Executive Q&A: Expedia’s New CEO on Travel, Trump and Transition

Mark Okerstrom lays out his plan for Expedia.

November 27, 2017

Dan Shafer

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JOURNEYMAN: CEO Mark Okerstrom joined Expedia in 2006 as SVP for corporate development and became CFO and EVP of operations in 2011. Photo by John Vicory.

This article appears in print in the December 2017 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

During the past decade, Mark Okerstrom has risen through the ranks at Expedia, serving most recently as CFO before taking the reins as president and CEO after Dara Khosrowshahis surprising move to Uber. Each step, much to Okerstroms delight, has moved him closer to the center of decision making. Even in college, he says, he wondered how to get on to a board. Being at the point where the impactful decisions are being made, he says, I find super interesting and engaging.

Now, as the leader of a company with estimated 2017 revenue of more than $10 billion and more than 20,000 employees, and with brands such as HomeAway that must go head to head with the likes of Airbnb, he will face plenty of tough decisions. Among them will be handling the companys pending move of its headquarters from Bellevue to the former Amgen corporate campus on the shores of Elliott Bay in Seattle.

TRAVEL: I grew up just outside of Vancouver [British Columbia], where my parents were teachers. We were not big on traveling. A big trip for us would be an RV trip to the interior of British Columbia, or to America to Whidbey Island or Seattle. At [University of British Columbia] law school, I met my wife, who convinced me that instead of windsurfing and mountain biking all summer, we should go to Europe. My mind was blown. I was like, Oh, my God! There are so many other beautiful places in this world! It really opened my eyes.

TRANSFORMATION: Since 2006, we have gone through one transformation after another. One thing Expedia has over most every other company on the internet is we embrace change. This is an organization thats almost like a Transformer. We can reconfigure ourselves and readjust like no other company Ive seen.

ACQUISITIONS: We dont acquire to make up for some internal weakness. Usually, we do it to add scale, as we did from 2014 to 2016 when we bought Wotif Group, Travelocity, Orbitz and a lot of the other big travel players. There will be more opportunity to do deals, but if you compare the next five years to the last five years, a significantly greater amount of the value that Expedia creates will be from better operating what we already have.

MOVE TO SEATTLE: We are close to being final on the building design and are working closely with our landscape architects. Not to give too much away, I think there will be opportunity for us to enhance some of the public spaces and hopefully make that whole area just a little bit more accessible and pleasant for the people of Seattle.

LEAVING BELLEVUE: The bulk of the move is going to happen in 2020, when well have about 4,500 to 5,000 employees [here]. It will be difficult for some folks. One of the reasons we talked about our plans publicly very early on was to give employees the opportunity to make alternative arrangements. By the time we move there, we hope it will be a minimal disruption.

LEADERSHIP TRANSITION: It all happened very quickly. As soon as it was announced, we just executed on the plan we had in place. On Wednesday, Im appointed CEO. By Friday, Alan Pickerill is appointed CFO. And by Monday, were back to business as usual. We take succession planning here very seriously. Ill miss Dara. I sat beside him, traveled the world with him and was really in lock step with him on the leadership of this company for the better part of the last six years. But, hes still on our board, and I still have his cell number.

UBER OR EXPEDIA: I love this company. As cool and hip as Uber is, they move black cars around. Were the platform for the global movement of people around the world. We work in one of the largest industries in the world. My hope is the next chapter of Expedia is even more exciting than the next chapter of Uber.

GOING GLOBAL: We are still a pretty U.S.-centric company. We plant a lot of flags we have hotel relationships in 220 countries around the world but we can do much better in making sure that for that French, Malaysian or Brazilian customer, no matter where they want to go, weve got a place to stay, a way to get there and a description that actually sounds like its being spoken in your native tongue. If we do that right, youll start to see Expedia reach its full potential.

CUSTOMERS: Were still in the early stages of being truly customer centric. A lot of what weve done so far is to make more transparent to people what their options are and make it easy for them to book their travel. Our investments in machine learning, messaging and voice will really one-up the old personalized travel agent experience.

HOMEAWAY: Its a huge opportunity for us. Airbnb has created a new category and raised awareness for alternative accommodations to where consumers and property owners now trust and rely on online bookability. Its a path that HomeAway is just absolutely blazing right now.

THE TRUMP EFFECT: Were a travel company, so when you put the words ban and travel together, thats not a good thing. But people just tend to change where they travel to. When the laptop ban was put on Middle Eastern carriers flying into the United States, we saw travel from the Middle East into Asia and other areas pick up. While the global travel industry will be fine, the real tragedy is that one of nine jobs in the United States are in travel and tourism. If you really want to Make America Great Again, then you have to support this industry. Bringing people from around the world to the United States, whatever their religious or cultural affiliations or interests, is important. To the extent that you send contrary messages, its bad for this country.

This article appears in print in the December 2017 issue. Click here for a free subscription.