Inside Interactive Travel

Sidestep holds its own against Orbitz

How does Orbitz, the controversial new Web site owned by five major airlines, stack up to its competitors?

Not badly. Not badly at all.

I tested Orbitz against three other travel sites – Expedia, Travelocity and Sidestep – on four city pairs. Result: Orbitz won one of the searches hands-down and tied with Sidestep for the other. Travelocity and Sidestep took top honors for the other queries.
Orbitz Expedia Travelocity Sidestep
Atlanta –
Detroit $165 $173 $173 $165
Chicago –
Dallas/Fort Worth $263 $605 $227 $254
San Francisco –
Denver $312.09 $328 $328 $328
New York –
Los Angeles $426.50 $449.50 $349.50 $309.50

The winning fares are in boldface.

A few words about my methodology: these were searches for a nonstop, 14-day advance, round-trip, economy class fare. I discounted Expedia’s “Bargain Fares,” which were considerably cheaper, because they could have included up to one stop. Obviously, this isn’t an independent fare audit. Rather, it’s a carefully documented fare search conducted by a journalist between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 5, 2001.

Orbitz might have won in another category, New York – Los Angeles, except that between the time I went to book the quoted fare ($230 on TWA) the price had jumped to $426.50. The change was rather sudden and frustrating. Expedia’s fares for my criteria were the most disappointing, and I would have certainly given its “white label” offerings a try before booking anything else on its site. And Sidestep actually offered a fare of $0 on one of its flights, but tickets weren’t available.

Presentation. Orbitz has a simple, airy, and almost minimalist look – a welcome change from the cluttered electronic storefronts offered by Travelocity and Expedia. Although it’s a somewhat unfair comparison, I think Sidestep one-ups Orbitz on presentation criteria because it’s even simpler (it takes up about an eighth of your browser window and displays nothing except fares). I would expect the open, uncluttered design of Orbitz to be widely imitated.

Fare displays. If Orbitz had launched a year ago when it was supposed to, then it would have won in this category without a question. But repeated delays left he likes of Expedia to imitate its trademark across-the top airline options (these were actually pioneered by ITA Software, which created Orbitz’s fare search engine). I think both Travelocity and Expedia could learn a lesson or two from Orbitz. Their fare displays are far too busy and confusing. But I still prefer Sidestep to the others; it’s even less intrusive and more intuitive than Orbitz.

Booking. It was impossible to book any of the fares requested from these sites, for obvious reasons. The lowest fares quoted on Orbitz were denoted as “Web-only” – meaning the only place you could buy them was online. I felt more confident with Sidestep’s booking mechanism because it usually took me directly to the airline site to complete the transaction. Of the full-service agencies, Orbitz’s booking mechanism was the best, although I wasn’t able to follow it until the end because of a limited budget.

Usability. How was the overall user experience? On Orbitz, I’m left with the sense that the people behind the site are absolutely convinced that there’s no reason to buy an airline ticket, hotel room or rental car anywhere else. That kind of arrogance might serve it well on the Internet, where the line between perception and reality is constantly blurred. By comparison, Travelocity, with its Sabre pedigree, is more tentative; Expedia, with its Microsoft roots, gives you more information than you’d ever need to make a booking. And Sidestep, which has been called a computer virus by some of its critics, seems only concerned with one thing: making sure that you see what it has to offer. Indeed, if you type in a fare search on any other agency Web site, Sidestep immediately launches. If Orbitz tried that, I think the government would shut it down tomorrow.

So what does all of this mean to you?

– Look harder before you book. Orbitz isn’t the only site worth clicking on. Sidestep’s fares are extremely competitive, and Expedia and Travelocity are also worth checking out. Now more than ever, it’s important to check multiple sites for the best airfare. Otherwise, you could be missing out on some excellent deals.

– Some of the Orbitz hype is true. Yes, it really does offer lower fares in many cases, but not consistently. It appears the “sky is falling” predictions that had Orbitz running every online agency out of business were exaggerated. This remains a fiercely competitive industry – for now.

– It’ll probably get better before it gets worse. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Jerry Hausman, who concluded that Orbitz would become a “market power ringmaster” for airline tickets, was partially right. There’s a new ringmaster in town: the traveler. With most fares in my search within only a few dollars of each other, I’m convinced that passengers are going to be able to throw their weight around more than ever. Are Hausman’s concerns justified? Only if travelers get lazy and don’t shop around.

Conclusion. If you want a cheap airline ticket, consider visiting Orbitz. It’s a thoughtful, well-designed Web site that often offers the lowest airfares. In light of my findings, I think the government should adopt a “wait-and-see” approach to this airline-owned venture. If, and only if, Orbitz appears to have a chilling effect on competition, then the Department of Justice and the Department of Transportation should act swiftly to close it. Otherwise, Orbitz is well on its way to becoming a very useful site for consumers.

As an Orbitz observer and an industry critic, however, I’m a little disappointed with the first draft of this site. The company has raised at least $100 million to essentially repackage a three-year-old technology. Other than a booking interface that’s marginally better than the ones offered by Expedia and Travelocity, there’s nothing groundbreaking about Orbitz. In many ways, I think Orbitz represents the past and not the future of online booking.

Travel content: dead or alive?

This week’s online travel news, as cartoonist Walt Kelly might have put it, is us. Not only is this column ending after more than five years of covering the interactive travel business. So is its competitor, The Industry Standard’s Tech Traveler newsletter.

When you consider the anemic demand for travel-related information in general, you’re left to wonder if the battle between commerce and content hasn’t been won. Should the likes of Morris Dye, Michael Shapiro and me just pack our bags and go back to writing puff pieces and how-to books? Should travel Web sites discard the rest of their news operations in favor of ads, as two prominent travel dot-coms recently did?

Maybe not.

I take comfort in the words of Rich Jaroslovsky, the president of the Online News Association and a former colleague of mine at Dow Jones. “Content isn’t king,” he declared in a recent speech at Columbia University. “Good content is.” He ought to know. He’s one of the editors responsible for making The Wall Street Journal’s Web site the most successful subscription-model dot-com in its industry, if not online.

The question, of course, is: who decides what’s good content – and what isn’t?

Scenario 1: Readers decide. The idea of the Internet in general, and the World Wide Web specifically, was to democratize the flow of information. Letting users determine what they want to read – and what they don’t want to read – would seem like a logical content philosophy. Whichever stories get accessed the most, you keep. The others get dumped. But as a former journalism professor of mine named Robert Scheer once observed, “our readers don’t always know what’s best for them.” (Yep, that’s the same Scheer who conducted the infamous 1976 Playboy interview with Jimmy Carter, in which the then-presidential candidate admitted to having “lusted” in his heart.) Indeed, if it were up to readers, every travel story would be about nude beaches and cheap theme parks – hardly a balanced diet of information.

