April 7, 2017 12:10 am JST

Expedia may accelerate hiring engineers outside US, says CEO

Trump's crackdown on skilled worker visas could backfire, Khosrowshahi warns

TOMOMI KIKUCHI, Nikkei staff writer

Expedia President and CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the company could be driven to hire more talents outside of the U.S. depending on Trump's policy. (Photo by Tomomi Kikuchi)

SINGAPORE -- U.S. President Donald Trump's tighter limits on work visas for engineers from overseas could push Expedia, the world's largest online travel agency, to hire more aggressively outside of the U.S., according to the company's chief.

"To the extent that the H-1B program becomes more restrictive ... it will probably drive us to hire more people outside of the U.S., which isn't necessarily something that the Trump administration wants," said Expedia's President and CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review in Singapore on Thursday.

The H-1B visa program is commonly used by U.S. tech firms to hire skilled workers, such as IT engineers, from abroad. While the new restrictions are expected to impact mainly outsourcing companies that hire entry-level programmers, there is a looming concern that the IT sector will also be affected.

Khosrowshahi was in Singapore to attend the launch of the company's Innovation Lab. He said Asian countries such as India, Singapore and China are among the big providers of engineers to Expedia. "We want to hire [research and development] people in the U.S. and outside of the U.S.," Khosrowshahi said. "Ultimately, it is up to [the U.S. administration] to make a decision, and we will react accordingly," he added.

At a news conference on Thursday, Khosrowshahi revealed that the company plans to almost double its engineering staff within the next five years to 10,000, from over 5,000 at the moment, with a "significant portion" hired in Asia.

Khosrowshahi, who moved to the U.S. with his family from Iran in 1978, has been a vocal critic of President Trump's immigration policies. In a recent interview with The Financial Times, he expressed concern over how the administration's stance on immigration, coupled with the strength of the dollar, is potentially making the U.S. "less attractive" for tourists from overseas, driving hotels and airlines to slash prices.

Amid turbulence in its home market, Asia is becoming increasingly important for Expedia, as the world's largest travel company by gross bookings chases growth. The travel market in the Asia-Pacific region is growing fast, as an expanding middle class travels more within the region. "The strongest emerging markets for us are in Southeast Asia now," said Khosrowshahi.

The new lab, set up inside the company's regional headquarters in Singapore, is aimed at analyzing the behavior of Asian customers. Test results from thelab will be used to tweak the company's services and website functions to better suit their needs. The lab is the company's first in Asia and the third globally, following centers opened in Bellevue, Washington, and London.

The lab utilizes sensors that track eye and facial muscle movements as people visit Expedia's website using both desktop computers and mobile devices. Eye movements can indicate which sections of the website participants are paying attention to, while minute movements of facial muscles can indicate emotions, such as frustration when hotel rooms are sold out, or happiness when looking at vacation photos.

Singapore's racial diversity makes it an ideal site to set up the first lab in Asia, according to an Expedia representative. Besides inviting participants to take part in tests in its Singapore lab, the company hopes to take the devices to nearby markets for similar experiments.

Expedia has been investing aggressively in technology. The company spent more than $1.2 billion last year, up 49% from 2015. Much of the company's innovation push comes from a desire to reach "mobile first" customers, especially in Asia, where people often only access Expedia's site from smartphones. Expedia had more visitors on mobile phones than desktop computers in almost all key Asian markets in the last quarter of 2016, the company said.

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