Monday, June 29, 2009

Good Japan market stats from iMedia Asia hide unfortunate market challenges

Andy Radovic of Outrider has a nice high level piece over at iMedia Asia on the Japanese search market. Called "Searching for travel, the Japan way", it is the BOOT Recommended Read of the week. Paints a very positive picture of online travel in Japan - which is fair and true. When discussing Japan it is important to know that the success of online travel in Japan is despite the fact that the online travel market has not one but two hands tied behind its back.

Firstly the two main airlines - ANA and JAL - still make it virtually impossible to conduct a search query that includes results for both carriers on domestic routes. This has crippled any efforts by intermediaries to sell air in Japan and led to the focus by the major online intermediaries (Jalan/Recruit and Rakuten) on accommodation.

Secondly I have been reliably informed that there are very strict laws on the requirements for disclosure to consumers about the cancellation policies on package sales. When I last investigated this the cancellation policy for a package tour had to be explained to a customer. That is that it had to happen over the phone or face to face rather than a consent online. If this law is still in effect, then it eliminates the "hands free" sale of group tours online. That is the sale of group tours/travel without the intervention of a sales person.

[above assumes my knowledge of JP market is still up to date - please let me know if I am out of the loop]

thanks to Hyougushi over a flickr for the photo

BOOT in Business Week Business Exchange

I feel like I have lost a bit of control over the syndication of the BOOT across the InterToobs but cant complain when one of the unknown feed results is to end up on a BusinessWeek page. Image below

Friday, June 26, 2009

BOOT on MJ bandwagon

I am 37 years old so you are going to have to indulge me. I don't vere away from the business of online travel often. It happens sometimes on Fridays. Most recently I did so for dung beetles, to say I am sorry and to watch in amazement at the battle between a lion, a buffalo and crocodile (ok...and for some muppets over Christmas). I am a child of the 70s and 80s so here is the best live performance I can find of that strange, odd and potentially dangerous man that had a musical talent the likes of which we will never see again. Here he is singing Billie Jean, dancing his magic and a wearing a pre-Frankenstein make over body. Farewell Michael

Kayak is not that flattered by Bing imitation (Wired Mag)

Quick post for the BOOT recommended read of the week. Wired is reporting that Kayak sent Microsoft a "legal letter" along the lines of accusing Microsoft's Bing Travel of copying Kayak's look and feel and therefore misleading Kayak customers. No more details than that. Anyone out there is the Michael Jackson obsessed InterWebs know any more?

Full Article "Kayak to Bing: Stop Copying Us!"

hat tip to whodeani where I saw the story first

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

AsiaRooms moves to commission model at 15% for directly contracted hotels

The TUI owned AsiaRooms started life as a 100% operator shop. Accessing net rates from operators such as GTA and Turismo Asia. Many times they were criticised for pricing policies that angered hoteliers but recent comments from marketing head John Fearon indicated they were looking to move away from that pre-TUI reputation. AsiaRooms is part of TUI's Onlien Destination Services Group.

I have heard today of another step in that move UPDATE (and this has been confirmed by John Fearon). Here is a screen shot from an email sent out to hoteliers today. It shows that AsiaRooms is moving to a commissionable model with directly contracted hotels at 15%.

I am sure this will be a challenging shift. While it may make it easier to contract hotels, setting up an effective accounts receivable department across Asia where none existed previously will be a huge challenge for AsiaRooms. While hotels will be happier with the pricing certainty on AsiaRooms, the commission model shifts the credit card fee and payment transfer cost to the hotel. Here a shot from the email. What do you make of this change?

PS - I am assuming the email is legit. Can't say either way but if you know it to be a fake please let me know.Is confirmed as legit direct from Fearon at AsiaRooms

TripIt launches TripIt Pro - more features and a price tag (Re-Posting)

Assuming I have not screwed up the embargo timing, (I did break the embardo - Update Below)

Travel co-ordination and itinerary builder TripIt is announcing right about now that it will be launching TripIt Pro. This will be a paid upgrade to the basic TripIt Product. We don't normally do launches here at the BOOT but I am a keen TripIt user, am interested by the potential for an online travel content/organisation company actually charging users for a product and TripIt's VP of Biz Dev Scott Hintz shared some product launch learnings that I wanted to pass on to you (oh....OK...and by way to disclosure they let me have access to a Pro Account for no charge).

