Last week Which? published a report criticising the continuing use of, “dodgy practices” by major Online Travel Agents (OTAs) ahead of the summer season. The report does, in the OTA’s defence, acknowledges that following a Competition and Marketing Authority (CMA) investigation concluded in early February 2019, the 6 major OTA’s directly involved in the original investigation still have until 1 September 2019 to comply. The essence of the Which? report is that these OTA’s are acting too slowly to phase out the four main misleading promotional techniques widely used and, thus, holiday makers could be, “left out of pocket” if booking with them before 1 September 2019. The report can be accessed via the “Sharing economy and OTAs” main menu tab or go direct to: https://britishdestinations.net/tourism-the-sharing-economy-and-its-wider-implications/
Earlier reports on the investigation and the findings can be found further down the same Britishdestinations.net page. In considering the Which? report it is worth noting that:
CMA did not produce a finding on whether the sites breached the consumer protection law (only a court can do this), but as a result of its findings and the voluntary compliance of the six sites in question, the authority set out standards by which it will monitor their compliance:
- The OTAs must make it clearer how hotels are ranked in search results and tell consumers when the results rankings have been affected by the amount of commission the hotel pays the site.
- The OTAs cannot give a false impression of the availability or popularity of a search result or otherwise rush consumers into booking decisions based on incomplete information. For example, if a site shows that other consumers are looking at the same hotel, they must make it clear that those consumers may be searching for different dates.
- The OTAs must be clearer about discounts and promote only deals that are available at that time, as well as use similar properties and price periods in comparisons. “For example, some sites were comparing a higher weekend room rate with a weekday rate or comparing the price of a luxury suite with a standard room.”
- The OTAs must display all mandatory charges, including taxes, booking fees, or resort fees in the headline price. They may show such charges individually in a price breakdown, but the total cost must be shown up front.
If the OTAs breach the terms of the voluntary agreements, the CMA may opt to apply to the courts for an enforcement order. Given these circumstances only time will tell whether the CMA findings are as definitive or its voluntary agreement approach as effective as many in the rest of tourism industry might have originally assumed. It is also unclear, to me at least, what if any progress the CMA has made towards obtaining voluntary agreements from any other OTAs. Ownership of different platforms by the same groups almost certainly complicate this; for example, several of the original six OTA’s involved in the CMA agreement are part of the same group, but not all of that group’s platforms are as yet included.
If nothing else the Which? report is extremely helpful in keeping the issue in the public eye and in doing so ensuring that the CMA are also alive to developments, or the lack of them, up to 1 September and critically beyond. Instinct suggest to me that the February finding where not the end of the matter and that OTA’s and questionable marketing practice issues may have some way yet to run.