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Online Travel: The Race Is On!

6 minute read
Daniel Kadlec

Executives at Cendant, the travel and real estate giant, were sick of handing over part of their profits to online travel bookers. So they tried last spring to persuade the operators of the largest hotel in Cendant’s Ramada franchise, the 1,015-room New Yorker in Manhattan, to avoid business from online agents like Expedia, Hotels.com Travelocity and Orbitz, which take a cut for every room they fill. “We had to tell them no,” recalls Tom McCaffrey, director of marketing at the New Yorker. “These sites fill 200 rooms a night for us, more than Ramada’s website and toll-free phone line together.”

It wasn’t the first time that Cendant brass had been rebuffed by one of their own. Tom Kunz ran a San Diego office of another Cendant franchise, Century 21, before his promotion to CEO of the real estate firm, and while he was a broker he rejected company appeals to spurn online referrals. Why? Sharing listings with the likes of Lending Tree. com generated enough leads to offset the pain of having to share commissions.

If you thought the dotcom era was over, take a look at what a couple of Wall Street’s savviest dealmakers are up to. For Cendant, the online onslaught was beginning to feel like water torture as cyberbookers chipped away at its core business: playing middleman between customers and the company’s many franchisees. So last month CEO Henry Silverman, a veteran wheeler-dealer, moved to protect his turf by agreeing to buy Orbitz for $1.25 billion. The acquisition catapults Silverman to the top tier of online travel. His biggest rival there is another celebrity CEO, Barry Diller–the onetime Hollywood mogul who created the Fox network–whose IAC/InterActiveCorp owns Expedia, Hotels.com and Hotwire. That these inventive personalities are now jockeying over the online travel business is no coincidence. A true coming of age is under way for Web-based services as bookings migrate online and competitors scurry to capture a piece of the pie.

And guess what: consumers should be big winners. Only a few online agents will thrive, and to stay in the game they will need to woo travelers with a wide range of offerings. Silverman, through a spokesman, and Diller protest any suggestion that the two are butting heads. They are friends who lunch together, and there’s room for both, they say. Making the point, Diller notes that last month their companies inked a deal in which IAC’s Hotels.com and Expedia will prominently display on their websites Cendant hotels, which include Days Inn, Travelodge and Howard Johnson. “While we compete with Cendant, we also partner with them,” Diller says. “It’s entirely normal. Sorry, no drama.”

Not yet anyway. But Diller’s firm owns LendingTree, which is wedging into the residential real estate market dominated by Century 21, Coldwell Banker and ERA, all Cendant brands. LendingTree is a fledgling player, generating $160 million in revenue last year compared with Cendant’s $6.7 billion from real estate businesses. But that could become a battlefront down the road. Already, 70% of home buyers begin their search online. This year, for the first time, online listings will generate more home-buyer leads than classifieds.

Even after the Orbitz purchase, Cendant is largely a bricks-and-mortar company. The $18 billion behemoth owns Avis and Budget in addition to its real estate and hotel brands, markets time-share properties and organizes information for travel agents, and has a corporate-relocation operation. Prior to the Orbitz deal, it had only a laggard online travel presence with CheapTickets.com and Lodging.com Its main business by far is collecting franchise fees. Pre-Orbitz, online travel produced less than $200 million in revenue, or 2% of Cendant’s $10 billion travel segment. Last week Cendant said it would divest its mortgage and fleet-leasing businesses, effectively giving the company an even greater focus on franchising.

IAC, by contrast, a relative upstart with $5.4 billion in annual revenue, increasingly is focused on online commerce–and its travel portion generates 31% of revenue and 61% of operating profit. IAC also owns LendingTree, dating service Match.com local online resource CitySearch and the largely offline cash generators Ticketmaster and Home Shopping Network (HSN). Diller’s strategy: use the cash from Ticketmaster and HSN to promote his online ambitions, and be there as consumers migrate from all manner of traditional services to the Web. “We fundamentally believe that more and more things are going online,” Diller says. “We are experts in bringing businesses online and we’re just going to keep doing it category by category, hopefully to infinity.”

Right now Diller’s focus is on travel, and it’s easy to see why. The overall industry is growing less than 5% a year, but the online component is taking share swiftly and growing more than 20% a year. This year 1 in 3 U.S. travelers will book online, up from 15% in 2002 and 20% last year, says research firm PhoCusWright. “Henry (Silverman) was at a big disadvantage” before the Orbitz deal, says Larry Haverty, managing director at State Street Research. Now he not only can share in the industry’s robust growth but also use Orbitz to promote and protect his franchises.

While online services may get better with Silverman and Diller driving the industry, don’t look for a price war that would make travel a lot less expensive. “They will compete intelligently,” says Haverty. “Price cutting is not how you get Wall Street to give you” a higher stock price. IAC shares have lagged as investors at first puzzled over Diller’s plan and then were disappointed with financial results that fell short of big expectations. Cendant has performed better. But some investors haven’t forgotten a disastrous acquisition and accounting scandal six years ago.

The real test for the online agents may be how they fare against the hotels and airlines, which have begun trying to drive bookings to their own websites with guaranteed lowest rates and amenities like a free spa visit. “The Holy Grail for online travel firms will become dynamic packaging,” says analyst Christopher Gutek at Morgan Stanley.

It’s no big deal to book a rental car, flight or hotel stay. The future is in adding dinner reservations, event tickets, customized tour information and an appointment with the masseuse. “Packaging the thousands of things attendant to travel is the way to compete,” and Expedia is on its way, Diller says. Orbitz puts Silverman further down that road too, and if it all leads to better service for consumers, this is a battle, it seems, that everyone can live with.



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