Editor’s Note: With this first CEO interview, we’re kicking off a series on online travel CEOs talking about the Future of Travel Booking, and the evolving habits and device preferences of travel consumers. Check out all the interviews as they come out, here.
Barney Harford, the CEO of Orbitz Worldwide, has been at his post since early January 2009, with the mission of weaning a company that has its roots as a site created by major U.S. airlines off flights and deep into the hotel-booking business.
Harford has tried all sorts of strategies, from providing credits in the event of hotel-rate drops to tinkering with the hotel-booking path. But, he believes the introduction of new loyalty programs across Orbitz, CheapTickets and eBookers, all of which incentivize hotel and mobile bookings, has been the most successful initiative during his tenure.
Skift caught up with Harford to discuss the future of travel booking, including metasearch, mobile-device usage and loyalty.
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation:
Skift: What have you learned about the future of travelers’ booking behaviors from all of the experiments you are doing on Orbitz sites?
Barney Harford: Testing plays a big role in our site optimization efforts. Right now, we are running more than 60 tests on our U.S. Orbitz.com and CheapTickets brands. Over the last 12 months we’ve achieved meaningful conversion improvements across a broad range of areas. Some examples of recent wins include highlighting the cancellation flexibility of a particular flight itinerary, hotel stay or car rental, testing various messaging treatments calling out reasons to book now in the checkout paths and optimizing the search results and booking experience with easier touch targets and cleaner displays for customers on tablet devices.
Skift: I see that you are running metasearch results with hotel prices right underneath some of your search results on Orbitz.com and CheapTickets.com. Why the change?
Harford: We’re seeing the meta sites look to incorporate a transaction component into their models to deal with the booking experience on mobile. At the same time, on Orbitz.com and CheapTickets we’re exploring opportunities to incorporate a hybrid meta component into our model to address the consumer benefit of being able to get a broader view of the pricing landscape. Specifically we’re including meta pricing in our hotel results’ cards. We feel our meta offering enhances the overall consumer value proposition.
Skift: Do you think business travelers’ booking on consumer websites and outside corporate booking tools and policies will pick up even more momentum and what does this mean for Orbitz Worldwide?
Harford: The biggest reason why corporations struggle with getting business travelers to use their corporate online booking tools is that most of them are terribly clunky and difficult to use. Our Orbitz For Business clients experience online adoption rates of over 90% because their travelers find the Orbitz for Business online booking tool experience replicates the simplicity of our consumer sites.
As a sign of this trend towards consumerization, we recently announced that we’re partnering with one major global client [identified as IBM] to deliver an online booking tool for their travelers to use to book travel in more than 90 countries around the world. We think there are huge opportunities for us going forward in terms of being able to bring a consumerized online booking experience to corporations around the world.
Skift: How is Orbitz Worldwide coping with consumers’ multi-device behaviors?
Harford: We are now seeing 31% of our standalone hotel reservations being made through mobile devices. And that is up from 24% in Q2 2013. We are seeing the strongest growth within the app part of the mix, which is very exciting. That is where we are putting the most significant amount of investment, although we are also investing in building mobile Web and tablet Web experiences.
You are asking about multi-device behavior. This is something we have been interested in for awhile. As we recognize consumers across multiple devices to give them continuity across their shopping and booking processes, we are in the process of building out some core functionality that will let you pick back up from where you left off as you move from device to device, from cellphone to tablet to PC etc.
We already have good cross-device search linkage and if you continue the search on one device we’ll give you easy access to wherever you left it. We’ll make it easier and easier to log-in with the rollout of social log-in across Facebook and Google+ etc. It is becoming easier to log-in, and make sure you are recognized to get the benefit of all those sticky features we are rolling out to provide the seamless device-to-device experience.
It is a little hard to explain to consumers, but I think with what Apple is doing — you can start your email on your iPad and pick it back up on your Macbook Air — I think as this becomes more built into Apple experiences, then I think it will become a lot more intuitive to consumers.
Skift: A few of your competitors, such as Expedia and Hipmunk, are building apps to provide continuity from device to device. Can you provide any more detail on how you plan to do it?
Harford: Your Orbucks balance obviously follows you around. We do a nice job on the mobile device of integrating that into the pricing and results that you see. The images that you see on the home pages of our mobile apps reflect recent search activity. Showing recent search activity between devices is something we are looking to do.
Skift: Talking about the future of travel booking, are wearables going to play a role or are they just a fad?
Harford: I think wearables may very well have a very exciting role to play in the broader consumer electronic space. We are not putting too many resources into booking a hotel on your wristwatch at this stage. There is obviously a certain amount of space you need to get a good user interface. We have many teams that enjoy being on the cutting edge of this stuff. We were the launch partner for Amazon Fire, with that product incorporating some of the fun 3-D capabilities and the the icons and gesture control that they are doing. We like to explore the cutting edge of some of this stuff.
Skift: What role, do you think, will loyalty and personalization play in the future of travel booking?
We are very excited about how the loyalty offering is working for us. In July we rolled out CheapCash onto CheapTickets. CheapTickets has a lower hotel attach rate so we could be more aggressive in terms of the offering. And we just launched eBookers’ BonusPlus, which is pretty much the same program that we have for Orbitz Rewards. Now that’s in all the markets we have across Europe … France, Germany, the Scandics, Finland etc. It is allowing us to very significantly increase the attach rate of hotel to air transactions. It has been more successful that anything else we’ve tried in the course of the life of Orbitz I’ve had. Moving the needle on that.
There are more and more ways we can segment the audience and provide loyalty-related offerings to them to really to reflect their profile, and their needs. Our mission is to make our sites, our brands, the most rewarding places to plan and purchase travel on touch devices. So it is really focused on where, in two or three years’ time, where we see the world. Everything is going to be touch so we are really focused on smartphone- and tablet-optimized experience, deeply integrating loyalty into it.