ANALYSIS: Client Profile - Orbitz debut flies in the face ofcontroversy. Online travel agency Orbitz has taken all the controversysurrounding itself and is using it to its own advantage. Thom Weidlichreports

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,"

Jouzaitis comments.

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 company.

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.

Embracing scrutiny

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

attention to."

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

responding quickly."

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

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