Scenario 2: Editors decide. On the surface, this may seem like a more balanced approach. Bring in the professionals with lofty internships, postgraduate degrees and years of experience – not to mention clear editorial goals – and let them act as arbiters of good taste. Problem is, Web content is so new that no one can seem to agree on what’s good and what’s not. It’s a challenge I encountered most recently at, where I worked as a travel columnist. One exasperated senior editor summed it up best when she confessed that the Web site “reinvents itself every week.” You might be able to chalk some of that obsessive-compulsive behavior up to the company’s dysfunctional corporate culture, but it won’t explain everything. As my editors ultimately proved, they were as clueless about good content as’s readers. They ended up ordering the same crowd-pleasing columns about nude beaches and cheap theme parks in a pointless effort to overtake rival

Scenario 3: Advertisers decide. And why not? After all, they’re paying the bills. Shouldn’t they be able to dictate what gets published? I’ve asked this question in several previous columns, including a controversial story about two well-known travel sites that essentially let advertisers set their editorial agenda. Editors bristle at that kind of church-state integration, but readers generally make little distinction between the advertiser-sanctioned information – often called “advertorials” – and the stories that have been carefully prepared by an editor. From a business perspective, this is perhaps the most appealing and least expensive content choice that a manager can make. Under this scenario, nobody seems to get hurt. Advertisers don’t have to worry about unapproved criticism of their products while readers don’t know any better, at least initially. I recently called Expedia to task for gravitating toward this sort of questionable content. In one egregious example, a column about traveling with kids to Disneyland was underwritten by none other than Disney itself. “It doesn’t look good,” I told a senior executive. To which she replied, unrepentantly, “We are a site for happy travelers.”

The trouble with letting advertisers distinguish between “good” and “bad” content is that it slowly nibbles away a site’s credibility until at last readers see it for the giant advertising billboard that it is. Once you tear down the wall between the advertising and editorial departments, then you might as well fire the journalists and hire a team of publicists and copywriters to take over. Of course, leaving the editors in charge is often no better, particularly when they’re as naive as the ones handling travel content these days are.

Perhaps it will be the end-users who will have the final say-so, as they click away from content that they believe is tainted by commercial interests or the incompetence of its editors. Nobody knows. Not even someone like me, who has covered this business from the very beginning.

Good content is still king, even in the travel industry. It’s who gets to determine “good” that’s still undetermined.

eGulliver’s travels end – but who’s next?

eGulliver’s travels ended swiftly last Friday when the money ran out. Seems one of the Atlanta quasi-agency’s investors got spooked by online travel’s Lilliputian returns and withdrew funding, bringing the site’s voyage to a sudden and unceremonious end.

There goes another one.

You can’t help but feel like an orderly in a Dutch retirement home these days. It’s all strangely reminiscent of the summer of 1998 – the first time online travel companies started consolidating – when travel consultant Philip Wolf asked delegates to a Travel Technology Association predictions dinner “who’s next?”

Who is next?

Well, I am. This is my second-to-last column. After more than five years of covering the ups and downs of the interactive travel business, the powers that be have concluded there are too many “downs” and not enough “ups” to keep a feature like mine around. The online travel stock index that I helped start two years ago is off nearly 80 percent, but it’s really a lot worse than that. The aggregate of issue prices basically went into a freefall from the moment it was created, steadily tracking the failings of our industry. I’m surprised that they waited this long to kill the messenger.

Who else? Nobody knows.

At dinner three years ago, Wolf offered a list of candidates, including American Express’ AXI service, DirectLink Technologies, E-Travel, Internet Travel Network, Sabre Business Travel Solutions, Via World Network, and Xtra Online. If most of these names don’t sound familiar, it’s because some of them aren’t around any longer. They’ve changed names, merged with other companies or quietly been folded back into a parent company’s operations.

I could, however, make an educated guess …

– The metasearch massacre. There’s a glut of so-called metasearch engines – sites that let you conduct simultaneous fare searches from multiple travel sites – with, FareChase, Qixo and SideStep all vying for the same customer. They can’t all survive. Margins are slim to nonexistent in this niche and from an end-user’s perspective, there’s very little difference between the players. The best of these metasearch applications won’t necessarily survive – it will be the best-marketed, best-funded and ultimately, the best at making money. This has little to do with how effective these sites are at doing what they’re supposed to. Bottom line: wait for the shakeout before investing in one.

– The Orbitz effect. It’s ironic that on the same day eGulliver expired, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it won’t prevent the awkwardly-named, much delayed online travel agency being developed by five big airlines to begin operations or require it to change its business strategy. Ironic, because of the date – Friday, the 13th. Now more than ever, it’s likely that investors in a mid-list travel site that sells airline tickets and other travel products will ask “why bother?” That’s because when airlines control a distribution channel like Orbitz they’ll eventually remove what’s left of the incentive for anyone else to sell airline tickets on the Internet. Conventional wisdom: stay away from mid-list travel sites that sell airline tickets – for now.

– Bidding adieu. We can’t say for certain when bid sites went out of fashion. Some say it was William Shatner’s taped confession that he’d never bought a plane ticket on Then again, maybe it was news of troubles or the demise of that pathetically underfunded but eminently useful last year. There’s no telling. But one thing is obvious: bid sites are the proverbial albatross hanging from this industry’s neck, and it could very well get to the point where none exist at all. That’s not to say we won’t be making bids on our trips – only that bid processes will probably be integrated into more established booking sites. Word to the wise: stay away from the whole sector. If you’re in it, get out while you still can.

There you have it. No need to attend another overpriced dinner to get a list of tomorrow’s online travel casualties. They’re right here flailing around for all of us to see.

See you at the funeral.

Miranda reads rivals his rights

What’s in a name? If you’re, just about everything.

That would explain the lengths to which the Atlanta travel site has gone to protect its moniker. trademarked not only its name, URL and motto, “Just Released Offers. Just Go,” but guarded its rights with an uncommon vigilance.

Consider what happened last month on the heels of several reports that suggested the market for spontaneous travel would take off. Competitor promptly declared itself the “home” of last-minute travel in an effort to capitalize on the emerging trend.

“We couldn’t let them do that,” says chief executive David Miranda. When his company pointed out that it owned more or less every right to the words “last minute travel,” caved in and changed its advertising campaign – an action that Miranda says cost “a lot.” downplayed the incident.

“ wanted to make sure there was no confusion with the services they offered, so they contacted us,” says Brian Ek, a spokesman for “We made a couple of mutually agreeable Web site copy changes and that was that.”

Not quite. The chapter may be closed, but Miranda isn’t done reading his rights to rivals. This week, announced several additional uses for its federal trademark, turning up its branding efforts by a couple of notches. Its message: we own the last-minute travel market.

Miranda’s company may hold a compelling trademark, but whether it’s got a lock on the industry segment is less clear. It’s hard to come up with a handful of travel sites that aren’t trying to get into the act of selling distressed inventory online, all of which means that if nothing else,’s attorneys will remain busy.

But Miranda, a former vice president for Holiday Inn Worldwide’s brand advertising, has made his point. In a world of difficult-to-distinguish dot-coms, effective branding can spell the difference between an IPO and a Chapter 11 filing. “A good brand has a multiplier effect,” he says. It raises a company’s public profile, revenues and business opportunities.