Quick reminder - the core of the TripIt product is to let you forward to them all of your separate itineraries for each of the parts of the trip and they combine it into one itinerary that can be shared with others. My recent review of the base/free product is here. Most of features of the base product are "pre-trip". The paid TripIt Pro product comes with lots more during and post trip features such as flight tracking, mobile alerts and alternative flights to help with delays and missed connections and a points tracker/combiner for all loyalty cards. You can read up more on the features here. All useful stuff, will report back once I get a chance to trial them.

Hintz tells me the pricing will $100 per year, or $49 if you sign before 31 July. You may have heard this described as the "Freemium" model - where the base but usable produce is available free but advanced features cost. We have seen this in lots of desktop software but I have not seen it yet in a travel product. Hintz says they have done lots of research to set the pricing.

I wonder if there is an irrationality factor to get over when it comes to paying for online travel tools. The OTAs are busily cutting fees, travel inspiration and meta-search providers are looking for suppliers and agents to pay and Google is the most useful thing the world but it is entirely free to use.

That said for a multi-mile road warrior $100 per year is a rounding error on a travel budget. I certainly will certainly spend more each year just on the tips at cafes buying coffee and can easily burn that it one trip using my cell to dial into a conference call.

Unfortunately they can only take US credit cards. Hintz said there were practical and cost reasons for that but in hindsight wishes and with the product on the cusp of launch wished they had found a way to launch the product with a reach beyond US customers. In launching the product Hintz said the cost of taking on non-US cards appeared prohibitive but as they face the realities of rolling out the product he believes they should have been more aggressive with targeting more markets for launch.

Another learning from the launch was to engage more beta testers earlier. A lot of the features from the final product came from tester feedback. If he had his time again Hintz says that he would have brought on more testers earlier to increase the feedback and speed up the product dev. It was nice of him to be open and share this.

Thus we have a Travel 2.0 company prepared to turned to paid subscriptions for revenue. What do you think? Do you think people will pay for more/better tools for managing itineraries, points, connections and trips?

UPDATE - apologies to all at TripIt. I did screw up the embargo timing by 24 hours. Caused the TripIt team to scramble to launch a day earlier and brief people fast. I earned a justifiable "tut tut" from uber travel journalist Kevin May. Then I tried to bring my post down and instead deleted it, meaning I need to repost again with the comments in the main text rather than in the comments section. As I said via twitter I "..proved that bloggers are lazy and untrustworthy". Thankfully TripIt have graciously forgiven me for my mistake.

Here are the comments I deleted

Blogger Teddy Douglas said...

They couldn't find a non-US payment method!? What about PayPal?

24 June 2009 3:06 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why pay $100 for TripIt, when you can get the same functionality from StreamThru for free?

24 June 2009 4:33 AM

Anonymous Jeff said...

I just did a quick scan of the StreamThru site and it seems to indeed offer a similar product. Tim, have you used it?

24 June 2009 4:37 AM

Monday, June 22, 2009

Uptake CEO Yen Lee talks revenue plans, expansion plans and lessons learnt

Am on an interview roll here at BOOT HQ. To keep things going I thought it was time to catch up with Uptake CEO Yen Lee. Initially launched as Kango in 2007 with backing from Shasta Ventures Uptake is building a review meta-search business. They have a series of algorithms and search methodologies for collecting and analysing huge numbers of reviews for hotels and destinations (currently US only). They hit the news again in September last year having secured another round from Shasta just moments before the GFC entered our acronym dictionaries.

A year after the new round and four months after Kayak announced the expansion of Travelpost into review meta-search I wanted to find out from Yen how the company was going and what he thought about the market. Here is some of our exchange

BOOT: How is the business tracking?

Yen - four big milestones from the last twelve months:
  1. 5,000 sites in the index;
  2. Technology is working;
  3. Raised the second round; and
  4. Hit a million uniques in traffic.
BOOT: With 5,000 sites in the index and a significant traffic base is the focus now onto revenue, is the product ready?

Yen - want to increase the number of sites searched by 100-200 times. Beyond dramatically expanding the size of the index also want the display to be better customised based on consumer preferences.

Any other expansion plans? What about using ad networks to sell CPM campaigns for revenue raising

Yen - we are happy for now with the CPA model from click referral. Not under pressure to turn to ad networks and CPM. Areexploring expansion possibilities outside of English language but in no rush. Also to expand the product into destinations. Believes long term there is more money in destination activities than hotels. There is a third expansion plan but Yen would not share what is was.

