THE FLIGHT STIMULATORS: PR is helping travel websites build brand identity - and business

It's hard to believe that little more than six years ago, bricks-and-mortar travel agents - with their overflowing desks and worn posters of exotic destinations thumb-tacked to spackled walls - were virtually the only option for booking discounted flights or package tours. And if the agent wasn't familiar with your proposed destination, he or she would dig out a brochure, sit down with you, and talk you through the possibilities.

It's hard to believe that little more than six years ago, bricks-and-mortar travel agents - with their overflowing desks and worn posters of exotic destinations thumb-tacked to spackled walls - were virtually the only option for booking discounted flights or package tours. And if the agent wasn't familiar with your proposed destination, he or she would dig out a brochure, sit down with you, and talk you through the possibilities.

Then along came the internet. In 1996, Travelocity became the website to introduce the notion of purchasing travel tickets online. Fast-forward to 2002, and these sites are firmly established as the focal point for savvy travelers willing to plan a vacation on their own terms.

And they have been able to match hype with delivery. According to PhoCusWright, a travel-industry research company, in six years, the sector has grown to an $8-billion-a-year industry. Twenty-one million Americans bought their travel online in 2001, up 75% from 2000; a further growth of 20%-30% is expected in 2002.

But as the sector has grown, competition has become fiercer, with sites competing not just on price, but also on features and services. September 11 and the economic depression have, naturally, compounded these testing competitive conditions.

Rivals differentiate themselves

The greatest challenge is in creating distinct brand personalities in such a new and crowded market. This has created a forest of opportunity for PR agencies to prove their value as the preeminent builders of new brands..

"Agencies have to invest the time to get to know the nuances and attributes of a travel site,

says Lorra Brown, SVP of Ogilvy's travel and tourism practice. "They can't just create a cookie-cutter consumer PR program anymore. They have to break down messages for the audience they're trying to reach. It's important that they remember that they can't be all things to all people."

How can airfare sites achieve differentiation? "Everyone is claiming they have the lowest fares,

explains Amy Bohutinski, PR manager for Hotwire, "but the challenge is differentiating who we are so we can break through the clutter."

Hotwire is a discount site that offers low fares to leisure travelers by not revealing the airline and flight times until after the purchase is made. It boasts of partnerships with 33 airlines and 6,000 hotels.

Hotwire's message is, "If you're willing to be flexible, then we can get you a better deal.

Bohutinski says Priceline is its main competition, but differs in that Hotwire offers its ticket prices up front, instead of inviting customers to bid on them - the unique selling point in this particular rivalry.

When it launched in October 2000, Hotwire realized that dot-coms were falling apart after failing to invest wisely, and spending too much on advertising. So Hotwire decided to use PR exclusively.

"PR was the biggest driver in the first year,

says Bohutinski. "We used no advertising or marketing. We used word-of-mouth techniques to attract press, and we ended up being the ninth-largest internet launch ever.

"Consumers are skeptical about travel because everyone claims to have the lowest fare, and PR is an important tool in educating consumers,

she adds. "It can add a lot of validity to a site's reputation."

Ironically, Hotwire had scheduled its first big advertising push on September 12 last year. And following the attacks, media relations activities were put on hold - it didn't call reporters for about a month, resuming its PR efforts in the fall. The company uses Fleishman-Hillard on its campaigns, and currently uses equal amounts of advertising and PR.

Hotwire's rival in the discount-fares space, Priceline, employed an ingenious mix of advertising and PR to create one of the most distinct and well-known brands on the web. Using Star Trek's William Shatner in a series of commercials as a lounge singer mocking his own theatrical delivery was crucial in cementing Priceline's reputation. But the casting choice was made with careful deliberation.

"Not many people know that the Priceline role was between Shatner and Bill Cosby,

says Brian Ek, spokesperson for Priceline. "What sold us on him was that not only was he able to reach across generations, but that he is also associated with things that are futuristic.

At the time, online travel booking was still thought of as a futuristic proposition.

"Brand recognition costs money to build, and there are a number of travel sites out there that are interchangeable,

he adds. "We've found out that communications is most successful when it's in lockstep with advertising.

