Online travel CEOs talk tech, changes

USA TODAY assembled five of the industry’s top executives at the PhoCusWright conference in Hollywood, Fla., this month for a discussion on the industry’s latest developments: Jeffery Boyd , CEO of; Carl Sparks , CEO of Travelocity Global; Scott Durchslag , president of Expedia Worldwide; Stephen Kaufer , CEO of TripAdvisor; and Barney Harford , CEO of Orbitz Worldwide.

The hour-long event was moderated by USA TODAY’s Veronica Gould Stoddart  and Roger Yu . The text has been edited for clarity and length.

USA TODAY: Some customers believe the user experience and technology at online travel agencies (OTAs) haven’t changed much in recent years. Your response? 

Boyd:  I don’t agree. All of us have spent hundreds of millions of dollars building faster, better user interfaces. Our offers hotels in 90 countries and 50 languages and 170,000 hotels, a number (that) is up 60% year-over-year. A lot of that represents new geography. Mobile platforms (are) a massive positive change in user experience and functionality.

Durchslag:  There is an opportunity for the travel industry to be more innovative, really embracing technology. We’re looking at a (service in which) Expedia (is becoming) the Netflix of travel, to stream you perfect trips with highly relevant and personalized offers. I don’t think the consumer really wants to go shop at six different sites.

Sparks:  We see very different browsing and booking profiles (on mobile platforms). One of our key products is Travelocity Top Secret Hotels, where you don’t know (the hotel) you’re (buying). These last-minute deals to get away have been very successful, double-digit percentage (growth). On mobile, it (has grown) three times.

Harford:  (In) the recommended hotels module we just launched, we (look at) people who shopped for a particular hotel but ended up at (another), finding other hotels that are similar. We want to recognize the attributes of each consumer. For example, our data show that consumers who purchase on a Mac vs. a PC typically book a room that’s $20 more expensive. You can imagine the richness of that kind of information. We put over $145 million (into) a five-year re-platforming project — building a common platform (for) all of our brands. A couple of years ago, we might have launched the site four, five, six times a year. This year, we expect to do over 800 (changes on) the site.

Durchslag:  We were stuck for quite a while on a technology platform. But all but three of all of (our) pages on the site will change by this time next year. Given the complexity of all the back-end systems, it’s no small thing.

USA TODAY: Marriott and Starwood now run their customers’ reviews and guarantee reviews are from their guests. How do you make sure your reviews are accurate and honest? 

Kaufer:  We’re very aware people are depending upon TripAdvisor for the right answer, the trustworthy answer. And if we lose that, we’re in trouble. (In our survey), 98% of consumers said they believe the reviews on TripAdvisor. We launched hundreds of thousands of tips on hotels. We have millions of candid photos. It’s pretty hard to shave the truth with a photo. We’re perfectly fine if Marriott, Starwood and anyone else carry reviews on their own site. We would love to work with them to help collect reviews. They can leverage our trusted brand … (because) the consumers are going to be skeptical that (the hotels) are not filtering out the bad reviews.

USA TODAY: What have you done to ensure that hotels aren’t paying for good reviews on TripAdvisor? 

Kaufer:  We’re pleased to see more and more hoteliers writing management responses. We’re very clear to hoteliers that if you engage in writing fake reviews, it’s illegal in most countries (including the USA). If we catch you, we first give you a warning and then a big red badge. It has an impact on business.

USA TODAY: Expedia recently partnered with Groupon for daily getaway deals. How is that initiative going? 

Durchslag:  We’re now up into millions of folks who have registered. It is the fastest trajectory takeoff of anything we’ve launched. It is not cannibalistic; it is complementary. We have learned a ton working with (Groupon) that would have taken us a year or more to figure out on our own. I know there’s a lot of speculation. Is this sustainable? It is early. It’s the first inning. But everything that we’re seeing leads me to believe that it is big.

USA TODAY: When we tried Expedia/Groupon Getaways, we found deals that weren’t quite 50% to 60% off as advertised. How can you ensure that your deals are really good? 

Durchslag:  That’s part of the learning curve. It’s not always a perfect process. We’re getting better and better. You’re going to lose consumer confidence if you don’t (offer) something that’s better. I think if you did that same check today, you would have a different outcome.

USA TODAY: Are any of the other online travel sites working on something similar? 

Harford:  We’ve launched Orbitz Insider Steals, which is a 72-hour window, member-only set of offerings that come out every week. We were concerned about the voucher-type model, where you (might not be able) to go on a particular weekend that you want to go. So we went with this (model) — these are the dates available today, and you need to make the booking right now.

Kaufer:  Our Sneak Away flash sale product is only talking about properties that the millions of consumers out there have said, “Hey, this is a great place.” What we all like about the concept is that it’s inspiring more travel.

Sparks:  I think (daily deals) may end up being a little bit more of a niche than the mainstream for most of our businesses. It is going to be one or two or three percent of the business. So we focus more on having everyday great deals. In (Travelocity’s) Top Secret Hotels, (hotels are) about 50% (off).

