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 CNN.com, 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 CNN.com’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 MSNBC.com.

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 Airlineguides.com, 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 Priceline.com. Then again, maybe it was news of Bid4Vacations.com troubles or the demise of that pathetically underfunded but eminently useful Travelbids.com 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 LastMinuteTravel.com, just about everything.

That would explain the lengths to which the Atlanta travel site has gone to protect its moniker. LastMinuteTravel.com 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 Priceline.com 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 LastMinuteTravel.com chief executive David Miranda. When his company pointed out that it owned more or less every right to the words “last minute travel,” Priceline.com caved in and changed its advertising campaign – an action that Miranda says cost Priceline.com “a lot.”

Priceline.com downplayed the incident.

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

Not quite. The Priceline.com chapter may be closed, but Miranda isn’t done reading his rights to rivals. This week, LastMinuteTravel.com 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, LastMinuteTravel.com’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 LastMinuteTravel.com 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, Site59.com and Priceline.com all over this market like hit counters lining the bottom of amateur Web sites, things are different.

Once the trend cools, will LastMinuteTravel.com 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 Trip.com’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, Trip.com’s vice president of marketing, confirmed that the project has been in the works since 1999.

Details of the new Trip.com 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 Trip.com’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 Trip.com 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” Trip.com 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.