When long-awaited online travel agency Orbitz finally launched on
June 4, its challenge was not to somehow garner publicity, but to
control the inevitable coverage it would get.
After all, Orbitz - created by five major airlines - has been in the
news for at least a year. Its competitors have been keeping Orbitz a hot
topic by arguing that for the airlines to band together like this runs
afoul of antitrust laws.
When Orbitz did debut, it garnered a whopping 300 million media
impressions in the first couple of days, according to Carol Jouzaitis,
vice president of corporate communications, making it one of the biggest
business-to-consumer launches in recent memory.
That attention came mostly through a dollars 500,000 PR launch. Other
than some online marketing and a couple of print ads, the advertising
didn't start rolling out until the week following the debut. "We found
PR was driving about 85% of the business on the site, which is huge,"
A turbulent start
Orbitz founded in 1999 by American Airlines, Continental, Delta,
North-west and United, has used the controversy about its shareholder
base to tell its story. And there has been opposition.
Antonella Pianalto, executive director of the Interactive Travel Service
Association (ITSA), in Washington, DC, says, "We welcome the
competition, we just want it to be fair competition." She adds, "That's
not the case when five airlines control 80% of air traffic," and are
selling tickets online together.
ITSA was started in 1998, largely backed by Orbitz's main competitors,
Microsoft's Expedia and reservation system Sabre's Travelocity. "There's
no reason why American or United or Delta couldn't have done this on
their own," adds Paul Ruden, SVP of legal and industry affairs for the
American Society of Travel Agents, Alexandria, VA. "The whole system is
calculated to drive everyone out of the market."
These cries of opposition did not go unheeded. The US Department of
Transportation conducted an investigation, but said on April 13 that it
would not block Orbitz. The department said it would continue to monitor
The US Department of Justice also has an ongoing probe. About half the
state attorneys general have expressed concerns, as have some consumer
In May, Southwest Airlines sued Orbitz because it doesn't want to be
listed on the site and it feels Orbitz is misleading people by saying it
shows Southwest's cheapest fares.
Far from shying away from these contretemps, Orbitz has embraced them.
Says Jouzaitis, who joined the start up last July, "My strategy was to
use the interest in Orbitz to create a buzz about the company and
educate the media about the fact that consumers were not particularly
happy about the current state of online travel. So there was a big flap
about Orbitz and we used that to our advantage."
It is her experience as a journalist that taught Jouzaitis not to fear
the regulatory stories reporters were writing. She spent about 20 years
at the Chicago Tribune covering aviation, finance, Congress and the
White House. In 1998 she switched sides, joining Chicago PR agency
KemperLesnik. Orbitz was one of her clients until it hired her.
Jouzaitis has only two others working in-house with her. She hired
senior manager of media relations Dawn Doty from Burson-Marsteller and
manager of PR Stacey Spencer from KemperLesnik. The company is using
Ketchum for consumer outreach and Burson for government relations.
Even early on, in discussing the regulatory issues with journalists,
Orbitz was creating media relationships. "We used all those media
interviews to talk about why there is a need in the marketplace for
another competitor," Jouzaitis comments.
During its beta period, beginning in February this year, Orbitz
conducted demonstrations for reporters, which, Jouzaitis says, caused
them to become more supportive of the site. Prior to launch, Orbitz also
sent out its executives to speak at industry conferences.
Orbitz is a multifaceted PR story in the sense that the company must
target journalists in a number of areas including travel, aviation and
the Internet. It is also a technology story. Orbitz has created its own
flight search engine that it says checks billions of flight and fare
possibilities and lists them in a grid that treats all equally. It now
has 30 cooperating airlines, which give Orbitz the discounted fares.
Ready for take-off
As for the actual launch, Jouzaitis says the company considered doing a
stunt but then decided on a straightforward media relations
It worked to keep journalists on its basic message: Orbitz has the most
low-cost fares and flight choices in an easy-to-use format.
The company slyly refused to reveal exactly when its official debut
would be. Jouzaitis says it wanted to fuel speculation and catch the
competition off-guard. It was also still evaluating its technology. A
press release was put on the wires at 6am on Monday, June 4.
Cable stations were running stories throughout launch day. Chairman and
CEO Jeffrey Katz was on CNBC, CNNFN and other outlets. Broadcast travel
commentator Valarie D'Elia, a member of Orbitz's consumer advisory
board, did a radio media tour. The next day, Orbitz conducted an
Interestingly, Orbitz's customer care service, with which it notifies
travelers of any changes that might affect their flight, such as weather
and airport delays, received much more attention than the company
"The Wall Street Journal was interested in it and ran a B1 cover story
the Friday before we launched," Jouzaitis comments. "I think it added to
the buzz about Orbitz. The media began to realize that while our
opponents were shining the spotlight on all the regulatory issues, there
was this whole other side of Orbitz that the media hadn't been paying
But the launch had its glitches. A fiber-optic cable in Chicago was
accidentally severed, slowing response times, and two call centers
didn't have enough staff to cover the volume.
Jouzaitis downplays the snafus, calling them inevitable given the
Orbitz did dollars 1 million the first day, dollars 3 million the
second, and dollars 10 million the first week. "By day two we were
seeing a level of business we weren't expecting to see until July,"
Jouzaitis says. "The site performed well under the pounding it
Says Vivian Deuschl, corporate VP of PR for Ritz Carlton Hotels
Worldwide and a veteran travel PR practitioner: "The key to the
effectiveness of the PR is how they deal with the initial glitches that
come up. A lot of people out there would like to see them fall on their
face. They don't want the glitches to become the story. They seem to be
Newspapers, including The Washington Post, have been following up and
testing the site against Expedia and Travelocity. They are finding that
Orbitz doesn't always come up on top. (One Atlanta Journal-Constitution
headline read: "So far, Orbitz seems to be flying mostly on hype."
Ouch.) Jouzaitis calls these "anecdotal searches" and points to an
Arthur Andersen survey of 2,000 individual searches that Orbitz
commissioned. Jouzaitis says Andersen found that Orbitz meets or beats
the competition's fares 80% of the time.
Vice president of corporate communications: Carol Jouzaitis
Senior manager of media relations: Dawn Doty
Manager of public relations: Stacey Spencer
PR launch budget: dollars 500,000
Outside agencies: Ketchum and Burson-Marsteller