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Economic troubles, Brexit and trade wars may affect travel companies, executives warn

VIDEO6:4706:47
Expedia Group CEO on economy, state of the consumer and competition
Key Points
  • Kayak CEO Steve Hafner tells CNBC that bookings look soft to flat going into the holidays.
  • Glenn Fogel, CEO of Booking Holdings, the largest travel operator in the world, admits there are some areas of uncertainty, pointing to Brexit and the ongoing trade war.
  • Brad Gerstner, who manages $3 billion hedge fund Altimeter Capital, says some of his biggest positions are still in online travel stocks such as Bookings Holdings and Expedia.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Mediterranean cruises and luxury spa treatments were not the major topics of conversation at the Phocuswright Travel conference in Los Angeles.

Most pressing concern? Changing consumer trends amid economic jitters.

A number of travel executives told CNBC they are bullish on the short term but admitted that the longer-term picture is becoming more uncertain given new industry dynamics and larger political headwinds, such as Brexit and trade wars.

Kayak CEO Steve Hafner told CNBC that bookings look soft to flat going into the holidays.

Other online travel leaders expect consumers to continue to travel, though the type of travel they book may change as concerns over the economy continue to rise.

"Often what happens is consumers are less willing to book that trip six months from now, twelve months from now. They're thinking, 'Let's wait and see how we're doing.' Secondly, we do see more towards domestic travel, away from international. Third is we do see often a trade down, people are spending less. But in a real downturn, sometimes you get a four-star hotel for a three-star price, and so customers are getting better value," Expedia CEO Mark Okerstrom said to CNBC.

Glenn Fogel, CEO of Booking Holdings, the largest travel operator in the world, admitted there were some areas of uncertainty, pointing to Brexit and the ongoing trade war. However, he said the tight labor market suggests the economy is in a good position and consumers will continue to spend a portion of their discretionary income on trips.

"Look at the unemployment level in the U.S. It is booming right now. We see people, when they have cash, they want to travel. So while there may be a pocket here and there that's causing concern, in the long run, the trend for travel is going to be upward," Fogel said to CNBC.

Brad Gerstner, who manages $3 billion hedge fund Altimeter Capital, said some of his biggest positions are still in online travel stocks such as Booking Holdings and Expedia.

Gerstner, while cautious on the current market landscape, said history has shown that online travel operators tend to do well amid an economic downturn.

"Ironically, if you look at 2008 and 2011, Priceline [now known as Booking Holdings] and Expedia actually accelerated in those cycles because hotels become more dependent on them to distribute their products," Gerstner said to CNBC.

Taking a step back and analyzing the recent stock market downturn, Gerstner characterized it as a "healthy correction … we're seeing opportunities."

Gerstner said Altimeter continues to like Facebook, pointing to its valuation, which he said is at a single-digit multiple.

Looking to the IPO market, while a number of companies have delayed their listings due to the recent bout of stock market volatility, Gerstner still expects Uber to list in the first half of 2019.