More than one year ago China’s finance, logistics and tourism conglomerate HNA Group and NASDAQ-listed online technology specialists NetEase announced plans for an all-new “internet travel company”.
The announcement said the JV “will put customers first and foremost and use the strengths of both companies to provide the most efficient and enjoyable travel experience for users.”
The two business are serious players. HNA Group made it into 2015’s Fortune 500 with revenues in excess of USD 25 billion per annum; NetEase has a market capitalization (at the time of writing) of more than USD 8 billion.
But it appears that their JV is so far not coming along.
Neither HNA Group’s or NetEase’s in-house or agency communications teams were able to provide an update. There is no mention of the JV anywhere since the widely distributed release. It does not appear to have been mentioned on any of the NetEase earnings call transcripts hosted by Seeking Alpha.
There are a number of questions here. At one-end of the scale, there is a simple generic question about how long it takes for a startup to get off the ground.
The release said that Lede, the wholly-owned unit of NetEase which was bringing its “technical and marketing” expertise to the JV, signed a strategic framework cooperation agreement in December 2014 with HNA. So the OTA’s partners had six months or so to talk before the official launch announcement over a year ago.
HNA Group has a whole load of travel and tourism related interests – airlines, airports, hotels, forex, equity stakes in tour operators – so it’s not as if the OTA would have needed to cold-call suppliers to build up inventory.
At the other end of the scale, there is a regulatory question about the extent to which businesses can “announce” something to the market and then not deliver on that.
The answer is probably less conspiratorial. The wall of silence doesn’t help, so it would be misleading to talk in terms of the JV being cancelled until someone confirms that this is the case.
But a lot has happened in the online travel sector in China since May 2015, which may or may not have prompted a rethink on the JV. Clearly the biggest changes involve China’s biggest player, Ctrip. Since the JV was announced Ctrip has completed its share swap agreement with Baidu and now owns 45% of its rival Qunar, with Baidu now owning 25% of Ctrip.
And also just before the JV, Expedia announced that it was selling eLong to a bunch of investors – including Ctrip – for USD 670 million. Ctrip, in conjunction with fellow investor Tencent, has since taken eLong private.
So Ctrip, which is by far China’s biggest OTA (to say nothing of its significance on the global stage) is a lot bigger and stronger. For any business looking to get into China’s online travel sector Ctrip is a pretty high barrier (although it was still pretty high when the JV was announced).
The so-called slowdown in China’s economy – 2015’s growth came in at 6.9%, better than most western economies but still China’s poorest return for 25 years – might have also impacted the JVs thinking, although all the indicators suggest that China’s travel industry will continue to grow and that “online” remains a small part of the overall market.
Perhaps there is something in HNA Group’s various business units having been quite busy – this April HNA Tourism has bought Carlson hotels having taken a stake in French tour operator Pierre & Vacances late 2015. Closer to home it was part of a USD 78 million funding round for China’s Zhubaijia, an Airbnb-type business.
And its airlines unit has been expanding its interests outside China, adding stakes in Brazil’s Azul and most recently Virgin Australia.
As mentioned previously, HNA has a wealth of travel supply which it could distribute via its own JV and it certainly has fingers in more pies than it did a year ago.
Assuming that the JV with Lede is still a work in progress (and unless we hear otherwise that is what we will assume), it is still strongly backed, with access to even more supply. But whether or not the JV will have the scale to compete with the Ctrip behemoth remains to be seen.
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