26 Apr 2018

Trivago – referrals up, revenues stable, income and share price down

Trivago‘s performance in the first three months of the year is a mixed bag of metrics, and despite attempts to paint a positive picture, the market was unimpressed and its share price fell to an all-time low.

The press release headline talked about an “increase in qualified referrals [leading] to broadly stable revenues.” Qualified referrals of 189.5 million were up 18% compared with the same quarter last year. The broadly stable revenues were in fact down 3% at €259.4 million over the same period.

The albeit slight drop in revenue was attributed for “significant headwinds from foreign exchange effects” which is a macro issue over which Trivago (and indeed all global players) have little control over. But it also noted “a decline in commercialization,” an area where it has more, but not total, autonomy.

Commercialization is explained in the “marketplace” and “recent trends” section of its earnings release, and refers to how much Trivago makes from the referrals. This decline appears to be part of the reason why the analysts got antsy – the revenue per qualified lead (RPQR) in the first three months across the entire Trivago business came in at €1.35, a 9% drop on Q1 2017.

By region, RPQR for the Americas was down 12% at €1.62, Europe was down 3% at €1.49 with the rest of the world down 10% at €0.91.

Foreign exchange clearly impacts here – the US figure was actually up 2% in dollar terms, but again, the statement talked about the commercialization, saying: “we continued to experience sustained lower levels of our commercialization as our largest advertisers appeared to have increased their return on investment targets for their spend on our marketplace compared to the first quarter of 2017.”

Having said that, Trivago said “we are making improvements to our platform that we believe are improving the traffic quality generated for our advertisers and are generating qualified referrals, customers, bookings or revenue and profit for our advertisers at rates similar to or even greater than those in the past.”

This disconnect here could be to do with what the advertisers want, namely the return on investment they expect from what they spend on Trivago. Even if Trivago is improving its platform as it claims, those improvements appear to be falling short of what the advertisers want.

Expedia Group and Booking Holdings remains Trivago’s biggest advertisers. In the first three months of 2018, each accounted for 38% of Trivago’s revenues. Compared with the last three months of 2017, Expedia’s share is down by 1%, Booking up by 4%.

The net result of the struggle with commercialisation is that Trivago had to admit that revenues for 2018 were likely to be flat, and adjusted EBITDA in the red somewhere between €25 million and €50 million.

The first quarter income and EBITDA were not only both down but also turned from black from red. A net loss was €21.8 million this time compared with a gain of €7.7 million in Q1 2017, while adjusted EBITDA came in at a loss of €21.9 compared with a positive €19.3 million.

The market’s negative response to the short-term declines contrasts with Trivago’s positive approach to its long-term quality-over-quantity approach, although even this upbeat soundbite has a caveat: “Since we make these changes by optimizing for traffic quality instead of volume, these changes will tend to have a negative impact on Qualified Referrals, but we believe they will have a long-term positive impact on RPQR (although RPQR may still decline if our commercialization declines).

This is a familiar story in the world of online travel, particularly for public businesses that have to let the world know how they are performing every three months. Many, but not all, online players are able to square the circle between short-terms losses and a long-term vision.

But Trivago’s current reliance on two big advertisers means that the delivery of its financial future is to an extent in the hands of others, however good the operational execution of its long-term vision is.

Click here for Trivago’s Investor Relations page from where the earning release, presentation and earnings call webcast can be accessed.