BOOT: Has Kayak's Travelpost revamp left you worried? How about TripAdvisor?

Yen - would be flattering to think we are on radar of either of these companies [as a competitor]. Is convinced there is space for Uptake to take on both of them.

BOOT: Any worries about the fall in online advertising spend?

Yen - not really as not very close to it. Focused on CPA and lead generation revenue. While banner/brand spend is soft, performance based advertising continues to be very strong. Expects growth in CPA to be stronger than PPC as traffic is even more qualified than paid search.

BOOT: Now that you are through your early stages as a start-up what things have you learnt about launching a company and growing a business?

Yen - couple of things

1. There were some early staff members better suited to building prototypes and early products than for scaling the business. Learnt that it was OK to move people around and shed some people and move on;

2. Cash is king -"don't worry about dilution" and "if you have a choice don't spend a dollar"; and

3. Should have been more aggressive with the consumer experience part of the product. Were very aggressive on the search index and algorithms. Should have displayed the same aggression in building consumer experience and gotten to it three months earlier.

My Take on Uptake

I am not sure what it is about my most recent round of interviews with travel search and discovery sites. Like the others before him in this series Yen is sounding very confident and very relaxed. No furrowed brows and tough talk filled with reality checks and challenging growth plans. He has a comfort brought on from money in the bank and limited revenue pressure (or "lots of runway" as they say in the best Valley coffee houses). My guess is Uptake is actually more concerned about the Kayak move into review meta-search than they are letting on but Yen does have a product that is not only a year a ahead of Travelpost in functionality but most importantly a year ahead in terms of Google indexing. The meta-search model in reviews is not yet proven but the revenue model behind sending qualified leads to hotel companies and intermediaries is proven.

What do you think - is review meta-search a viable business? Can Uptake fight off product launches and marketing pushes from Kayak and TripAdvisor?

First bit of Bing Travel for the BOOT - but makes no sense

I am a long way behind on doing any analysis or commentary on Microsoft's launch of Bing search platform.

But I did receive my first piece of traffic referral from the Bingers. Receiving traffic form a search engine is not a story in itself, but there is a story here because the traffic makes not make any sense. The search term that sent me the traffic was "" and the Bing page with those results has only one free link on it and no reference to me anywhere. I don't understand. Also look at the paid search on the right hand side. Does this mean Bing is selling remnant inventory or allowing for bidding on any term. Image below

If you are looking for some Bing travel analysis check out some of the following

Siew Hoon with Bing. Pong or Bang?
Bishop Cook with Farecast team looks to take Bing travel to new heights
Alex Bainbridge with Microsoft Bing and the travel website onion

GFC presure finally comes to WTF - analyst rates as "under perform"

Wotif Group (ASX:WTF) has been a stand out Australian stock for as long as anyone can remember. Well at least since March 2006 when it burst onto the market at a pre-float price of $2.00 but closing the first day at $3.32. Has been a roller coaster ride since then. The first two years was all up up up, topping out at just below $6 a share. Then early to mid 08 saw a slump back below $3 a share. Recently the stock has rallied with the rest of the market to be around the $4.50 range ($4.50 close yesterday). Throughout that time I have not seen an analyst say a bad word about the stock (despite a P/E ratio in the twenties).

Now today we have a different voice. Senior Analyst at LINWAR securities James Bales has just published a research note on Wotif called "Check Out Time". In that note he sets a target price of $3.70 - 18% less than the current value. I can't share the whole research note with you as that is something LINWAR reserves for the clients but I can share some of the top level conclusions that Bales used to support his rating of Under Perform. Here are some extracts from his conclusions
"WTF trades on a significant premium to our DCF valuation. It also trades on a premium to larger well-performed global online travel peers in an industry which rewards scale.

Industry estimates of Average Daily Rate (ADR) declines are approaching double digit levels worldwide. The decline may be more moderate in Australia but Wotif expected low single digit rate decline in 2H09. Intense rate pressure has meant hotel chains are seeking ways of discounting prices without impacting brand - OTA’s offer this capability.

