Speculation is rife that Orbitz Worldwide is looking to sell up and go private. The company – an online travel conglomerate listed on the NYSE – has never really made it since being founded by Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines, United Airlines and American Airlines way back in 1999.
Since then Orbitz Worldwide has been through several ownership iterations – including a long period of Travelport control – that have shackled its development and direction.
Internal issues, some bad acquisitions (headlined by the horribly expensive ebookers debacle) and poor strategic decisions, on the IT front especially, have also had an impact.
Consequently its main brand Orbitz has always been a long way #3 in its home market of the US, while none of the other companies it owns – Cheaptickets, ebookers and HotelClub – has established a leadership position in their respective markets.
That said, Orbitz management led by Barney Harford has been trying hard and making some progress in recent years, although it’s quite often been a case of one step forward, two steps back.
Great recent example – in the third quarter of 2014 net revenue was up 15% while net income declined -30%. Oops.
One thing Orbitz management has succeeded in doing is reducing the company’s historic reliance on air.
More than 40% of its third quarter revenue came from standalone hotel bookings, 24% from standalone airfares.
For the full year 2014 Orbitz is forecasting net revenue and adjusted EBITDA growth of between 8% or 10%.
It believes this growth will moderate through 2015.
This is a concern, I think, because it suggests Orbitz management doesn’t hold out much hope for international growth, which is propelling the future of other US online travel companies.
Orbitz on the other hand has been unable to internationalise with 74% of its net revenue still coming from the United States, which is not a good thing.
So it hasn’t been easy, and now there’s a view that private ownership may give management some breathing space, out of the public glare, to rebuild.
But it seems to me there’s a nagging flaw in that line of thought.
Where’s the upside?
The companies operated by Orbitz are middle-weight at best.
They don’t own any particular niche or market and are not big enough to compete with the likes of Expedia and Booking.com.
Nor are they small, fresh and nimble enough to counter-attack in innovative ways.
So private equity would be left with a company stuck somewhere in the middle, getting squeezed from the top and bottom.
Of course, rival OTAs Expedia and Booking.com are also potential buyers, although it’s hard to see what they’d gain through the acquisition that they don’t have already (access to airfares in the Booking.com is one argument but why would they bother?).
And Expedia may be tied up on another big deal already.
Just a few months after wrapping up its acquisition of the Australian OTA, Wotif.com, there’s talk that Expedia wants to buy Travelocity, a deal that makes a lot of sense.
In 2013, the one-time rivals signed an marketing agreement for Expedia “to power the technology platforms for Travelocity’s existing websites in the US and Canada, while providing Travelocity access to Expedia, Inc.’s supply and customer services.”
Expedia knows the Travelocity business inside out and all substantial integration has already occurred.
Orbitz, on the other hand, remains a puzzle, as does its future.