Not everyone who drafted business plans, wrote the code, made sales calls or forged partnerships in the early days of online travel garnered glitzy headlines or even made it to 2016 to see how their labors all worked out. They -- and countless others -- are still worth remembering for their contributions.
Skift launched its largest and most ambitious project yet, The Definitive Oral History of Online Travel, on June 1.
In nearly 40,000 words founders, CEOs, other executives and insiders tell a story in their own words about the creation of Internet giants such as Expedia, Priceline, Travelocity, Orbitz, TripAdvisor and more.
Not all of the interviews fit into the big story so we are publishing standalone stories that offer deeper insight into information we collected during the three-month research process.
In this article today, as we did yesterday in recalling the work of Jord Poster at Priceline.com, we highlight the roles of key figures whose names aren’t widely known and who are no longer alive. Nevertheless, they played important roles in the evolution of online travel.
In today’s article, we focus on Greg Davis and David Rae.
Davis, 33, was president of cruise and vacation-packager National Leisure Group (which became World Travel Holdings) when he was killed on June 18, 2001, after being hit by a car on his bicycle in Newton, Massachusetts, while training for the Pan Mass Challenge. In the weeks leading up to his death, Davis had helped negotiate a sale of the company to Barry Diller’s USA Networks. Diller’s company announced the deal a month after Davis’ death although the sale never closed because September 11th got in the way.
David Rae, meanwhile, created the first website for Hotel Reservations Network (which became Hotels.com) in late 1995 and convinced the company’s founders that the Internet would be the future of commerce. Rae died at age 50 in Naples, Florida in 2006.
Aaron Gowell, who became co-CEO of National Leisure Group a couple of years following Davis’ death and currently is CEO of SilverRail Technologies: Honestly, it’s hard to know where to start on Greg anecdotes. I still think about him frequently. At his funeral five different guys got up to give eulogies that all started with ‘Greg was my best friend.’ He was really beloved by a lot of people. And he was highly respected within the industry. He had this unique blend of smart, very honest, self-effacing, very funny, empathetic, yet aggressive and brave. People really naturally gravitated towards him.
My favorite/funny story was how Greg had streamlined his personal life. He was a busy guy, and he wanted to make things more efficient, so… He trades his dry cleaner a cruise for free dry-cleaning plus delivery. Then, he the trades the pizza shop near his apartment a cruise for free pizza plus delivery. Then, he has the dry cleaner deliver his clothes to the pizza place, who then delivers the free pizza plus free dry cleaning to his front door in one delivery. Free for life because he gave away two cruises. Awesome…
Greg’s nickname was ‘Daddy Dog’ because he was the only guy that the CEO of Carnival Corp. would let use his private suite. Did you know that Carnival ships use to have a private suite reserved only for the CEO? Never rented? Anyway, Micky Arison [now Carnival Corp. chairman and former CEO) loved Greg and would let Greg use his ‘Daddy Dog’ suite on the ships when he traveled. Thus his nickname at NLG he was Daddy Dog.
Oddly, I’m not sure I’d be a CEO but for Greg’s death. Greg was president at NLG, I was his and Joel’s (NLG co-founder Joel Cutler’s) right-hand guy. Greg dies during the deal with IAC/USA Networks. USA asks me to step in as president, then Sept 11th happens, and this deal falls apart. It would have gone through but for Greg’s death, which stalled the deal by several weeks. Then the board turns me into CEO (or co-CEO with Brad Gerstner). Who knows what I’d be doing but for that series of events.
Lastly, I’ll just say this: When things get really stressful, I think of Greg. That guy could diffuse any stressful situation. I remember so many times, during the USA Networks deal, where tensions got really heated and Greg would quietly drop some out-of-left-field joke and completely diffuse the room. He had perspective, and he loved life.
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Ken Lorey, who was director of national accounts at Premier Cruise Line and later vice president of partner marketing, cruise and car at Travelocity: Greg was a great guy. I remember his first day at National Leisure Group when Joel Cutler called me into his office and asked me to take Greg under my wing ( I was working at Premier Cruise Line at the time but Joel had become a good friend over the years ). I remember his exact words. ‘See that new kid out there? He’s the new marketing guy. His name is Greg, he’s a great kid but green, really green. Can you take him under your wing and show him the ropes?’ It wasn’t long after that day that Greg was showing me the ropes. He quickly grew within NLG and was appointed president and along with Joel led the negotiations with Barry Diller.
On June 18, 2001 Greg headed out for a training ride on his bicycle for the upcoming Pan Mass Challenge. The PMC was the largest two-day fundraiser in the world last year, raising $45 million over the two days. He was tragically hit by a car on Beacon Street in Newton, Massachusetts and passed away that morning. It was my understanding that the NLG sale to USA Networks was to be announced that day but given Greg’s death the sale was put in limbo. Then a few months later, 9/11 happened and that ended all discussions.
A month after Davis’ death, Diller’s USA Networks announced it would acquire both Expedia and NLG. After September 11th, USA Networks decided to go ahead and acquire Expedia but chose to forego buying NLG.
Lorey: It’s also noteworthy to mention that when the Tolkins bought NLG in 2006 and renamed it World Travel Holdings they kept Greg’s spirit alive by naming their annual top employee award in Greg’s memory and to this day Greg’s parents send a personal note to the annual winner.
As described in the Definitive Oral History of Online Travel, David Rae had been building gaming websites and in 1995 he convinced Hotel Reservations Network co-founders Bob Diener and David Litman to let Rae build them a website even though the Internet wasn’t yet truly interactive. Rae did it in exchange for being paid a 10 percent commission, and the co-founders eventually bought out his interest. By the end of 1996, the website Rae created accounted for about 5 to 6 percent of HRN’s business. We contacted Diener again after Skift published the oral history to talk some more about David Rae.
Diener: He [David Rae] unfortunately passed away from myeloma at a very young age of 50, 10 years ago. It was very sad. We knew he had a terminal disease, but he was always so youthful and full of energy and passion that we never really expected it to be fatal.
All of us involved in online commerce today, especially in the travel sector, owe him a great deal of gratitude. His vision and execution paved the way for an explosion in online travel.
Dave Rae was a visionary and a believer in the future potential of online commerce when few people believed in it. Dave Rae turned Dave Litman and me into believers of the potential of the Internet for ecommerce. He was so convinced of the potential of the Internet for online commerce that he took all of the risk in building the first hotel site online, Hoteldiscount.com. There was no better way of convincing Dave Litman and me than taking on all of the risk. This impressed us. The high level of sales we saw even before the Internet was interactive convinced us of the great potential of the Internet.
His passion and vision were remarkable and left an everlasting impact on Dave [Litman] and me. In 1995, when few people knew what the Internet was, and most that saw it didn’t believe in it, Dave Rae saw its potential, especially for travel. He told us how the technology could extend commerce way beyond our borders to areas where we never would open retail stores. When booking travel was via the phone direct to the vendors or via the phone to contact a travel agent that used a GDS [global distribution system] that many hotels didn’t participate in — and travel agents therefore didn’t want to book hotels due to the time-consuming effort to find hotels and the minimal commissions — Dave Rae saw a future where the consumer was empowered to book on his own through an online site that offered extensive options to book travel and made the process simple.
Dave Rae convinced Dave and me that this was the future of travel and online commerce and we followed his vision. Even though Dave Rae is not with us today, the travel ecosystem we live in today is the vision that Dave Rae had in 1995. [Diener and Litman’s] Getaroom.com was designed largely around his vision.
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