It appears Asian destination markets are holding up well [for WTF]– eg: Thailand, Bali. Source markets such as China post-Olympics and Japan appear weaker. In these areas global giants have a significant advantage over WTF. WTF is trying to grow an Asian business with no local language capability and just one small existing market (AU/NZ) from which to draw clients."
That said, Bales still supports the profit estimates from Wotif. As he says
"NPAT guidance of at least $42m was in line with our forecasts. This is no surprise given US 1Q09 results from Online Travel Agents (OTA’s). Our forecasts are unchanged, anticipating strong growth in FY10."
I agree with James analysis, especially on international expansion. That said hard to be too negative about a company that just upped its full year forecast.

That do you think? Will there finally be pressure on Wotif coming or is $4.50 a share just fine thank you very much?

Collected BOOT & Tim Hughes Interviews and Podcasts

You can absolutely call this a vanity post. Here are a list (in date order) of places you can find your BOOT correspondent being interviewed or delivering a presentation (assuming all the links work).
  1. "WebInTravel pre conference interview" Sept 2009;
  2. "Is it Possible To Make Money Online" Feb 2009;
  3. On stage at WIT 2008 with Philip Wolf and Ram Badrinathan of PhoCusWright Oct 2008;
  4. BOOT Presentation at Eyefortravel Asia Pacific Sept 2008 (with audio);
  5. The BOOT on an IAG Podcast - Don't Panic Sept 2008 ; and
  6. BOOT pre-conference interview for the Eyefortravel Asia Pacific conference April 2008.
  7. BOOT presenting and panel hosting at WebInTravel Oct 2010
  8. BOOT hosting panel on Social Media at WebInTravel 2011

Friday, June 12, 2009

Roshan Mendis replaces Scott Blume as Zuji Boss (Travelocity in Asia)

Have been deep in work so missed the story from a a week ago that Travelocity in Asia (operating under the brand name Zuji) has a new Boss. Scott Blume was CEO for about six years leading up until 1 June this year. Roshan Mendis is the new internal appointment. He is not listed as CEO on the Zuji site, instead they list him as President of Zuji and Regional Vice President of Travelocity Asia Pacific. Prior to this role, Mendis was the Zuji Director of Supplier Relationships.

Siew Hoon over at the WebInTravel blog has an interview with Scott Blume on his thoughts on life post Zuji and the outlook for the industry for the rest of 2009.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tips on online audience and usage in Indonesia

BOOT recommended read of the week is a blog post from Peter Goldsworthy of Admax Network from the iMedia Connection community site. Called "Insights into Indonesia's online audience" the post has seven insights into the market that may be of interest to you.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tripbase CEO Reuven Levitt Interview Part 2 - tips for start-ups raising funds

This is Part 2 in my notes from an interview with Tripbase CEO Reuven Levitt. Part 1 was a review of the product and a discussion of the business of travel inspiration and discovery.

In this part I will share with you some of the interesting insights and comments from Levitt on this experiences in raising funding in the Valley. The trigger for the interview series was Tripbase securing $2 million in series A funding.

Tripbase is not the first time the Levitt has raised money for start-ups. In his last venture he raised $12 million through the "usual" VC routes. I asked him what advice he would have for other start-ups looking for cash. Here are his top three tips:
  1. Build a prototype before you do anything else: To attract the two key elements to success (people and money) a start-up needs to build a proof of concept as quickly as possible. The fastest way to do that is to use open source technologies. It is very important to get "30%-50% of the way" to a product before looking for money. Levitt says that a lot of start ups hold back on doing a fast build of a prototype for fear that they will be copied. Levitt's view is that copying is not the area to worry about. He says there is more of a risk in going slow and hidden rather than fast and a little more open.
  2. Bootstrapping is critical: Levitt could not over emphasise the importance of being tight with money as a start-up. The phrase he used regularly was "focus on spend". Putting this another way "Start ups do not tcome out of luxury. Investors need to see hunger."; and
  3. Start-ups often look for funding in the wrong places: Levitt believes that "private people with deep pockets" are the best places to look for funding, rather than VCs. On location, there is "no comparison to being in the Valley" because "by sheer numbers you will meet people". The only draw back of the Valley is that "it is very competitive...lots of people competing for money...lots of options on where to invest".
Any other tips out there from other entrepreneurs? While writing up these notes I was also reminded of a post from Jeremy Liew of Valley VC group Lightspeed Ventures on Five things start ups must spend their money on.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Business Traveller Tip - getting through airport security fast and recombobulating in style

