Skift Take

From the front lines of online and mobile travel, Orbitz Worldwide still thinks it can be a winner as an insurgent, although there hasn't been any major evidence of a surge.

Mock him, disparage him, take your best shot, but Orbitz Worldwide CEO Barney Harford sees the company as an “insurgent.”

Offering a line of reasoning similar in some ways to one espoused by Hipmunk’s Adam Goldstein yesterday, Harford argues that Orbitz Worldwide can take some risks in the marketplace, such as offering hotel discounts and taking the consequent hit as part of its revamped Orbitz Rewards program, that would be problematic to a more hotel-focused and larger Priceline, for example.

Launching Hotel Price Assurance several years ago and the “transformational” rewards program, which Harford “thinks could be the biggest thing to happen to online travel in 10 years,” are two elements of the alleged insurgency.

Another one is Orbitz Worldwide’s often-overlooked CheapTickets  brand, which Harford calls an experimental proving ground enabling Orbitz to try things that it wouldn’t attempt elsewhere.

Sort of a target range for firing ordinance.

Speaking of the risk-taking and experimentation with seeming wreckless abandon taking place at CheapTickets, Harford quotes Orbitz and CheapTickets president Chris Orton, who advised the CheapTickets team to “take some risks with the brand… to drive it like you stole it.”

What’s Going On At CheapTickets?

In addition to repositioning CheapTickets “as a fun, value-oriented brand,” Harford points to CheapTickets’ email marketing as a testing ground.

A recent CheapTickets email promotion, for example, offered the “fastest 100” hotel bookers 30% discounts and “as a consolation we offer 20-25% off for those who missed it.”

The promo code for the 25% discount was “Cheaptastic.”

It’s part of the “insurgency” and hardly revolutionary, but CheapTickets is experimenting with such tactical promotions to see what sticks and might be applied more broadly.

Harford brushes aside criticism that a significant chunk of Orbitz Worldwide’s growth is coming through private-label partnerships, such as one with American Express Consumer Travel, which don’t enhance Orbitz’s own brands.

“Growing through partnerships is a great way to grow, Harford says. “I want to grow both ways.”

Approaching his fifth year as CEO, Harford cites Orbitz Worldwide’s reduce reliance on airline sales — hotels and vacation packages recently accounted for 50% of revenue for the first time — as a sign of progress for a company that faces tough competition and is well behind market leaders such as Priceline and Expedia.

Is it tough laboring from back in the pack?

Harford says Orbitz Worldwide’s stock price tripled over the last 12 months.

“So I’m feeling good,” Harford says. “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be fun.”

On other matters, considering that OTAs Priceline and Expedia have paired up with travel metasearch companies Kayak and Trivago, respectively, Harford says “metas are becoming a commodity,” and Orbitz Worldwide doesn’t need to get involved in such speculative investments and to own one.

“They provide big opportunities for helping to grow brands in emerging markets,” Harford concedes. “I don’t think we need to have one.”

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Tags: kayak, metasearch, orbitz, priceline

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