Here’s how to “brand” your business the Miranda way:

– Create a brand architecture, but be flexible when you build it. Miranda says that a brand requires careful planning. “You have to consider the brand identity before you can begin building it,” he says. But at the same time, a company must be flexible and allow the brand to evolve. Miranda calls this “stratactics” – a combination of strategy and tactics. “Always ask yourself: ‘What is this brand going to accomplish?'”

– Bring in the professionals. LastMinuteTravel recruited veteran marketer Sergio Zyman, the former chief marketing officer at Coca Cola, for advice. Says Miranda: “You have to know what you want and you have to bring in the right people to do it.” Zyman helped Miranda and his team think about their brand in an unconventional way. “We asked questions like, ‘If this brand were a person, what would it look like, sound like, feel like?'” he says.

– Make it real. The challenge, as far as is concerned, was to “take something intangible and make it tangible,” says Miranda. “This is no longer the realm of the generic.” Tapping Zyman’s advice was, in many ways, prescient. “Coke is basically brown sugar-flavored water, but it’s worth millions of dollars as a brand,” says Miranda.

Without a mad scramble to profit from the last-minute travel trend, Miranda’s brand wouldn’t be worth the paper its trademark is printed on, and he’s the first to admit that. But with sites like Expedia, Hotwire, and all over this market like hit counters lining the bottom of amateur Web sites, things are different.

Once the trend cools, will have a strong enough brand to survive? That remains to be seen.

Spring cleaning brings surprises

Nothing in the online travel business is as predictable as the annual spring-cleaning ritual. Every March, without fail, some of the best-known brands in our business give their electronic storefronts a once-over. But this year, things are different.

The redesigns are still happening. Even the most casual observer will notice the new graphics, the subtle changes in background color, or the fresh logos that are popping up like crocuses all over the Web.

However, the superficial alterations distract us from the more substantial changes that are taking place in the industry.

The spring cleaning began a few weeks early with the launch of Expedia’s Expert Searching and Pricing (ESP). The new system helped untether the Microsoft spinoff from the GDSs and enabled the site to begin offering customized packages, which is a travel product in which margins are typically higher. It’s hoped that ESP will make Expedia profitable and keep it competitive with rival Travelocity and upstart Orbitz.

It would be easy to assume that’s low-profile redesign was spurred by Expedia’s actions, but anyone who looks deeper will see that this is no ordinary overhaul. The fact that it happened in spring is probably a coincidence, but then, folks like me live for trend stories, so why ruin a good thing? Jim Gregory,’s vice president of marketing, confirmed that the project has been in the works since 1999.

Details of the new site remain sketchy, but from all outward appearances, it seems every bit as ambitious as Expedia’s redesign. Instead of moving away from the GDS, however, Trip is moving closer – no doubt because it is now owned by one (Galileo) – integrating some of its key systems into’s online booking system, according to one insider.

All of this is leading up to the long-overdue launch of Orbitz, which seeks to rewrite the distribution equation in a way that’s just as radical. But enough about Orbitz. Suffice it to say that these changes are more than cosmetic; they’re significant and they could affect everyone in this industry.

Here’s what these makeovers mean to you:

– There’s no room for complacency. Not so long ago – about six months – having a good booking engine and a reasonably navigable storefront was almost enough to get by with. But the coming evolution led by Expedia, Trip and Orbitz, means that late-90s technology and strategies won’t cut it any more. Add an economic downturn for increased urgency. These companies are leveraging relationships with investors or parent companies to boost earnings. Where will your company turn?

– It’s do or die. It’s difficult to overstate the resolve of the players. Although declined to be interviewed for this column, we know this much: the site was down for much of last week while technicians worked out site redesign bugs, and by the time the “new” was online, it had lost a considerable amount of bookings, according to industry insiders (The Gomez Performance Network indicates the site was unavailable for a good portion of last week.) But the sacrifice appears to have been worthwhile (if tighter integration with Galileo is any indication), according to insiders who spoke on the condition of anonymity. What are you willing to give up in order to make your online travel company’s next evolutionary step?

– Growing up ain’t easy. As the spring cleaning progresses, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the interactive travel industry as a whole. Is it possible that these changes are a sign that the business is maturing? If it is, then what we’re experiencing could be something akin to its adolescence: a time of big changes, soul-searching, and unpredictability. Where is your company in comparison to the rest of the pack? Is it ahead – a more mature enterprise with proven earnings and established customers – or behind. Where should it be?

When the book closes on the first half of 2001, it will likely be remembered as a time of unexpected turmoil. A time when some of the biggest names in online travel reinvented themselves in an effort to improve their chances for survival.

This is not a story about Orbitz

This is not a story about Orbitz.

This is not a story about how the Chicago-based company is going to change the way we buy travel. If it were, then there would be a carefully scripted quote from chairman Jeffrey Katz, or at the very least, a sound bite from one of the dot-com’s proactive publicists. But there isn’t.

Instead, this is about how the online travel industry is reacting to Orbitz. Overreacting, some might say.

It’s about how the interactive travel business dramatizes news events — and about how your business can take advantage of misguided industry sentiment.

Let me begin with a confession: I’m part of the problem. For the last five years, I’ve written columns that tended to sensationalize routine events. I could blame the online travel industry’s fledgling status – its need for legitimacy – on my actions. But ultimately, I wrote “sky is falling” stories because I wanted to create news where there was none.

For example, in my very first column about online travel, I proclaimed, “the runaway popularity of virtual reality is undeniably real.” Problem was, the runaway popularity was actually virtual.

In years past, I’ve overblown Wal-Mart’s entrance into the travel sector, as well as’s foray into our industry, which I mislabeled a “big story.”

I’ve chronicled the reactions of agents to commission caps starting with Delta Air Lines’ and leading us to the present-day commission reductions by Northwest Airlines. I’ve made them seem like cataclysmic events rivaled only by the Second Coming.

But I’m not alone. Without mentioning any names, I think any reasonable observer can see that even the industry’s best (or at least best-known) experts have a tendency to make over-the-top proclamations about insignificant events. was so hyped that few bothered to notice its lack of a viable business model.

Now, some of my colleagues are seeing a conspiracy in the Northwest commission cuts, believing it couldn’t possibly be because the carrier is trying to reduce distribution costs. Oh no, Northwest must be plotting to boost Orbitz into orbit by vaporizing agent bonuses.

What does this mean to you?

– The herd often goes in the wrong direction. Don’t mindlessly follow. This is important to keep in mind when you’re making strategic decisions. The pundits are frequently incorrect – no two ways about it. Take their advice at your own peril. Remember the craze for travel bid sites of a few months ago? Now, with and in trouble, the dot-coms that held back and recognized the fad for what it was are counting their lucky stars.

– The learning curve may be steep, but it’s still there. Don’t forget to do your homework. Online travel attracts the kinds of talking heads that believe you can become an expert on the business overnight. It’s these wannabe pundits that make flawed prediction. People who don’t look at the fundamentals and instead go with the “feel” end up holding lots of stock. They find themselves as either the proud owners of worthless portfolios or as principals in companies on the verge of being de-listed.

