Concerns raised over OTA market dominance

Concerns raised over OTA market dominance

Complaints against hotel booking websites reportedly soared last year amid concerns that holidaymakers have a limited choice with two companies dominating the market.

The two biggest online travel agents have also been attacked for using their financial muscle to bully independent hoteliers.

The number of complaints against hotel booking websites jumped by 40% to more than 6,000, according to complaints handling website Resolver.co.uk.

The most complained about website was Booking.com, owned by the US travel company Priceline, The Times reported at the weekend.

Priceline and its subsidiaries and the Expedia group account for about 80% of Europe’s OTA bookings.

An apparent disregard for complaints was described as a particular gripe of Booking.com customers.

Craig Rowley had almost £600 taken unexpectedly from his bank account by an Australian hotel he found through Booking.com and was told by a member of the website’s complaints team: “Y’know, stuff happens.”

Rowley said: “We felt powerless. No resolution was found and we were none the wiser about getting our money back.”

Although the money was eventually returned, Rowley said that Booking.com staff seemed “keen to keep their company out of the picture”.

The website is not a member of any independent complaints resolution system so customers who are left dissatisfied have nowhere else to turn.

At present the law says that businesses must point consumers toward arbitration schemes but they are not obliged to sign up to them.

Lewis Shand Smith, head of the Ombudsman Services, said: “The Consumer Ombudsman received 14,000 complaints since August 2015, but businesses agreed to participate in only 2% of those cases. More needs to be done at a higher level to encourage businesses to get on board.”

David Weston, head of the B&B Association, said his members are suffering from a 20% cancellation rate because of online travel agents’ “free cancellation” policies.

“There’s pressure put on [hoteliers] to waive the cancellation fee,” he said.

“Originally they were agents of hotels, but now they’re nobody’s agent. They don’t act in our interests, and they don’t act in the consumer’s interests.”

Leslie Cafferty, of Priceline, told the newspaper that Booking.com had no plans to sign up to any form of oversight.

“There hasn’t been a need to have a third party. Our expertise is in getting people to book on Booking.com. We know what customers like. The ability to cancel is something consumers find friendly.”

Hotels were not obliged to work with Booking.com, she added.

“If you don’t want to deal with the fact that a customer might cancel at the last minute or you don’t want to pay a commission, you don’t have to do it.”

Conservative MP John Howell, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on dispute resolution, believes that major online retailers would be foolish to ignore the growing use of complaints schemes in other sectors, such as energy.

He said that major suppliers opted into these schemes because “they didn’t want to be bogged down in disputes which would be picked up by every journalist under the sun”.

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