Second in my series of tips for the business traveller is how to get through pre-flight security as quickly as you can. There are a lot of elements to getting through security. Things are unambitiously tighter and more stressful in the post-9/11 world. A few simple things will cut time and stress levels:
  1. Get your documents ready before you get in the queue: Surprising how often I see people surprised when asked by a uniformed TSA Agent, security agent, representative of Her Majesties Government, stern looking person in a sterner looking uniform etc to see a traveller's boarding pass and passport. Get yourself a travelling pouch/wallet that keeps your passport, boarding pass and other travel documents in one place, put it in your dominant hand (ie my right hand) and give the right documents to the right person as quickly and orderly as you can (see also rule 7);
  2. Choose who you line up behind: The speed in which you can get through the queue depends most on the speed of the people ahead of you in the queue. You need to do some profiling of the people in front of you before you join a line. Avoid families and the elderly - they take too long to get their jackets, shoes and bags into and out of the scanner. Avoid anyone carrying anything metal (crutches, canes, prams) - there will inevitably be delays in them putting them through the scanner. Avoid large groups of people (school kids, tour groups, sporting groups, air crews) - they will be taking too much time helping each other out and sorting out who owns what. Basically look for other packs of travelling alone, serious looking business travellers;
  3. Select the right toiletry pack and switch to shave oil: The liquid rules are a real pain and the TSA apply the rules in the weirdest of ways. The obvious advice is do not pack anything in a bottle larger than100mm (3oz) and put them in a clear zip lock bag. But that is a given. I have three other pieces of advice for you. Firstly - carry a spare zip lock bag. If you lose your original or it breaks you will need a spare or else have to do a lot of negotiating or last minute running around to do. Secondly - be selective as to toiletry bag you use. I was give a great one a couple of years ago when "involuntarily" upgraded to first class on British Airways. It is a rectangular soft box shape with zip covering three sides of the lid. Allows me to open the toiletry pack so as to fully expose all of the contents for scanning (in a zip lock bag) but keeps it neat, orderly and safe from breaking bags. The security agents are happy as they get to see what they need to see, and I am happy because I have eliminated the chance of a break in the zip lock bag causing an awful mess in my bag. I searched for a photo online to show you but unfortunately could not find one. I hope the description is enough. Thirdly - keep your liquids to a minimum by doing the following. Save all of the small toothpastes you get on board. They are the perfect size for taking on trips. Ditto for moisturiser. Don't pack shampoo- use those provided by the hotel. Finally for travelling switch from using shaving cream or foam and a separate after shave balm to using shave oil. Shaving oil (ie King of Shaves Kinexium Oil) takes getting used to but once you do you can carry hundreds of shaves worth of oil in a 15ml bottle. It can be used as a post-shave balm as well as an alternative to foam/gel. Only downside is that it clogs up your razor blade - so you will go through blades faster. But is worth it for being able to ditch two large liquid bottles for one small one;
  4. Slip ons not laces: Your shoes should be slip ons not lace ups to speed on and off;
  5. Put everything in your bag: Before you get to queue (ie at check-in or in the taxi) put your wallet, coins, mobile, blackberry, pens, everything in you pockets into your carry on bag. Don't keep things in your pocket as you will just have to take them out and put them back in again;
  6. Store, keep and hoard express passes: Plenty of airports have express queues for those carrying special passes. Often the special pass is nothing more than a boarding pass for first of business class. But equally as often (ie Sydney airport) they are a separate document handed out at check in. I hoard these and keep spares in my travel wallet. You never know when you are going to need a spare (ie flying economy with the family). You will only realise the true value of having a spare when you have one;
  7. Smile: Security people get frowned at all day. Give them a smile.
  8. Afterwards - take a break and recombobulate.
Do you have any other tips to share? If you are looking for the TSA's official tip list look here.

PS - if you have no idea what the references to Recombobulation mean then read this post.

thanks to Larsz over a flickr for the photo

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Tripbase CEO Reuven Levitt Interview Part 1 - travel discovery, the travel genome and the magic of the slider

Am loving the recent run of interviews that I have been doing especially in the travel discovery and inspiration space. I have finally had a chance to write up my notes of an interview with Reuven Levitt of inspiration start up Tripbase. The interview and story came in part from my series of posts on the travel discovery and inspiration companies and part because Tripbase has just closed a round of series A funding, securing $2 million from private investors. I am going am going to do two posts on the interview. This first one will be on the company and the market. In part two I will share our discussion on start up fund raising.