– “Short-strategizing” has its rewards. Don’t be afraid to go against the grain. In this business, it’s the naysayers – the ones who effectively “short sell” the conventional wisdom – who often come out on top. For example, if ITA Software had paid attention to the critics, it probably would have left the likes of ITN (later, GetThere) to power every booking site. If Hotwire’s investors had listened to the self-proclaimed “experts” they wouldn’t have seen the opportunities they did to bring a Web site that peddles “white label” fares online.

All of which brings us back to Orbitz. Listen to the reports and ask yourself: “Haven’t you heard this before?” Yes, you have. It’s the sound of a very large herd stampeding in the wrong direction. Orbitz is going to change the way we buy travel about as much as a new coat of paint on one of Delta’s planes can improve customer satisfaction. If the online travel industry has taught us anything, it’s that insiders don’t just overreact to the least significant news but also that they underreact to developments that truly matter.

But more on that in a future column.

Online travel’s long, strange trip

Two cancellations didn’t kill it. Neither could a horde of furious suppliers or the flames of a thousand angry readers. As improbable as it would seem, this column – the Energizer Bunny of online travel – turns five this week.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? This feature was there at almost the very beginning, documenting the rise of Internet travel, profiling the personalities behind the sites and analyzing the industry before there were industry analysts.

And it’s a survivor. The most recent fatwah, in case you were wondering, was issued by a large online travel company that didn’t like being criticized for a string of blunders it had made before its launch. The dot-com remains in beta, but the column keeps going … and going … and going.

I will resist further rabbit metaphors. I will not liken suppliers who try to exterminate this column to Elmer Fudd’s futile pursuit of Bugs Bunny. No, I wouldn’t lower myself to doing that.

But looking back at more than 130 columns, that’s the first thing a casual reader would probably notice: how controversial these last five years have been. How, maybe, there should have been more death threats than there were. After all, online travel was born from the ashes of commission caps and it’s gone from a passing interest of second-tier travel companies to a big business dominated by large corporations.

Indeed, if interactive travel had a middle name, it would be “controversy.”

But look closer. Read a few of the archived columns and you’re likely to notice what Christopher McGinnis, another travel commentator, warned me about years ago: it’s the same story. History repeats itself in the online travel industry. There’s nothing new under the sun.

A lot of pundits who are new to this business continue to “discover” trends. They can be forgiven. It’s the ones who were there with me at the beginning who ought to know better.

What do I mean?

– Dot-bombs are nothing new. On May 2, 1996, I wrote a column headlined What to do with a dead site? In it I mused about projects that had passed away without telling anyone. “Like flesh-eating zombies in a second-rate horror film, travel Web sites never really die. Their un-updated corpses stay preserved on the Internet as colorful monuments to their creators’ folly,” I observed. I was being facetious, of course. Even back then, there was a number of online travel ventures that had gone bust or were about to, including PC Travel and Destination Florida. The only difference between then and now is that more people are paying attention to the online travel business than before.

– A better booking engine? Right. On February 20, 1997, I chronicled FAO Travel’s efforts to build a visionary booking engine. It was one of the earliest innovators in the space, and few people noticed because it was being developed outside the United States for consumers outside of the country. If I didn’t know any better, I would think that the first truly innovative booking engine was developed by ITA Software. And that probably is because most of the industry observers’ memories don’t go back further than mid-1998, when the online travel business started catching fire. The more seasoned industry-watchers just yawn and ask: “What’s next?”

– The rules haven’t changed as much as you think. On January 8, 1998, I wrote about Preview Travel’s plans to use most of the $25 million it raised in an initial public stock offering to lure new travelers to its booking services in a new winner-take-all, America Online-style marketing offensive. “Within a year, we will dominate our competitors,” Preview president and CEO Ken Orton confidently predicted. At that time, the dot-com euphoria had just begun. Hopes were high that Preview could stand a chance against better-funded rivals and Expedia. But somewhere along the way, I think we lost our common sense. The industry thought the rules had changed to such an extent that the laws of gravity didn’t apply. Only a few months later I helped start the first stock index to track online travel companies. The index began at 100. By the beginning of 2001, it had sunk to 36.76. And Preview? It’s gone – acquired by Travelocity.

– Are you paying attention? No, apparently everyone got so swept away in the giddy dot-com boom that my warnings fell on deaf ears. On April 22, 1999, I poked fun at the online feeding frenzy by suggesting that more suppliers should consider a Travelocity-style spinoff in order to boost their stock valuations. “AMR shouldn’t stop at taking Travelocity public; it should throw in for good measure. With the frenzy to bid up any stock that’s got a “.com” attached to it, AMR could easily get a valuation for that’s two or three times the price of the airline for which it books tickets,” I wrote. Even more surprising were the reactions I got from airline representatives when I called to ask if they’d considered such a spinoff. Only one airline – United – dismissed the question for the nonsense it was. Don’t laugh. This foolishness could repeat itself again.

– It’s all so retro. On October 4, 2000, I profiled, a company that specializes in last-minute package vacations. The venture, I noted, was “putting the finishing touches on the ‘configurator model’ project – a new application scheduled to launch in mid-November that will allow travelers to create their own customized packages. This reverse package builder is believed to be the first of its kind in the travel industry.” Expedia, of course, wasn’t far behind with its Expert Searching and Pricing (ESP) search engine, which builds package itineraries. Not to take anything away from either of these efforts, but packages are really nothing new, and what these sites are doing isn’t “stop-the-presses” news. It’s just good business. I’m surprised no one thought of it any sooner.

– If at first you don’t succeed, recycle. On January 19, 2001, I reported on the comeback of Bruce Bishins’ agency-owned GDS, appropriately named Genesis. As he did on September 18, 1997, Bishins described an ambitious plan to introduce a new distribution system that isn’t based on proprietary technology that he says makes agents dependent on GDSs – and turns GDSs into “technology nannies.” The travel industry does have a tendency to recycle ideas, whether they’re good, bad or unworkable. The verdict is still out on Genesis, but Bishins provides a great case-in-point about the way in which we return to the same ideas over and over. Recycling isn’t just a good idea in online travel – it’s the law.

You would think that this part of the travel industry is boring, but the very opposite is true. Internet travel is a never-ending source of intrigue. During the last five years, the business has matured into a quirky offshoot of the travel industry where techies mingle with travel agents, venture capitalists work side-by-side with eccentric entrepreneurs, and suppliers get one-on-one with consumers in ways no one dreamed possible.

So what if it gets repetitive? At least it’s done in a creative way. That should be good for another five years of columns.

Parasites and Pepsi challenges

Can an online business give itself an unfair competitive advantage with clever programming?

That’s a question SideStep’s rivals are asking themselves after a subroutine called “The Pepsi Challenge” was discovered earlier this week. SideStep is a travel search application that downloads to a Windows PC using Microsoft Internet Explorer version 4 and above. The program integrates into the browser and launches after an icon on the browser’s menu bar is pushed, searching close to 100 travel suppliers for low airfares, rental car prices and hotel room rates.

