Despite a slow travel market, Kayak’s Gables-based Latin American Division Forges ahead.
Carolina Montenegro recalls the challenge five years ago when she started to promote travel search engine Kayak in Latin America. While the site was popular in the United States, few people south of the border knew it. Many equated Kayak with boating, not a place to compare offers on flights, hotels, car rentals, and other travel services online. Montenegro reached out to newspapers, TV, bloggers, and others to share Kayak’s story, sometimes offering data on local markets to help introduce the brand.
Today, Kayak’s Latin America division employs 14 people at its Coral Gables headquarters and another dozen in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and other key markets – up from five when Montenegro joined. She’s learned along the way how different countries require different strategies to draw customers.
“In Mexico, we talk alot about families who travel together. In Brazil, there’s more individual travel, and the tone of voice is more personal,” says Montenegro, who’s risen from marketing manager to vice president for the region. “In the US, everybody knows Kayak, so it’s easier to be funny. But in Latin America, we focus more on being educational [and] making ourselves approachable.”
Kayak was launched in 2004 in Stamford, Conn., founded by computer scientist Paul English and online-travel entrepreneur Steve Hafner (who helped start Orbitz). The company went public on Wall Street in 2012 and was soon purchased for $2 billion by a group then known as Priceline.com. It’s now part of Booking Holdings, which owns brands that range from search engines like Kayak, which make money selling ads to online travel agencies like Booking.com, which earn cash selling hotel nights and travel services.
Coronavirus has, of course, taken its toll, dropping travel demand worldwide. Kayak pivoted by finding ways to make trip choices easier, adding “flexible” filters to searches for flights (airlines with no cancellation fees, for example) and updating travel restrictions by country. Longer-term, Kayak has bigger ambitions. In April, it opened its first hotel, aiming to test software that lets guests use the Kayak app for check-in, as a room key, and then to order housekeeping and other hotel services. The company partnered with the Life House brand for the 52-room Kayak Miami Beach hotel, set in a 1930s Art Deco property.
For Montenegro, working from WeWork in Coral Gables has many pluses. The office is centrally located, an easy drive to downtown Miami or Miami International Airport, and walking distance to offices for business partners such as pay-TV channels for Latin America, where Kayak advertises. “We’ve held countless productive meetings around the Gables,” says Hector Costa, senior vice president of ad sales for AMC Networks International-Latin America, based on South Douglas Road.
Still, headwinds remain. While Kayak Latin America has done well localizing landing pages for different nationalities, and has more searches and social-media followers than local rivals Voopter and Viajala, it faces a weak travel market short- term, says Carolina Sass de Haro, Latin America specialist at travel market researcher Phocuswright. Gross travel bookings in Latin America – up 3 percent to $57.4 billion in 2019, plunged an estimated 62 percent last year to $22 billion. Bookings regionwide may not recover pre-Covid levels until 2023, says Phocuswright.
Montenegro is undaunted, however, recalling her challenges to launch the brand in Latin America. She’s already way ahead.