What is Tripbase?

We have been talking on the BOOT about the different approaches that companies are choosing for generating recommendations. There is the criteria based selection process of Triporati, the event based selection of Joobili and the deal/price hunting approach of Voyij.

In Tripbase's case they have tried to distil trip recommendations critera to just five parameters - Nightlife, Dining, Shopping, Nature and Attractions. A search is then based on selecting your starting point (ie location), dates and (through using sliders) the relative positives and negatives of preferences the traveller has on each of the five parameters. For example I searched for a Spring (October) holiday from Sydney for a family of four with the following slider preferences hoping to reflect a "family" perspective (picture)

The initial recommendations in order were: Auckland, Brisbane, Canberra, Tokyo and Melbourne. [What is interesting about that is that the next trip I have booked for the family (Easter next year) is to the South Island of New Zealand].

Search results are one thing but it is the refinement that is critical for recommendations. There is a need for a balance - enough to allow the consumer to find what they want but not too much to be overwhelming. The main refinement available from Tripbase are budget, weather and continent (Levitt is promising more).

Here are the results (picture)

I like the idea of the price refinement. That said, I moved the value slider a lot and did not get presented with a much greater variety of recommendations.

Where did they idea come from, where does the data come from?

Levitt and the rest of the Tripbase team came to the travel recommendation area not from a travel background but from a history of computational biology and building recommendation engines in the biochemistry field. This led him to attempt to build a generic recommendation engine and commence work on taking that engine and modifying it for travel. As he described it to me Tripbase is made up of two components rather than one. The first is the data centre and information collection mechanism. The second is the Tripbase website itself which sits above the data centre, providing and interface for customers to access the information.

They call the data centre the Travel Genome Project (not to be confused with Triporati's Vacation Genome Project). Levitt is claiming the TGP indexes and scrapes over 3,000 websites and therefore up to 22 million reviews. As Levitt put it "we use artificial intelligence techniques to make "sense" of a destination" drawn from the huge number of data sources being scraped and searched. So while Triporati is using technology and people/editors hand in hand to determine the results, Tripbase is relying on computational data analysis to sort through the overwhelming amount of data available - including the need to estimate prices and costs.

Thoughts on the market and monetisation

He has plans for both elements of the product and there are clients for both. At this stage the plans for Tripbase are further distribution and customer experience refinement (ie general competition in the discovery and inspiration space). For the Travel Genome Project plans, he was keeping his cards close to his chest, not giving away too much. If it is true that he has with this product a unique (or near unique) way of indexing destination information then he has a powerful tool for distribution through partners. But was not sharing a plan as to how he would take advantage.

Tripbase are not yet focused on monetisation and are in no rush. Levitt says he is not under revenue pressure yet and he wants to get the product right first. He contrasts this to the Big Four (Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and Priceline) who he saw as struggling to innovate and grow because they are, as Levitt put it, "struggling to focus on costs and spend marketing money while trying to cut back on fees and keep the business growing"

My Take

The basis of the product is an automated way of indexing enormous amounts of travel data through algorithms that link descriptive data, price data and sorting criteria. Very interesting. But there is still much to do before the product is a hit. While the search process is easy, I found that the refinement process did not produce the variety of options that I would have expected. The search process was much less complicated than Triporati but the results from Triporati were more creative, unexpected and intriguing. That said, it is hard to say which recommendation I would actually be more likely to act on- the creative unexpected one (Triporati) or the proven more anticipated on (Tripbase). Also I liked the the "cost per day" and average hotel and flight cost information provided with each recommendation. The price estimations seemed very accurate (as far as I could tell) and varied with time of year/season.

Monetisation will be a challenge but not an impossible one. As Levitt admitted the travel inspiration business is a "distance away" from purchasing behaviour and therefore will take time to target to advertisers.

In summary the product has made a great start. Some challenges to overcome but I am definitely seeing some a very entertaining and competitive battle starting to emerge between the different discovery and inspiration players. Do you have any thoughts on this space and the emerging battle lines?