Problem is, that’s not the only time it turns itself on. One undisclosed component, that company programmers have called “The Pepsi Challenge,” activates SideStep whenever any fare search is conducted. The application harvests a user’s search criteria and then runs a SideStep query simultaneously so results can be compared side-by-side. It’s possible to turn the feature off. However, some have complained that the program resets itself in the “on” position when the browser is restarted.

“The way SideStep works is particularly parasitic,” says Suzi LeVine, Expedia’s marketing director. “It’s a living, breathing entity that is running in the background, reading the URLs you’re searching. Who knows what else it’s doing?”

SideStep’s competitors are equally incensed.

“It’s outrageous,” says Jeff Hodes, a vice president for corporate relations at “I’m shocked. I’m talking to my engineers about how to block SideStep from doing this.”

Mark Guyer, the chief executive of search site, says his developers were tempted to go the path of SideStep when they scripted their fare search engine. But he says privacy and fairness concerns kept them from doing so.

“SideStep,” he adds, “is a virus.”

Nonsense, says SideStep’s vice president of marketing, Phil Carpenter. “To be candid, I think this is a non-issue.”

Why? For starters, Carpenter claims that customers not only asked for the “Pepsi Challenge,” but that they also preferred it to download in the “on” position. “People like to see their fare search in context,” he says. What’s more, SideStep is an application that users choose to install on their PC; it’s not something they’re forced to do.

Carpenter also brushes aside concerns about privacy. “We’re not searching another Web site. The information is being passed between the client and us. There’s no third party involved,” he says.

SideStep is quick to point out that its accusers aren’t completely innocent. Suppliers have complained that these kinds of search engines essentially steal fares off their sites, adding more lookers than bookers to their pages. The fledgling dot-coms also stand accused of using deceptive coding tactics – including one memorable episode last year in which Qixo reportedly hid its queries behind an IP address belonging to the Redondo Beach, Calif., School District in an effort to prevent suppliers from blocking its searches.

Still, there are legitimate issues that SideStep’s critics have brought up. The company’s terms of service agreement makes no mention of the “Pepsi Challenge,” nor does its privacy policy. There’s no warning that it will be on your browser in the “always-on” position. There are no explicit directions on how to disable it. (In response to my queries, SideStep agreed to modify language in its service agreement regarding the program.)

The discovery of SideStep’s surreptitious subroutine raises other questions about privacy and competition that are likely to have repercussions beyond the travel industry. They include:

Whose customers are they, anyway? SideStep’s rivals believe “The Pepsi Challenge” steals clients from them; SideStep thinks travelers are entitled to a comparison. But when a fare search is initiated from one site, are users actually requesting two simultaneous queries? Answer: if a side-by-side comparison was specifically requested, then yes. Otherwise, the customer should only see results from the site that’s being queried. Anything beyond that might be considered unsporting.

What are we inviting onto our PC? Whether SideStep is a virus or just a clever program is a distinction few end-users bother to make. Nonetheless, revelations about the “Pepsi Challenge” are sure to generate questions about plug-ins and applets that are being downloaded from other sites – including yours. What kind of disclosure do you offer about the applications on your site? What reassurances do you give customers about your services? What are you not telling them?

What if this really is a “non-issue”? If, as Carpenter suggests, customers aren’t worried about the code, then what does this mean for e-commerce in general? More comparison-shopping programs could emerge that help users buy other goods. They could trigger a program “war” with one applet fighting for dominance on a Web browser. That, in turn, could lead to browser pandemonium, where none of us is really in control of our browser because it is constantly running a series of automated tasks intended to turn us into customers. And down that road, as one of my former journalism professors used to say, lies madness.

SideStep should have left well enough alone. It had already set itself apart from its competitors as the most effective search engine of its kind. The company only tightened its terms of service agreement after it got caught. But it still refuses to load its “Pepsi” subroutine in the “off” position.

That’s something it should seriously consider doing.

Doing the online/offline two-step

Call it the online, offline two-step.

It goes something like this: Dot-com venture stakes a claim in the offline world, either by starting its own magazine or buying part of a bricks-and-mortar business. The strategy drives traffic to the company’s Web site, attracts new customers, and increases sales.

This industry’s latest case-in-point is’s partnership with Turnstiles’ Golf and Travel Magazine. The deal, which is expected to be announced next week, is an alliance intended to “increase banner ad sales and readership,” according to both companies.

Under the terms of the agreement, will effectively become Golf and Travel Magazine’s Web site.

Internet companies have a long history of doing the online, offline two-step. When America Online still ranked a distant third behind Prodigy and CompuServe as an Internet Service Provider, it launched a magazine. I remember, because I wrote for it. A few years later, a little-known upstart called Yahoo teamed up with publisher Ziff Davis to create Yahoo! Internet Life.

Lately, the travel dot-coms have gotten into the act of magazine publishing, too. Expedia created Expedia Travels magazine, a destination title with an online bent, and Travelocity released a travel magazine “for the digital generation” called – surprise, surprise – Travelocity magazine. Publishing experts suggest that the online sites have nearly exhausted their expansion opportunities on the Web, and must now try to find new audiences offline. Which is probably true.

Considering an offline venture? Here’s what we know so far:

Marketing is important, but don’t overlook content. In fact, content factored prominently into the Golf and Travel Magazine/ agreement. Golf and Travel’s news headlines and stories will be featured in all 19 online publications, according to the companies. will also become the default travel site for the popular, which is Golf and Travel’s current online presence. As Rich Jaroslovsky, the president of the Online News Association and a former colleague of mine at Dow Jones, said in a recent speech at Columbia University: “Content isn’t king – good content is.”

There’s no one right way to do the two-step. We’ve seen several permutations of this dance, including online ventures into the offline world, vice versa, and something in between. In a 1998 column, for example, I wrote about a three-way content deal between Craighead Publications, Arthur Andersen, and The Economist Intelligence Unit. The companies had launched a service called CountryNet, which they billed as an online information service designed to give expatriates and business travelers the information needed to relocate and operate knowledgeably, safely and effectively in new markets. Interestingly, this idea has been further developed by a soon-to-be-launched company called iJet, which I’ve also written about in this column. Bottom line: don’t let others define what you can and can’t do.

The two-step takes a commitment. This is no ordinary dance – if you haven’t practiced your steps, you’ll get kicked off the metaphorical floor. One high-profile travel dot-com that seemed to “dabble” in bricks and mortar, at least in my opinion, was When I wondered whether was about to go bye-bye last year, many doubted my analysis. But in late January, following two painful staff cutbacks, the Pompano Beach, Fla., company filed for bankruptcy protection. Although it claimed that the market for Internet companies had dried up, I believe its demise had more to do with the fact that couldn’t make a compelling argument for its online/offline business model. At least it didn’t to me. Instead, it tried to dazzle reporters and investors with a flashy Web site, an “A-list” management team, and a celebrity endorsement.

The two-step may ensure your survival. This is pure speculation, because there are no reliable statistics on the success rates of dot-coms with offline ventures – content-related or otherwise. I remember the skepticism with which the very first online travel company’s print advertising initiative was greeted almost three years ago. That was Preview Travel’s multi-million dollar “Travel on Your Terms” campaign, which ran in glossy magazines such as Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. At that time, Karen Askey, then senior vice president of consumer marketing at Preview, told me nonchalantly, “Think of it as an evolution of our advertising efforts.” The rest of the interactive travel business is equally blasé about maintaining some kind of offline presence – advertising or otherwise – in 2001. But do they do it because everyone else is, or because it’s an essential part of their business model?