Boyd:  I probably have a different view on how compelling the deals are. Some of them look like everyday promotional pricing that the hotels provide to a lot of other distribution channels. And that’s not fulfilling the promise they’re trying to make to the customer. So I think Groupon has to be very careful. If we invest in flash sales, we would do that to build our own brands. We wouldn’t do that to help Groupon.

USA TODAY: Tapping your social network for travel advice is a big trend, and a lot of start-ups are after the business. What are your plans? 

Kaufer:  It’s a beautiful promise. The challenge is scale, scale, scale. How many of your friends have actually jotted down all of their thoughts on all of the places they have been? None of them, I promise you. I wish all of these innovators luck in getting there. We’re a Facebook partner. Even if you’ve never been on TripAdvisor, you can see the travel-related things that (say) six of your 200 friends have done recently.

Durchslag:  We did a big very viral promotion called Friend Trips. It was a million-dollar sweepstakes. We basically went from (about) 100,000 Facebook fans to about 1.1 million in about five weeks. But it’s a bridge from there to booking a trip. We’re thinking much more broadly (to include) discovery, booking, the trip, the help you need and sharing the trip afterward … and making it so simple that it becomes effortless. That’s the next level.

Sparks:  We launched Ask and Answer. Consumers can ask questions about the property. We found that three-quarters of customers still have questions, particularly (about) hotel bookings, even after they finish their online research on multiple sites. We have nearly 15,000 questions up already in the first month. Hoteliers and other consumers can answer (them).

USA TODAY: More travel sites are placing a premium on travel (editorial) content. Is this a priority for you? 

Boyd:  We have content that is relevant to consumers at the point where they’re getting ready to decide to make a reservation. And not throw in there, “By the way, you can go out to dinner at Hollywood Prime.” We offer city guides on some of our (sites). But we haven’t found that to be a point of differentiation in where consumers are deciding to shop.

Sparks:  Yes, that would be similar for Travelocity. What they need is more great content about (their) hotel. We’ve been much more focused on getting that right.

Kaufer:  (With our new) Mobile City guides, you pull out the phone and figure out the next walking tour in London. Our premise is that we’re helping you so much at all of the touch points except the booking piece. Then, you’ll come back and start trip planning with us.

Harford:  Google’s acquisition of Zagat is intriguing. We’re doing some experimentation around semantic analysis to understand the signals inherent in large amounts of content. (In) family travel, people are talking about kid-friendly amenities. If we’re able to extract that, show a set of reviews that talk about those amenities and (show) family-friendly hotels, that’s a lot more useful to consumers.

USA TODAY: Google entered the flight search business with Google Flights after buying ITA Software. Your impression so far? 

Harford:  It’s a pretty incomplete product. Forty percent of consumers who purchase travel online are purchasing through travel agencies. The airlines have made pretty clear that they don’t want to have metasearch sites (such as Google Flights and Kayak) offering OTA prices. If you’re a Google trying to build a metasite, or if you’re a Kayak, it makes that value proposition very challenging. Increasingly, you can’t even buy interline itineraries (on some metasearch sites), where you go out on one carrier and back on another.

Durchslag:  It is surprising because Google stands behind putting the consumer first in terms of choices. And that wasn’t done here. Hotels have very strong feelings about some of us here. But what they’ve paid to us is probably a fraction of what they would potentially pay to Google.

Kaufer:  It’s a surprise, because Google claims to always be about the consumer. I immediately went to use it, and (I thought) “why would I come back?” If I’m looking for the best price and the widest selection, I would have to use an OTA because Google Flights doesn’t offer that.

USA TODAY: Regarding your efforts with mobile technology, how fast will mobile take over your traditional business in the next five years? 

Kaufer:  I don’t see desktop research being replaced (by mobile). But we have 10 million downloads of our app. There are really nice apps coming out from all of those around the table.

Sparks:  Very fast. I mean, 30% to 40% of the business in the time frame that you’re talking about. You might get together with a bunch of friends and say, “Hey, we should really go to Vegas.” And everyone leaves and forgets about it. With mobile, we actually (book) it right then.

Harford:  We’re surprised how fast it’s happening. On CheapTickets, 8% of its hotel reservations are done on a mobile website. And that isn’t even with an app. We’ve launched the Orbitz Hotels app for iPad, which allows you to book in just three taps. We’re seeing that 65% of our mobile bookings are for same-day reservations, (vs.) 12% to 14% on our desktop site.

Durchslag:  We see the same thing. I also think the separation between the mobile Web experience and the app experience is going to become less and less.

Boyd:  There are products available in a mobile environment that are not available on your desktop. Tonight-Only Hotels on Priceline is a perfect example. We had a freak Northeast snowstorm at the end of October in New England. In Connecticut, more than half the people were without power for days and days. And we literally watched the hotel reservations light up on our mobile devices.

Sparks:  It’s a great time because it forces us to be more innovative. You want to make it easy to get to a transaction very fast (on a small device). If you’re doing it for a tablet, you might think of it more as a lean-back kind of experience, flipping through pages.

Durchslag:  You have to make better choices. You can show 50, 100, endless search results on a desktop. On a 3.5-inch display, you can see maybe three or four. When you have to make those choices for the consumer, it forces innovations.

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