The hyper-competitive online travel market in China welcomes – if that’s the world – a new entrant with news that HNA Group and NetEase are combining to launch a brand-new business.
The announcement comes at the same time as the market assimilates the news that Expedia Inc has sold its stake in eLong to a group of investors, including Ctrip, for $670 million. This week’s news that Priceline has invested another $250 million into Ctrip is another corporate move to consider.
NetEase is an internet services business in China, listed on NASDAQ, which has a big online gaming business, operates one of China’s most popular free e-mail services and has an advertising-led e-commerce business. It’s wholly-owned subsidiary Lede Technologies will contribute “technical and marketing support” to the JV.
HNA Group will be in charge of “operations and products.” The conglomerate has interests in aviation, holdings, capital, tourism and logistics. The aviation unit’s shining star is Hainan Airlines, which carries 27 million passengers a year on domestic and international routes. There are other regional and domestic airlines in HNA Group’s portfolio, as well as a number of airports. In total its airlines carried 72 million passengers in 2014; 33 million people passed through its airports.
Hainan recently announced that it had linked up with OpenJaw Technologies and Travelsky to offer its passengers a full travel retailing experience. OpenJaw said at its T-Retailing Summit in Ireland last week that Hainan is now the only airline in China which integrates hotels into the booking flow.
The Travelsky/OpenJaw/Hainan collaboration also allows Hainan to distribute its full retailing offer via third parties such as LY, Qunar and Taoboa. The connection between what Hainan can now do thanks to the OpenJaw/TravelSky tie-up and what it might do via the JV with NetEase are clear, although there is no indication that OpenJaw and Travelsky might be drafted in to the JV. Travelsky for example has a payment aggregation API, easyPay, which can accept payments from thirty or so different providers, a service which the JV sounds interested in developing.
Meanwhile OpenJaw said that it was looking to bring in other HNA Group inventory onto its platform. HNA’s hospitality group owns and manages more than 450 hotels in China and overseas, including Tangla Hotels and Resorts, its international brand for Chinese tourists.
Last year HNA became the largest shareholder in NH Hotels. Elsewhere, HNA’s tourist unit – separate from hospitality and airlines – handles nearly two million passengers a year. It has 73 travel agencies, luxury cruise operator Henna and a forex business TransForex.
Details about the JV are thin on the ground – a NetEase spokesperson declined to say what URL the JV would operate under or indeed to say anything other than what is in the statement. Nonetheless, the size of the two businesses involved in the JV means that this new market entrant is likely to become a significant player in the medium term.
HNA Group’s revenues for 2014 were RMB 170 billion ($27 billion); NASDAQ-listed NetEase has a market cap of more than $19 billion. While the established players sacrifice profits for market share in the short-term, a deep-pocketed new entrant into the market could lead to a further squeezing of margins and a possible shake-up in the established order.
All this is said with the knowledge that Alibaba is still waiting in the wings with Alitrip. And once Alitrip is up and running, “hyper-competitive” will be an understatement.
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