Talking business: Joost Vermeulen, Booking.com

George Sell By George Sell
Uploaded 01 May 2017

SAN talks to Joost Vermeulen, regional manager, Middle East and Africa at Booking.com about the company's plans for the regions's serviced apartment sector.

• How long has Booking.com been active in the MEA market?
"We set up our first office in the region in Dubai in 2006. At Booking.com we have always followed the demand of our customers in making strategic decisions about how and where to look for new business opportunities. As we saw increasing interest from our customers to book stays not only in Dubai but throughout the entire region, we knew it was time to explore the possibility of opening an office here. Because maintaining strong local relationships with our accommodation partners has always been super important to us, we now have several local offices throughout the Middle East and Africa, including in Jeddah, Accra, Nairobi, Cairo, Marrakech, Casablanca, Port Louis, Cape Town and Johannesburg."

• What would you say are the major differences in this market in terms of booking behaviour when compared with say the US and Europe?
"The Middle East and Africa is an enormous region with tremendous diversity, including a wide range of both developing and more mature travel markets. Many travellers in this market like to travel within the region though we also see growing appetite for international destinations, both on and off the beaten track. One of the biggest shifts we've been seeing for years, both globally and in the MEA region, is that more and more travellers are researching and making their bookings via a mobile device. In fact, well over a third of bookings globally on Booking.com now come from a smartphone or tablet. As mobile technologies continue to evolve, customer expectations of the mobile travel experience are also expanding, a trend that is particularly marked in the MEA region where some markets have very high smartphone penetration."

"Another big trend that has been accelerating in recent years is the appetite of travellers to explore a wider variety of different stay experiences beyond the traditional hotel. Travellers are hungry for unique, local options and are actively seeking out and booking stays in apartments, holiday homes and more exotic options such as tree houses, igloos and even boats. In fact, these types of non-hotel accommodations now make up 70 per cent of the more than 1.2 million accommodation options on Booking.com. This is great news for the serviced apartment industry, as the combination of space, convenience and a more home-like experience that these stays typically offer is something we see appealing to both leisure and business travellers from all over the world."

• How big a proportion of your MEA portfolio is serviced apartments/extended stay/branded residences?
"In a more mature market like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, serviced apartments are a very important component of our overall apartment offering. In other fast-growing markets throughout the region, the serviced apartment inventory is still developing to meet market demand which means there's quite a bit of room for potential growth. As always, we're excited to explore new opportunities with accommodation providers of all kinds in order to bring even more choice to our customers booking stays in the MEA region."

• How does your MEA business in the serviced apartments/extended stay/branded residences market break down in terms of business v leisure travel, and how do you see this changing over the next few years?
"Overall on Booking.com, one in five bookings is made for business, so business travellers are a significant and important piece of our customer base. That being said, while the serviced apartment market has traditionally been dominated by the corporate business traveller, we see real opportunities here to support the growing appetite of leisure travellers to explore these types of stays as well, especially considering that most serviced apartments include some kind of kitchen facilities.  From what we see from our customers, this makes them an attractive option for families and groups of friends that want to prepare their own meals and enjoy some additional, private communal space that isn't always available when staying in a more traditional hotel. Add to that the extra amenities that one typically associates with a hotel stay, such as gym access, restaurants, a concierge, etc. and this blending of traditional hotel services with a more spacious, local stay experience offers the best of both worlds and is something we see appealing to a broad range of travellers on Booking.com."

• Which regional markets in MEA are your strongest performers in terms of serviced apartments/extended stay/branded residences, and which do you see as up and coming locations?
"As more mature travel markets, the UAE and South Africa have robust offerings for consumers looking for serviced apartments, and we see potential for more emerging markets to grow. That being said we also see really strong potential throughout Africa, such as in Ghana and Kenya, as many of these growing economies continue to develop and attract a wider range of both business and leisure travellers over the coming years."

• Do you think the serviced apartments/extended stay/branded residences are set to experience similar oversupply issues to mainstream hotels in the region?
"At Booking.com, our aim has always been to help our accommodation partners to capitalise on the demand from global travellers to visit their destination and ultimately book a stay at their property, empowering them to grow their business via our platform. The global travel industry is continuing to grow rapidly and from where we sit, there is still plenty of room to develop further."

• In terms of nationalities, who are your biggest inbound customers to the MEA, and how do you see this changing over the next few years?
"Again, the Middle East and Africa is a vast region and there are huge differences between different destinations and markets. If you look at a market like Dubai, over the past year it was most popular on Booking.com with inbound travellers coming from Saudi Arabia, the UK, and Oman. Whereas in a different market like Johannesburg, it was most popular with inbound bookers coming from the UK, Germany and Brazil. As various economies and travel markets continue to evolve, different travel patterns will continue to emerge. From what we see at Booking.com, global travel is only going to continue growing with more and more customers from every corner of the globe feeling even more empowered and confident about exploring new destinations, both close to home and further afield."

Booking.com is a sponsor for the 2017 Serviced Apartment Summit MEA, which takes place in Dubai on November 12 and 13.

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