Expect to see more deals like’s in the near future. As travel Internet companies face increasing profit pressures in coming months, they may turn to an offline partner, or an offline venture, for the stability needed to survive.

Based on the track record of previous ventures, this two-step might be a winner.

Managing content the smarter way

Reaction to last week’s column was as predictable as it was disappointing.

The travel sites accused of surreptitiously recasting their news sections into electronic ads expressed bewilderment, indignation, and finally, fear.

They were scared that I would identify them in a follow-up column.

The principals should be more afraid of what their customers will do when they discover that their news sections are for sale. They should worry about how much business they will lose when travelers learn that they’ve been misled. They should fret over what suppliers will ask for next, now that they’ve managed to effectively muffle the dot-coms from reporting the news.

But they should not worry about me naming names.

Instead, let me introduce someone who has experienced the same pressures as the managers who run the sites in question – and who has struck an admirable balance between content and commerce. Dan Saul is the president of, the Boston travel Web site that publishes e-mail newsletters offering last-minute Internet deals and the latest travel promotions to a list of more than one million subscribers.

SmarterLiving’s content is among the most cutting-edge, if not confrontational, on the Internet. The site’s roster of columnists includes Ed Perkins and Paul Grimes, two travel journalists who rarely pass up an opportunity to write something controversial. A regular reader of the site’s editorial features, in fact, can’t help but wonder if there’s anything positive to be written about travel these days.

“We believe our consumers will go to a place where they can find the best information about travel,” Saul explains. “Even though it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s paid for and what’s editorially independent on many travel Web sites, I think users can tell the difference. And I think users will see the advertising sites for what they are.”

How has SmarterLiving managed to attract top-notch content while still running a business? And what would Saul do if he were calling the shots at the two unnamed travel dot-coms?

Don’t lie. “Being open and honest with users is the most important thing,” says Saul. “Tell them what kind of content you’re providing. Have a clear mission. It’s not wrong to avoid covering any negative aspects of the industry. But if you do, you can’t pretend to be a news source.” SmarterLiving decided that the best way to ensure that kind of straightforwardness was to create separate departments for advertising and editorial with a “wall” between them. So you won’t find any marketing executives making news decisions – or, improbable as it might sound, editors calling the shots on the marketing side.

Don’t think it’ll be easy. “There have been times when it’s been very difficult to be balanced. Even though the investment community is not necessarily positive on a media company, we sometimes have to put editorial standards ahead of business decisions,” says Saul. For example, Grimes wrote a column last November on car rental discounts in which he warned users that some of the deals, including the ones SmarterLiving promoted, were problematic. The easy decision was to delete the reference to the company’s offerings. But Saul says the column was factual and decided to run it because consumers would benefit from the advice.

Don’t be myopic. “It’s important to remember what the product is going to look like in the long run. We’ve tried to help users distinguish editorial products from promotional products. I think users need to know the difference,” says Saul. It’s shortsighted to think that masquerading promotional content as news will lead to long-term profits. That kind of approach will “come back to haunt you” later, he says. He recommends that the sites currently retooling their content ask themselves how they want their companies to be perceived – both by customers and suppliers – not just in the coming months, but years. The decisions made today are bound to affect that perception.

SmarterLiving’s formula for balancing its content and commerce may not be perfect, nor may its model be one that every other travel site can follow, but it seems to work. Saul acknowledges that achieving the balance wasn’t easy – and it hasn’t been easy to maintain – but he sees no alternative but to try. If he stopped, it could seriously hurt not only his site’s editorial reputation, but also the entire business.

“I think the only way to get people to keep coming back to our site is to tell them the facts,” he says. “Anyone who travels knows how frustrating it can be. If we try to tell them that everything in travel is perfect, they won’t believe us. We’ll lose them as customers.”

New content could destroy sites’ credibility

Two prominent travel sites are quietly adopting new content strategies that put profits ahead of principles and set a dangerous precedent for the industry.

No longer satisfied to serve a mix of objectively reported destination features, consumer advocacy stories and travel tips alongside their “buy” buttons, these leading industry dot.coms have jettisoned all pretense of serious journalism in favor of a more commercial mantra: Don’t post anything unless it sells tickets.

“You have to understand what we’re in this business for,” a vice president for one of the sites explained last week. “We’re not here to publish content that’s critical of the industry, to bite the hand that feeds us. We’re here for one reason and one reason alone – to sell tickets. Everything on our site has to reflect that.”

A content developer for the second site in question called me at about the same time. He reported that the editorial staff had abruptly received new marching orders. “If a story doesn’t directly lead to a booking, it’s not worth publishing,” he said, adding, “we don’t know what to do about it. Indirectly, every story could lead to a booking, but how do you get more direct without sounding like an ad?”

On the surface, this new approach might seem reasonable. After all, shouldn’t every part of a business contribute toward the company’s bottom line, particularly during these lean times for online travel? But a closer examination reveals that forcing content into a commerce mold is a deeply flawed strategy that could decimate a travel site’s trustworthiness. Here’s why:

It’s dishonest. Like it or not, most Web sites serve a dual purpose: To sell travel and to provide reliable information about the industry. When the news is modified or censored in order to further a company’s sales goals, it effectively means that the business is lying to customers. By avoiding content that is unfavorable to a supplier, these sites are also withholding information that could improve a client’s travel experience, such as advice on how to get around the airline industry’s arcane ticketing rules.

It’s self-destructive. The same vice president boasted that she’d managed to tone down one of the leading consumer travel advocates who still publishes a column on the Web site. “He’s gotten a lot more positive, but we’re still working on him,” she confided. While this may serve the site’s immediate interests, it threatens to open a rift with that particular content provider, just as it would with any legitimate journalist. The other editorial staff member says he’s considering quitting but is waiting to see how the new directive will be implemented.

It’s a classic lose-lose scenario. Not only could quality content providers eventually blacklist these sites – a distinct possibility, given how small this industry is – but also suppliers will regard the new promotional travel information that appears online as an acknowledgment of their power. It could have repercussions in other areas of the business, reducing these once-respected dot.coms to little more than ticket-sellers that publish a second-rate travel trade publication. The customer loses, and the business loses. The only winners are the suppliers.

It’s shortsighted. Once the names of these sites become public, their credibility is certain to take a hit. I won’t reveal their identities in this column for two reasons: I hope this gentle reminder will persuade them to reconsider their sacrifice of content on the altar of commerce, and I also need to protect my sources.

Online travel sites have always had to juggle the pressure of turning a profit and the responsibility of operating a de facto news organization – two conflicting, if not incompatible, objectives. But the Internet demands it. When one directive begins giving way to the other, users click away. Witness the struggle of pure-play content sites like (I ought to know – I’m its founder) and, conversely, the hostile user reaction when AOL’s Travel Channel unceremoniously dumped nearly all of its content and replaced it with a “buy travel” button.

