Trip.com Group ready to hit the accelerate button on growth and investments

“Covid slowed us down but we will continue growth trajectory in Asia,” says James Liang

THE pandemic has not derailed Trip.com Group’s mission to be the leading international travel brand in Asia by 2022 and the leading international travel brand in the world by 2025 – a goal it shared during its 20th anniversary in 2019 – it has merely slowed it down.

Speaking at last week’s WiT Homecoming conference via video from Boston, co-founder and executive chairman James Liang, said, “We are not cutting back during the pandemic. We didn’t have a lot of opportunity to invest during Covid, but unlike our competitors who have  extensively cut back their investments, we’re staying put and keeping our team intact.

WiT’s Yeoh Siew Hoon (left) in conversation with Trip.com Group’s James Liang at WiT Experience Singapore

“We will resume
our expansion and investments very quickly when Asia starts to recover. Covid
slowed us down a bit, but we’ll continue this growth trajectory in Asia.”

Liang, who was in
Boston as part of a four-month long trip, laughingly said that he could be
representative of what is being termed as “revenge travel” – Chinese travellers
making longer trips to make up for lost travel time during the height of the
pandemic – although he is for sure ahead of the curve.

The question is
when will Chinese travellers return en masse to destinations in Asia and
beyond? He predicted “three to six months”.

That of course
depends on countries agreeing to recognise Covid-19 vaccines, apart from those
in their national vaccination programmes and vaccines under WHO’s emergency
use, including those from China. He stressed it is essential that all vaccines
are recognised as proof for entry for full tourism recovery to happen.

As to when China
will open to international tourists, Liang said “it’s just a matter of time.”

He believes that
if countries in Asia are prepared to live with the Covid virus and treat it
like the flu, like some Western countries are doing, then the region’s opening
could be imminent.

“Probably in one
or two months, we’ll see new rich small countries in Asia (citing Singapore as
an example) with high vaccination rates starting to reopen. In three to four
months when most Asian countries, including Thailand, Korea and Japan, start to
open up, then China will feel the pressure to open soon.”

He is also optimistic that the move to hybrid work by companies will have a positive impact on travel. In August this year Trip.com Group launched its “2021 Hybrid Work Trial”, a six-month programme (August 9 to January 30, 2022) in which its employees will work from home on Wednesdays and Fridays. 

He described this initative as “a huge thing as the last time the work schedule changed from a 50-hour week to 40 hours was probably 80 years, 100 years ago. There hasn’t been such a big change since then, but the pandemic really accelerated this change.”

This flexibility in work will have a positive impact on the travel industry, with more people having more time for vacations and changing the way they take holidays, he added.

Flexibility in work will have a positive impact on the travel industry, with more people having more time for vacations and changing the way they take holidays: James Liang. (Image credit: molchanovdmitry/Getty Images)

And as travel
takes off, Trip.com Group will resume its expansion including investments.
Asked if this could mean “revenge investments”, Liang said, “Yes, it depends on
how fast we can recover. Signs in Asia are encouraging. Recently, thanks to
Singapore opening up to international tourists, despite having a number of
infected cases, we saw a tremendous increase in searches for hotels and flights
coming out of Singapore.”

There may not be many bookings yet, but the trend is encouraging, he said. “When we see recovery like this, we will definitely speed up our investments.”

Improvements in the works at Skyscanner and Trip.com

In November 2016, Ctrip (now Trip.com) acquired  UK flight search company Skyscanner for US$1.74 billion, the company’s first move into global meta-search territory.

To Liang, the best thing about the investment is that “Skyscanner is still the leading flight metasearch in the world, and has the largest share of metasearch in Europe with intra-Europe traffic now fully recovered. It gives us the opportunity to quickly introduce Trip.com’s brands to our European customers, and it accelerates our product development and our relationship with our European allies.”

On what could be
improved with Skyscanner, he cited its hotel search product. “I think we could
have made a quicker investment in building the meta hotel search product in
Skyscanner.”

For Trip.com,
there are three areas it is working on to improve.

One, international flights: “We will continue to enhance the flight product especially the international flight product that was slowed down by the pandemic.”

Two, to build up
its app. “I think we have the best app certainly in China and the features are
the richest; so we will continue to leverage that and replicate trends across
different countries.”

Three, customer
service. “Our advantage is in service. We have built several contact centres
around the world, in Japan, in Korea. We always put our customer experience
first. We are very generous in investing personnel and technology in providing
the most responsive and high quality service to our customers, so that needs to
be replicated to international markets.”

Overall, Liang
said the group could have started to develop its international non-Chinese
market sooner. “We started about two or three years ago but we could have
started earlier, so we’re kind of late to come outside of China. We’re in catch
up mode now. It takes a long time to do it, we have to be patient to grow our
market presence and grow our technology product steadily.”

Watch the video of the interview with Trip.com Group’s James Liang

Featured image: WiT’s Yeoh Siew Hoon in conversation with Trip.com Group’s James Liang

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