Orbitz turned five this year. Despite its relatively late start (Expedia and Travelocity began in the mid-1990s), regulatory issues, and shifting ownership, the site is still the third largest online travel agency (behind Expedia and Travelocity, respectively).
Even before its launch, Orbitz was dogged by anti-competitive claims. It was at this time that the company first encountered Brian Hoyt, then deputy director of public affairs at Brodeur's DC office. Travelocity was his client of his, and the company was concerned about Orbitz's launch. It wanted media pressure on the government to review Orbitz for anti-competitive activity. Hoyt tirelessly drove regulatory compliance stories.
Orbitz was finally cleared by the Departments of Justice and Transportation in 2003. It went public later that year and Cendant (owner of Cheap Tickets) bought it in 2004.
This year, Cendant set about splitting its four divisions into independent companies. Orbitz is part of the Travelport division (formerly Cendant TDS). In June, Cendant agreed to sell Travelport for about $4.3 billion to an affiliate of the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm.
Randy Wagner, former McDonald's corporate VP of strategic global brand marketing, became CMO last year and integrated all disciplines into a cohesive unit focused on driving brands. She sought someone who had strong familiarity with Orbitz to lead PR. Enter - once again - Brian Hoyt.
"I lived and breathed being the monkey on Orbitz's back for two years," Hoyt says. "I lived to get stories written about [Orbitz]. We were effective in ensuring it went through proper regulatory channels and we were able to boost competition among travel sites."
Now, Hoyt is putting his PR philosophy to work for a former rival.
"Some companies operate PR in silos, but I don't believe that's the way to do it," he says. "Brand marketing, merchandising, e-marketing, research, e-mail communications, and PR all work together."
Travelport handles IR and owner- ship issues, giving "freedom" to its brand promoters. "I focus on promoting Orbitz and Cheap Tickets," he says. "and bringing customers to our virtual front door."
Cendant's first quarter numbers showed about 30% growth in the online travel business - and PR's role is recognized at Orbitz.
"We're operating at significantly reduced levels of spending and we're meeting, if not beating, earned media that both Orbitz and Cheap Tickets garnered each month prior to 2005," Hoyt says.
Proactive customer service is one way Orbitz defines value and differentiates itself. For example, its most recent launch, Orbitz TLC mobile access, provides information such as itineraries, flight status, hotel vacancies, and emergency alerts via cell phone.
Hoyt says there's always local brand-building activity in Chicago, where Orbitz is based. This summer, a partnership was formed with neighboring All Star Bar & Grill, which now promotes Orbitz and Cheap Tickets on napkins and signs and runs a variety of site-related specials. "We are an online company that literally has a presence on the street," he says.
Publicity efforts are also supported by a joint team from Brodeur and Middleton & Gendron Brand Communications, another of Hoyt's former firms. The agencies began work on Orbitz and Cheap Tickets in September 2005.
Brodeur EVP Mike Brewer calls Hoyt a "great client" who gets results. "He's raised the bar in terms of getting coverage," says Brewer. "He feels there's no opportunity that can't be gotten with the right approach and tenacity."
Jerry Johnson, Brodeur EVP and head of strategic planning, mentored Hoyt. "I've rarely worked with [anyone] as high energy and focused," he says of Hoyt. "He's politically savvy with a great sense of how constituencies coalesce, interact, and react to pressures or issues. He'll serve Orbitz well."
PR director, Americas, Orbitz
Senior comms manager, AOL Travel and MapQuest
Deputy director, public affairs group, Brodeur
PR coordinator, Middleton & Gendron Brand Comms.