Launching’s New Flight Search Capabilities
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Launching’s New Flight Search Capabilities

With the release of a new technology, Expedia was the first major site in the online travel industry to use a pricing and search engine that bypasses the traditional path of using a computer reservation system.

Paul Holmes

On January 22, 2001, Expedia, Inc. launched Expert Searching and Pricing (ESP), a revolutionary search engine to power the award winning travel Web site.  With the release of this technology, Expedia is the first major site in the online travel industry to use a pricing and search engine created in-house that bypasses the traditional path of using a computer reservation system (CRS) to search through fare combinations. 
The ESP technology is the culmination of more than four years of development by engineers at Expedia. The engine operates on a highly efficient, fast, and scalable Windows NT platform, and can be integrated into any travel product. This announcement was key to the company as it changed the competitive landscape of the industry.  Edelman developed a comprehensive strategic media and analyst relations campaign targeting consumer, business, and technology media outlets to build momentum for the launch, as well as publicize Expedia’s leadership in the travel industry.
Our greatest challenge was changing the competitive landscape.  For the past four years, Expedia had been compared to Travelocity – in everything from the user interface, back-end technology, lowest fare results and site offerings to offline marketing tactics.  In addition, when another competitor, ITA software, launched its unique technology, editors and industry analysts had raved about the advancement of ITA’s technology and the company’s ability to provide travelers with hundreds of choices.  Now, with the introduction of ESP, Expedia has met and exceeded the challenge ITA posed to the industry – providing consumers with more choices and more control.
In order to develop a comprehensive and strategic public relations plan for the launch, we needed to arm ourselves with the necessary competitive information. We were able to assess ITA Software and Travelocity’s service offerings based on their press releases, Web site content, first-hand trials on the site and press interviews as seen through the companies’ media coverage. After conducting these searches, Edelman developed an in-depth comparison document that described the differences between all three companies. This document allowed us to develop key message points and unique features of Expedia’s ESP, based on the differentiators.
Since this launch was a new initiative for the company and one of great importance, four members of the Edelman team flew to Seattle for a formal briefing. This full-day briefing consisted of meetings with the technical, marketing, investor relations and supplier teams. Based on the information received and demos viewed, we created a formal public relations plan that encompassed much of the information included in this entry form. The plan was developed with input from several Edelman teams, including consumer, business/technology, financial media and local Seattle. Additionally, we held several brainstorm sessions at Edelman with supervisors involved with clients across other industries in order to demonstrate our capabilities and creative thinking from many different angles.
Based on these findings and the above challenges, the following objectives were created for the launch:
  • Generate positive media and industry analyst coverage of ESP.
  • Position Expedia as a company that demonstrates the  best customer experience by offering travelers more choices and more control over their travel plans.
  • Highlight Expedia’s unique features as compared to the competition.
  • Retain our thought leadership position in site quality.
Leverage the fact that with this new offering, travelers have even more options for getting the “Right Trip at the Right Price”, because they control the information they see and how they see it. Emphasize the quality of the search versus the number of offerings.
Emphasize Expedia’s three major offerings that combine to set it apart from the competition: 1) advanced fare-searching technology, 2) travel industry expertise and 3) a major brand name.
Champion the talent that it took to create this technology, and the time they took to develop it.
Conduct a third-party survey that looks at what travelers want when accessing airfares online and highlight results and statistics that demonstrate the benefits of ESP.
Analyze ESP functionality point by point against ITA in order to promote the benefits that are better than or equal to ITA.
Conduct an audit that proves Expedia’s fares are unbiased.
Develop a tangible that anybody could understand – one that showcases how powerful this technology is (e.g. ESP uses algorithms similar to those required to launch a space shuttle).
When speaking with media and industry analysts, use this description as a talking point, along with the feature-by-feature benefit statement.  
In order to meet the above objectives, we created a plan  which included the following action items:
  • Schedule a bi-coastal media tour the week of January 8 and January 15 to pre-brief media and analysts.
  • Prior to the announcement, secure approval from industry analysts to serve as references to media.
  • Conduct phone briefings on January 18 -19 for the reporters who write daily reports. 
  • Develop a press release for distribution the day of the announcement (Jan. 22)
  • Secure screenshots of site (in the press area) for download and usage.
  • Give top media/analyst contacts pre-launch access to the flight searching tool.
Outside of the traditional public relations activities that accompany many product launches, we developed several additional creative ideas, in efforts to get target audiences to remember the Expedia brand.
Developed a video news release (VNR) on “How to navigate online travel through the latest technology” and pitched to broadcast outlets including mainstream shows and specific technology-related programs.
Gave all of our media contacts access to the site prior to the announcement so they were able to develop their story while it was still fresh in their minds.
Created fortune cookies with “Expedia fortunes” included in them to carry along the ESP theme. The fortunes included sayings such as “You need a vacation” and “You’ll have a great time on an Expedia vacation.”
Sent all of Expedia’s top customers, luggage tags and a note promoting the new service.
The key messages were relayed as a technology advancement and positive initiative for Expedia.
Most importantly for Expedia and the future of the online travel industry, the company reached profitability in March 2001.  In Expedia’s Q3 Earnings announcement, CEO Richard Barton attributed this partly to the successful launch of ESP.    “In addition to the power that ESP puts in the hands of our consumers, it has enabled us to succeed in selling vacation packages and in merchandising a wide range of inventory types,” commented Barton.
More than 8.4 million broadcast impressions in approximately 30 markets.
Secured 17 face-to-face meetings on the east coast, which included reporters from The New York Times, Fortune, Smart Money, Information Week and Fast Company; five meetings in San Francisco and six meetings in Seattle. We also met with the key travel reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Dallas. Additionally, we conducted five phone interviews prior to the announcement.
Feature stories were published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today and Washington Post.
Feature coverage in top technology trades including Computerworld, Information Week and Industry Standard.
Travel trade coverage in Travel Weekly Crossroads, Travel Agent, Leisure Travel News, Web Travel News and Travel Management Daily.
From the New York Times, “Expedia is the first of the established online travel retailers to bust free from those chains. Its new ESP fare search tool is a major leap forward, and the most meaningful difference to separate the Big Two (Expedia and Travelocity) in years. By providing a wider range of choices and (allegedly, apparently) unbiased fares, it now offers a big enough advantage to make users of other sites consider switching to Expedia”
From the Wall Street Journal, “Expedia says ESP will produce more combinations on pricing and itineraries—an average of 400 potential itinerary combinations compared with the former seven to nine—and offer more ways to sort flights by lowest price, shortest flights and departure or arrival times. Expedia expects a financial boost as the new technology, built upon Microsoft’s Windows NT platform, shifts the bulk of product searching and pricing onto its own servers while curbing its reliance on third parties such as Worldspan LP, a traditional computer reservations system.”
From USA Today, “The continuing battle to lure airline ticket buyers away from the phone and onto the Web escalated this week when Expedia, Microsoft’s online travel agency, fired up a new technology designed to both simplify booking and dramatically boost the number of available flight choices.”
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