Update - part 2 of interview here

Monday, June 01, 2009

Kayak CEO Steve Hafner Interview: keep it simple, focus on search, stay out of Asia..oh...and get back into offline marketing

Enjoyed a chance to catch up with Kayak CEO Steve Hafner last week. I had planned the call to be about the challenges of a traffic arbitrage business model. I had hoped to draw out of Hafner that there was pressure in the Kayak model fuelled by rising paid search costs, being late to the review game with the Travelpost revamp and tremendous marketing and product pressure from the drop/elimination of booking fees by the big online travel agents (OTAs). Instead Hafner was relaxed, confident and ready to push ahead with millions of dollars in offline (yes offline) advertising planned.

We touched on two main areas. His focus and plans for the next twelve months (including plans for Travelpost and why the OTA fee cuts don't phase him) and his thoughts on expansion outside America (not in Asia and measured in Europe). On the former there is a lot to be worked on for Travelpost to catch TripAdvisor but there are plenty of flaws with the TripAdvisor product and an accompanying disquiet amongst users. On the latter, the potential risk I can see is that they may be under estimating the challenges of growing in Europe where they have more competitors and less compliant suppliers.

Here is our exchange in detail.

On plans for the next twelve months

Hafner says that Kayak is exclusively focused on three things:
  1. More focus on core search: The measures here are speed, accuracy and simplicity. Hafner is measuring his world in terms of milliseconds in response time. I asked if we was worried about price accuracy, database loads, hotel and switch look to book issues but none of these concerned him. For Kayak the true cost per query is falling to near zero through caching and the costs of bandwidth. This allows him to focus on the speed of search and the comprehensiveness of the results. His goals are big but simple - that the submit button results in a search in 15 milliseconds, that the results contain every bookable option and that the filtering and customer profiling gives the client the results they want. While this sounds obvious it was the simplicity and aggression in his focus that impressed me;
  2. Driving awareness: Hafner believes it is the perfect time to get back into offline marketing to take brand awareness to the next level and compete with the OTAs. He believes that Kayak is "fully penetrated online" and that the costs of offline has "come down by about a third". Critically he does not want to leave the offline channel as the exclusive domain of the big spending OTAs, especially because (as he puts it) "the fee cut [by the big OTAs] takes margin away from their P&L and out of their marketing budgets". New CMO Robert Birge has a $100mm to spend on marketing and a CEO keen to see the brand in lights on TV (example below of their "trip idea" commercials from back in 2006). Right now Hafner is claiming that 8% of online shoppers have heard of Kayak (cf he claims Orbtiz number is 60%). In two years he wants the number to be 20%. ; and
  3. Making Travelpost a viable competitor to TripAdvisor and Travelzoo: Kayak has followed the much smaller Uptake into the review meta-search model through a revamp of Travelpost. Prior to the revamp Travelpost (acquired by Sidestep) was a user generated hotel review site much like TripAdvisor. Now post revamp it aggregates reviews from around the web as well as allowing direct posting and commentating. He plans to go after both TripAdvisor and Travelzoo with this new product. He hopes within two years for Travelpost to be generating about half the revenue that Travelzoo is making from deals and to be 15% of the size of TripAdvisor's media revenue (up from 1% now).
On Expansion plans

An interview with Hafner is famously free from PR generated answer obfuscation. I asked a detailed question about the Asian market that started with a lead in on the challenges in the market, the earlier successes of Qunar in China and Wego in Singapore and Australia. Even made a reference to Sprice and Cheapflights. "So Steve," I concluded, "do you have your eyes on Asia too?". Two word answer - "absolutely not". In short he thinks the market is too small (in terms of search volume) and not mature enough (in terms of online advertising).

Europe is another matter. He admits that the change in MD "reflects a disconnect in aggressiveness" which I read to mean that the outgoing MD had a more aggressive plan than Hafner did (see the Travolution post on this for more details). This does not mean they are pulling out of Europe and he rejected any suggestion that Kayak had made a "false start" there. Instead they will keep on with the general three strategies above run by the two people in the London office. He conceded that there are product gaps in Europe (no Rayanair and some other low cost carriers) as well as higher costs from online marketing as Google is so much stronger but he is there for the long term even with no plans to replace the Managing Director role.

The competitors are coming fast at Kayak with big marketing budgets and constant model changes. Kayak's response is keep doing what we are doing only better and now on TV. What do you think. Good plan?

Example of earlier offline advertising efforts by Kayak.