It’s not enough to strike a balance between content and commerce. It must also be a good balance. These new content directives, if implemented, aren’t just bad. They also set a bad example for other travel Web sites to follow.

Genesis deal gives birth to alternate GDS

“This is our Boston tea party,” says Bruce Bishins, maverick president of Genesis, on the eve of an announcement that his company tapped Atraxis Group to create its reservations, ticketing and settlement platform.

The Revolutionary War metaphor is appropriate, considering the agency-owned distribution system’s struggle to break a virtual monopoly held by industry giants such as Sabre and Galileo. Bishins’ plan to introduce a new distribution system that isn’t based on proprietary technology that he says makes agents dependent on GDSs – and turns GDSs into “technology nannies” – is itself quite possibly revolutionary.

“We had to be discreet,” he says.

All that is over, now that Atraxis, the Zürich, Switzerland, airline IT provider has thrown its weight behind the fledgling project – the figurative French in the agents’ battle for independence from their GDS masters.

Atraxis will almost certainly take some heat for signing this deal, but it brings Genesis a step closer to Bishins’ vision of reducing what he calls “ever-escalating” segment fees. The new system’s billing won’t be based on booking transactions, but rather on products sold. Fees will be set on a sliding scale that is pegged to the cost of the product rather than on an arbitrary transaction charge.

“If no customer is produced,” he adds. “You don’t have to pay.”

There’s still a war to fight, though. The technology agreement will take a year to implement. Genesis must still find a way of fusing its reservations, ticketing and settlement systems, into a single, coherent platform. By the first quarter of next year, it hopes to begin beta testing; deployment to its first 10,000 agencies and association members should start in the spring of 2002.

“Over time, agents will see the value of supporting the GDS that they own,” predicts Bishins.

In a way, the Genesis story is a tale of a birth – and a re-birth – of sorts. When I interviewed Bishins more than four years ago his idea of a new GDS based on the Internet’s TCP/IP protocol and owned by agents promised to change travel as dramatically as the Web would change the way we did business. But in both cases, reality didn’t quite match up to expectations.

Genesis has spent the better part of the last year-and-a-half in what Bishins calls “stealth” mode – lying low and planning its next move. Here’s how the company got through it:

You have to be persistent. The odds were – and still are – against Genesis. Bishins had to knock on many doors before he found “the organization that has vision and understands the marketplace” – in other words, an ally that wasn’t afraid of bruising the establishment GDSs fragile egos. All the while, Bishins says he was motivated by a sense that history was on his side. “We cannot stand by while the GDSs build their wealth on agents’ backs,” he says.

Giving up isn’t an option. “Even in the presence of what may look like very dismal prospects, you keep looking into other opportunities. We knew from the beginning this was going to be an uphill struggle, and we still have a long road ahead,” says Bishins. The more resistance he encountered, the more determined Bishins became to see the project through. Before long, Genesis had grown to a “pretty laudable size,” so that when prospective partners considered working with it, Genesis began to look like a good opportunity.

Never underestimate the effectiveness of ‘stealth.’ Bishins didn’t want any “false starts,” and this industry being what it is, it’s easy to see why. This column has documented the folly of a premature introduction (Orbitz) and the effectiveness of discretion (Hotwire and iJet). Genesis’ self-imposed “quiet” period lasted a good deal longer than normal. “We wanted to be very clear and careful in our relationship before we shared them,” says Bishins. “We didn’t seek to gain the spotlight, but during that time we were very busy building our registries.”

Everything changes. I’m left with the impression that Genesis knows the GDSs lock on power can’t hold forever. Just as computers displaced handwritten airline tickets, so, too, Bishins knows that things can’t stay as they are now. Four years ago, Genesis might have been ahead of its time, but by remaining a player, it might now be in the right place at the right time. That’s what Bishins appears to be counting on.

These strategies, somewhat reminiscent of’s “last man standing” philosophy, have served Genesis well so far. The industry will be watching to see if it continues to work this year.

Saying sayonara the way

It seems as if the growing number of terminally ill online travel ventures have taken a page out of Al Gore’s campaign strategy book: They concede defeat reluctantly and in a way that serves no one.

Consider, the innovative ticketing site that quietly went under at the end of last year. There was no announcement about the company’s demise – only a terse e-mail from its founder that “TravelBids is not operational” and a notice on its site that “a date has not been set for resumption of service.”

When went belly-up, it left an equally abrupt farewell message on its site: “We regret to announce the closing of Savvio’s e-commerce Web site.”

However, it assured customers that all ticket purchases made online would be valid. It apparently didn’t leave creditors with the same assurances. I know because I talked with one of them after Savvio died, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that the level of concern was – and still is – high.

When kicked the virtual bucket, it self-published a slightly longer obituary. “We are no longer accepting bookings for travel-related services,” it said. “We have decided to discontinue the operation of the buytravel store effective November 1, 2000. We will continue to honor all past travel reservations that you have booked through buytravel.”

Accepting death on the Internet is something no one does very well. Years ago, I criticized for operating a site that, if it wasn’t dead, it was at the very least comatose. (Turns out that the company was bought and sold several times before being revived by Rosenbluth International.)

I’m not entirely blameless, either. When, cut my online adventure column late last year, I didn’t tell anyone. This is the first time I’ve written about the feature’s cancellation. It’s difficult.

I can understand why online travel companies wouldn’t want to broadcast their failures to the world, but it’s necessary. Here are a few important points that every dignified exit must include:

We’re finished. When a decision is made to close a Web site, there’s no room for doublespeak or corporate-ese, and there should be zero tolerance for buzzwords. Just come out and say it: Game over. At no time since the inception of the business is a clear, concise explanation more vital. This isn’t only something that your customers and business partners need; it’s also a courtesy that your employees deserve. It gives everyone a sense of closure and a reason to move on.

Thank you. No proper exit would be complete without conveying your gratitude to everyone who made the site possible in the first place. And although you may detest the venture capitalists who pulled the plug on you or the partners who refused to extend you any additional credit, that’s no excuse for not having any manners. The biggest “thank you” should go to your customers and employees, even if you’d like to pin the businesses failure on them. (A little advice: don’t.)

We’re not going to leave you hanging. Customers and partners will no doubt be worried sick when they hear of your venture’s untimely exit. This is the time to reassure them that their tickets and vacations will be safe and that you’ll settle up with your creditors as soon as you’re able. Going out in style means that you don’t pack up and go home without first tying up as many loose ends as possible. Also, wherever you can, note which ends you won’t be able to tie up.

We won’t be back. Perhaps one of the most bothersome death notices are the ones that suggest the business is “on hold.” Seasoned observers of online travel – indeed, of e-commerce in general – are hard-pressed to come up with one recent example of a site that suspended operations and then returned. It just doesn’t happen that way anymore, and it isn’t fair to leave anyone with the impression that this isn’t the end.

The willy-nilly notifications we’re getting from dying dot.coms are serving no one – not even the principals who timidly write them as an afterthought to their ill-fated venture. We deserve better.

