"Expedia was a company built, to some extent, on a lot of acquisitions, a lot of brands, a lot of things, and I think we ran that play as far as it could go," Kern said. "And we were thinking it was time to get a little more refined. The big winners, the best tech companies in the world, tend to do a few things very well, not a thousand things very well."

Kern hopes Expedia will do very well in three areas, he said: Understand the customer, drive success for suppliers with its tools and services -- "and I want to be the best travel technology platform in the world, period."

Under Diller's direction, the company was to cut projects, encourage a single marketing strategy and rely less on Google and metasearch. It embarked on a plan to achieve savings of hundreds of millions of dollars in 2020. Expedia's job cuts in February of about 3,000 was part of its drive to simplify the company.

Kern also addressed the return of corporate travel, citing recent remarks from Microsoft founder Bill Gates that he believed more than half of business travel will disappear as a result of the pandemic. Kern wasn't quite as pessimistic.

"Pick your industry with lots of travel: Consultants, accountants, insurance, whatever," he said. "They're going to start traveling again, and as soon as the people that are still traveling are booking more business than the people who are not traveling, everyone is going to be traveling again. Because they're going to figure out that when they meet with their customers  more gets done."

Kern said he believed there could be a decrease in travel within a company, and corporate travel will likely be slower to come back than leisure. "But I do think largely it will be back."

In a media briefing after the conference, Kern said he believed Expedia's early rightsizing and simplification activity helped position the company to at least somewhat better combat the effects of the pandemic.

"I think it put us ahead of the curve in terms of some of the moves that other companies had to get to reactively," he said. "We were kind of already on our front foot. We're a pretty big company. It takes a lot of work to figure that out. So I think we were ahead of that curve, and that certainly helped us."

Of course, as the pandemic wore on, all travel companies, Expedia included, have had to dig deeper to hang on through the crisis, Kern said. For Expedia, that meant furloughs, executive compensation freezes and more.

But already having a blueprint in place as far as restructuring the business was helpful, Kern said.

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