When it's not, it wastes valuable synergy."

Priceline offers an opaque service; customers are invited to "name their own price

for tickets, and if the price is accepted, they are "locked in

to an agreement to buy. Only after the transaction is complete will the airline and flight times be revealed. The company sells perishable tickets that will likely go unsold, and can therefore offer hugely discounted fares. "Do the homework first, come to Priceline, and get the best deal,

is the message Ek wants consumers to hear.

The airlines get in on the act

Orbitz has made major inroads in the market with a very different model. The technology behind the product is the major point that the PR team hopes will differentiate Orbitz from the rest of the pack. Backed by the five largest US carriers, Orbitz developed its own search software, and claims to offer up a choice from 2 billion fares in a matter of seconds - and many are web-only prices.

"Travelers today can choose from a mountain of information,

says Carol Jouzaitis, Orbitz VP of corporate communications. "Our technology allows us to leapfrog the competition and provide more choice."

The company also places a big emphasis on customer service, with features such as the Travel Watch section that offers travel tips, information about airport delays, and other updated travel news. Former air-traffic controllers and other travel experts run the division. It also offers updates - such as delays and weather conditions - to e-mail accounts, cell phones, and handheld devices. The technology allows integration of these features into the contact information when the consumer buys a ticket.

Orbitz boasts a desk of former journalists monitoring news wires, travel companies, and airports. Minutes after the terrorist attacks, the site featured alerts about what was happening, and when airports would reopen.

The focus of the site later shifted to emergency assistance. In the last few months, Orbitz cut back its advertising, with PR taking a more prominent role in conveying its message.

The customer-service theme continues with Expedia, which sells itself as a full-service travel agency. The company was originally born out of Microsoft, whose technology is still a prominent part of the site's identity.

Expedia has relationships with 40,000 properties, including car rentals, destination services, and cruise lines.

"We're concerned about repeat business, bringing new people to the table...and we want to make people aware of what's out there using PR,

says Expedia marketing manager Mitch Robinson. "The industry is continuing to grow at a rapid pace - people are deciding which sites provide value to them."

Travelocity had no ad dollars with which to build its brand when it launched in 1996, so it relied heavily on PR. At the launch party, the communications team set up a cyber cafe where journalists could see how the service worked.

At the time, the notion of buying tickets online was new, and the PR team had to walk the journalists through the site; many of them had never even been on the internet before. Other tactics Travelocity has used to help promote brand awareness include communicating hi-tech features.

"Because the brand grew up on PR, I can ask the developers to do something.

And because they are aware of the PR aspects of past campaigns, they are able to incorporate that into new initiatives,

says Al Comeaux, VP of PR at Travelocity.

Knowledge is power

After the dot-com collapse, Travelocity looked at which PR tactics were working and which weren't. Information about its products and services was popular, so Travelocity continued to emphasize that. One tactic was to find journalists who were going on vacation, and send them information on hotels, for example. The idea was to convert one journalist at a time.

Travelocity's main goal is to build the brand as a hub for travel knowledge. The company claims to have a database of 32 million customers, who it polls regularly to find out where they're flying and what they're doing. It then turns that information into messages to the public, designed to demonstrate its extensive knowledge of travel. For example, Trip Expert is one of the popular features highlighted on the home page. The tool allows consumers to get reviews of places to stay, and also find similar destinations.

In October and November, following the terrorist attacks, the site featured reports about how long people had stood in line, the extra security measures, and people's thoughts on airport security - as well as what airports had the shortest delays.

For the Thanksgiving travel season, Travelocity sent 20 people to report on airport conditions around the country. It was information that nobody else had, and earned the company valuable TV coverage: For two days straight, CNN cut regularly to Travelocity CEO Terry Jones for updates on how airports were faring.

The company's PR efforts are supplemented by agency Vollmer PR, which opened a New York office to help the site achieve national exposure. While advertising spend is 10 to 15 times greater than PR, there is little doubting the value of publicity to Travelocity. And it keeps coming back to those unique selling points.

"All of the brands need to differentiate themselves,

says Comeaux. "Loyalty is not what it is in other sectors. The whole industry is still only six years old."

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