Help! My crystal ball is broken!

The only thing that can be said about online travel with any certainty is that nothing is certain.

Believe me. I’ve been writing about this business since the very beginning, and just when I think I’ve got it all figured out, fate makes a fool of me. So as this year winds to a close, rather than gazing into my crystal ball, I’m taking a look back at some of the boneheaded things I’ve recently predicted.

Read on and laugh with me. You may learn something from my mistakes.

Stupid Prediction #1: will be the story of the year.

Yeah, right. Last October I confidently said that when we review the year in interactive travel, the big story probably won’t be the merger, the and IPOs, or even’s foray into the travel business. It will, instead, be the launch of, the joint venture of United Airlines and

Why was it stupid? quietly folded almost a year after the column appeared. Seems that United and lost interest in running an online agency. Neither gave particularly compelling reasons for bailing out of the joint venture. Then again, neither of them had given particularly good reasons for getting into it in the first place. Makes you wonder how serious United is about its Orbitz stake, doesn’t it?

Stupid Prediction #2: WalMart will use Feng Shui to attract travelers.

I can’t believe I wrote that one. But I did. This January I asked, “When you’re the mastermind behind one of the year’s biggest travel site launches, what do spend your time thinking about?” Answer: “In Wal-Mart’s case, consultant Richard Giuliani didn’t just concern himself with issues like vendor relationships, software compatibilities and corporate politics – although there was enough of that to stay busy, to hear him talk about it. He also had concepts like Feng Shui on his mind.”

Why was it stupid? Maybe Wal-Mart should have spent more time thinking about how to make money and less time pondering ancient Chinese principles of harmony and balance. It sent its travel section to the next world in September, citing similarly unintelligible reasons. I don’t blame Wal-Mart for trying to set itself apart from its online competitors by being different; I blame myself for ignoring the obvious question: does this project have enough chi to cut it?

Stupid Prediction #3: Orbitz may be dead on arrival.

Not exactly an original prediction, since just about every other pundit said pretty much the same thing this summer. In a lightly sourced column, I wondered rhetorically why “some industry observers are referring to Orbitz as ‘Obits’ – as in, obituaries? The site once known as T2, I continued, promises an unbiased display of travel information and the latest technology of any travel service on the Web. “But so far it’s delivered nothing but controversy,” I added.

Why was it stupid? Because Orbitz hasn’t arrived – yet. It’s still delayed. Was I wrong in suggesting it might be DOA? We may never know, because it may never arrive. Sure, the site is still being tested, but some observers – me included – have also pointed out that other projects have either done exactly what Orbitz has promised to do, or have even done it better. Like many of my colleagues in the virtual peanut gallery, I’ve had a hard time handling the prickly personalities involved in this company, but even if you overlook their at times counterproductive arrogance, you still can’t help but arriving at a bleak conclusion: Orbitz is a site whose time may have come – and gone.

Stupid Prediction #4: The travel industry needs its own top-level domain.

Sure. Commenting on the International Air Transport Association’s recent tiff with the American Society of Travel Agents over who controls a proposed “dot travel” name, I smugly noted, “When I first suggested a top-level domain for the travel industry in mid-1997, the idea was roundly dismissed. “When I observed that ‘travel in general, and interactive travel specifically, got the worst domain names,’ my comments were greeted with a collective yawn. No one cared. It’s nice to know my ideas have some merit, even if I’ve had to wait a while for them to be validated.”

Why was it stupid? Because the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – the people who control Internet names – rejected the proposal, that’s why. Seems a “dot travel” domain isn’t necessary after all. Don’t these people read my column?

If you’re not laughing at me by now, thanks for being polite. Go ahead – no need to wipe that smirk off your face. You don’t have to be a publicist for one of the companies I wrote about last year to have a chuckle at my expense. Go on, I deserve it.

Know what? I’m glad I got it wrong a few times. It just goes to show how wonderfully unpredictable this industry is. And how anyone who says he knows what will happen next year is full of hot air.

Remember that the next time you’re at one of those travel conferences and someone makes a prediction. faces post-new economy future

Of all the coveted domain names in the online travel business, one has stood above all others for the better part of the last decade, not only in terms of recognition but also in its elusiveness:

Since 1992, when St. Louis entrepreneur Rik Brown registered the memorable moniker, suitors have tried unavailingly to secure this holy grail of URLs. They’ve schemed, plotted, and even begged for a piece of He didn’t budge.

“There’s always the offer of the week,” he says. “Even now, with things the way they are.”

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’ (ICANN) recent decision to increase the number of top-level domain names doesn’t bode well for owners of premium domains like Brown’s, if you believe the conventional wisdom. Good thing doesn’t pay much attention to the conventional wisdom, which may be why the expansion happened within only a few days of’s long-awaited decision to develop its business into a global travel portal.

“I think ICANN’s actions are good for us,” Brown says. “I think the new virtual real estate is going to be second-tier. People will still pay a premium for a dotcom.”

Let’s hope so. Early next year, look for to expand its branded fare search engine and build on its presence as an international clearinghouse for travel information. Brown is using private funds to develop technology that will serve the site’s content in multiple languages, which would make it one of only a few truly international travel portals.

What kinds of strategies have helped survive the recent downturn and the perceived real estate devaluations? Here’s what Brown had to say:

The name is everything – almost. Brown estimates that gets 600,000 unique visitors a month – all without any advertising – simply because of the URL. His advice: don’t underestimate the importance of a concise, easy-to-remember domain. But at the same time, don’t ignore the need for a business plan that works. Brown’s reason for turning down the other “offers of the week” was that they lacked a clear path to profit.

Smaller is better. It’s easier to subcontract for services and then scale back, if necessary, says Brown. “You hear a lot about the cutbacks with the other travel-related dot-coms, but we don’t have that issue, because we’re already small,” he adds. Brown doesn’t see the point in ramping up a travel company, preferring to keep things compact. In doing so he’s practically taking a page from Robert Lewis of, who was recently profiled in this column.

Don’t miss bricks and mortar. Brown is considering an affiliate program for bricks-and-mortar retailers, not unlike’s plan. In his estimation, bricks and mortar can’t be ignored when you’re trying to build a global business. While the blueprints for a affiliate program remain on the drawing board, Brown thinks that the program could be a cornerstone of an expanded “We really couldn’t do it without some kind of bricks-and-mortar presence,” he says.

Market smart. “We’ve let the URL market itself, but we now have to look beyond that. It doesn’t have to be advertising, but it’s got to be more than just making the domain name do all the work,” says Brown. He’s considered offering free e-mail, publishing a travel magazine or even creating a travel satellite channel in order to promote the brand. Not on his list are banner ads or advertisements in print media. “But we are thinking of running radio ads,” he says. “Those work.”

Maybe the most important aspect of’s strategy – and a key to its longevity – is its patience. “We have a five year plan. We’re in no hurry; we’re aimed at making profits and expanding over the next months,” Brown notes. It’s this wait-and-see approach that may have frustrated those who pursued as if it were a feather in their Internet venture’s figurative cap. But down the stretch it could help the company prosper even when the odds are against it.