In the battle between the two remaining online giants for dominance of Internet-based travel sales, Expedia’s recent acquisitions might make it the biggest fish in the pond, but Priceline Group appears to have its sights set on growing the pond itself.

Once its acquisition of Orbitz is complete — and having acquired Travelocity last month — Expedia will leapfrog Priceline to become the world’s largest online travel agency (OTA) by global bookings. Even so, Expedia’s increased market share will likely do little to slow the growth of Priceline, which is clearly focused on buying more peripheral companies while improving consumer-facing technologies within its growing stable of brands.

With Priceline last week reporting 2014 increases of 28% in travel bookings, 24% in revenue and 28% in net income, analysts said the company was poised to maintain if not increase both its travel industry exposure and bottom line.

Analysts attributed much of Priceline’s growth to its acquisitions of companies such as restaurant-reservation booking service OpenTable, the metasearch leader Kayak and Buuteeq, which specializes in digital marketing for hotels. (The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Priceline will also buy hotel-booking startup Rocketmiles for $20 million, though Priceline declined to comment on that report when contacted by Travel Weekly on Feb. 19.)

In addition, Priceline last year invested $500 million in Ctrip, China’s dominant OTA, giving it a foothold in the world’s fastest-growing source market. As part of the deal, Priceline’s agreed to list Ctrip’s inventory of Chinese hotels.

Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, said that many of those acquisitions are within more fragmented industries than the traditional OTA space, enabling Priceline to grow rapidly while broadening its margins.

Harteveldt also noted the acquisition of Buuteeq introduced Priceline to the B2B space.

Priceline last year invested $500 million in Ctrip, China’s dominant OTA, giving it a foothold in the world’s fastest-growing source market.

Priceline’s strategy marks a counterpoint to that of Expedia, which spent $280 million on Travelocity and will spend about $1.34 billion on Orbitz. With such companies in tow, Expedia could control between two-thirds and three-quarters of all OTA bookings by Americans, according to Phocuswright (Phocuswright parent Northstar Travel Media also owns Travel Weekly).

As it is, Priceline has been far more adept than Expedia or Orbitz at growing the margins on its travel bookings. Last year, Priceline collected almost 17 cents on every dollar booked through its websites, compared with about 11 cents for Expedia and 7.5 cents for Orbitz.

Additionally, both Harteveldt and Clayton Reid, CEO of hospitality marketing firm MMGY Global, highlighted the value of the broader range of data that Priceline can collect from its customers.

Currently, the OTAs sell to data exchanges such as Sojern, Rocketfuel and others, Reid said. He added that those data exchanges become all the more valuable as the growth rate of travel bookings on OTAs, especially in the U.S., slows.

“These guys scrape transactional data from the OTAs and sell it to specific advertisers who can target specific messages based on past transactional behavior,” Reid said. “I think it’s going to be much more about data and data exchange than consumer-facing transaction models.”

For his part, Priceline CEO Darren Huston, speaking on last week’s earnings call, was sanguine about his company’s growth strategy as well as its prospects competing against a larger Expedia. And investors seem to agree, as Priceline shares surged about 15% between Feb. 11, the last trading day before Expedia announced its planned Orbitz acquisition, and Feb. 19, when Priceline’s earnings were announced.

“We’re focused on buying premium and winning brands that either add new geographies, business verticals or competencies,” Huston said. “It’s all been adjacent growth vs. doubling or tripling down on similar brands.”

And, posturing or not, Huston welcomed the news of Expedia’s role consolidating the OTA space.

“If you add both all of our businesses and Expedia’s businesses together, it’s still less than 10% of the total opportunity space,” he said. “There’s still plenty of room to grow.”


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