Putting together a who’s who of the most influential people in the online travel industry over the past decade was never going to be an easy task.
Travolution canvassed opinion from across the industry – agents, operators, technology companies, search engines – ahead of unveiling a shortlist of 20 for the online vote.
Rather than simply pick senior figures who created or ran successful businesses, we wanted to recognise the innovators and pioneers in the sector.
The final 10 is, we believe, a collection of the finest thinkers and strategists since 1996, and sometimes those just simply brave enough to try to break new ground.
It is worth remembering that this period coincided with turbulent economic conditions – a tourism sector rocked by September 11 2001 and the often well-founded cynicism of investors after the so-called dot-com bubble burst.
Perhaps most importantly they have all had to contend with scepticism and often open hostility from the traditional travel industry. Of course, the results of any poll are always mildly controversial – so let us know what you think.
Profiles compiled by: Juliet Dennis, Lee Hayhurst, Kevin May, Paul Nelson and Ed Robertson
Simon Breakwell, Expedia
Perhaps the one thing everyone who knows Expedia founder member Simon Breakwell agrees upon, is just how hard it can be to track him down.
However, nobody is ever offended by such elusiveness; instead, it is seen as a testament of his ability to focus on the job in hand while ignoring any distractions.
But concentration and focus are not Breakwell’s only qualities.
He is credited with the vision to make far more of Expedia than was originally intended, especially in Europe, and subsequently understand the commercial possibilities and, more importantly, have the ability to realise them.
Breakwell was able to convince both airlines and hoteliers of the site’s future – meaning he was able to negotiate the prices that then drove the traffic to the site.
However, the deals alone cannot explain the success and growth of Expedia’s operations outside of the US. Much of this is now put down to his inability to stand still. In addition, his contemporaries also credit his eye for detail.
The site now has an ATOL allowing it to carry one million package holidays annually in addition to 2.5 million customers purchasing seat-only deals. Not that these are the kind of figures that matter to Breakwell. He says: “I don’t think about passenger numbers. The numbers I like are to do with leverage, marketing efficiency and profitability.”
Breakwell has now quit as Expedia EMEA president and Interactive Corp Travel Europe president and has moved to the US where he currently awaits acceptance on the Expedia board, perhaps with an eye on the technology side of the business.
Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google
Countless Internet biographies written about the Google founders indicate that neither has ever worked in travel – but their search engine has perhaps had more impact on the industry than any other development of the past 10 years. The pair created and initially ran Google from a dorm room while studying at Stanford University, California.
Other search engines and company directories were already on the scene as the buzz around Google grew during 1998-99. But the real commercial interest began in 2000 when it launched its keyword advertising programme. By the end of the year Google was processing 100 million search queries a day and suddenly travel companies had a hugely popular new channel with which to advertise their product. So competitive is the race to appear as high as possible in organic listings or on the pay-per-click sponsored links that companies have been created to help businesses do so.
“The impact of Google has reinvigorated the online advertising model and helped pave the way for the huge renaissance in online,” says Arjo Ghosh, chief executive of search engine optimisation specialists, Spannerworks. “They have helped tear up printed brochures and have provided a platform that helps anyone find anything, anywhere.”
The duo, still in their 30s, are tight-lipped about their plans for the future, but Google’s dominance of the search market (a 75% share in the UK) means every travel company using the web will have to follow developments extremely closely.
However, it seems highly unlikely that Page and Brin, who are both officially “on leave” from their studies at Stanford, will be returning to campus any time soon.
Tony Cheng and Jim Donnelly, IgoUgo
Six years ago Tony Cheng and Jim Donnelly founded a new breed of website – an online community of ordinary travellers’ reviews.
From a loft in New York, the pair persuaded friends and family to dig deep to raise “less than half a million bucks” to fund a site featuring user-generated content. IgoUgo.com was born.
The site now has more than 200,000 members, of which around 70% are from the US and 20% from the UK; it features more than 200,000 pictures and more than 4,000 destinations. In recent years it has scooped a string of accolades on home turf.
But it’s a far cry from its launch. “We didn’t have financial backers,” says Cheng, now vice-president product and strategy. “We got 50 to100 friends to write for it and people heard about it through word of mouth.”
Timing was not ideal either. Cheng says: “It was when the bubble burst in a big way – 2000 was the worst possible time for a new start-up.”
At the time, the only form of online communities were message boards and chat rooms, and the only sites offering travel reviews were guidebook publishers such as Lonely Planet.
The biggest decision was whether content should be by professional writers or travellers. They chose the latter, despite the risks.
“We were the first to prove real travellers could provide high-quality information and advice about destinations worldwide,” says Cheng.
“They provide photos and information you cannot get from travel agents. They are not travel journalists – but they give you the real scoop.”
The site developed a rewards scheme. Contributing writers and photographers receive GO Points, redeemed for vouchers and frequent-flier miles.
Cheng faced a personal decision when the company sold the site to one of the industry’s largest players – Sabre Holdings – 18 months ago. But going ahead with the sale is not a choice he regrets.
InterActiveCorp chairman and chief executive, and Expedia chairman, Barry Diller, had long achieved considerable success before turning his attention to the Internet. With a considerable background in film and television, he has headed both the Paramount Pictures Corporation and Fox.
However, Diller’s ability to spot an emerging trend and then act on it while ensuring growth is what brings him into the ring.
In 1996 he created Silver King Communications which, as it accumulated acquisitions, morphed first into HSN in 1996 before assuming its current name in June 2003.
During this time it made its way on to the centre stage in the industry with the acquisition of everything from the Ticketmaster Group to Expedia via Hotels.com, Match.com, TripAdvisor, TV Travel Shop and Ask Jeeves.
However, it is his ability to integrate the sites with one another that has really driven him forward into the list.
Ask Jeeves, which Diller describes as having “the potential to become one of the great brands on the Internet and beyond”, is a key to this as he plans to promote the search engine through all his other sites with a search box on each of them.
Meanwhile, Ask Jeeves will potentially earn a crust by pushing IAC transaction brands on its own site.
While he is keen push his products through one another, his success can also be accredited to his willingness to allow them to flourish in their own rights – best seen when the decision was made at the end of 2004 to separate Expedia and IAC, allowing Expedia to be used by other travel businesses while IAC focused on ticketing.
While Diller’s vision is far-reaching, he is also recognised for his ability to implement it. Contemporaries also credit this to his ability to recognise, hire and retain the right people for the right jobs.
Bill Gates, Microsoft
The Seattle-born computer whizzkid who became the richest man on the planet, Gates has been recognised across the business and consumer world for his achievements as the archetypal entrepreneur of the digital age.
Some argue that without Gates’ overwhelmingly focused ambition to make computers accessible to everyone, consumers would be at least a few years behind where they find themselves now – on the threshold of an overwhelmingly digital world.
Throughout most of his career at Microsoft, the company he helped form in 1975, Gates has been at the forefront of product strategy – launching and developing influential yet often controversial tools such as its Windows operating system.
Early versions of Windows, alongside later and rather flashier updates, have made the world of computers and, in turn, the Internet far more attractive to everyday consumers.
Alongside creating a significant proportion of the software consumers now use to find travel products on the Internet, Gates helped create a certain online travel agency in 1996 called Expedia – the model for which has been copied by countless other sites ever since.
“The explosion of the online travel industry in the past 10 years is a great example of how the Internet and home computing revolution, of which Bill Gates was at the fore, has changed our lifestyles beyond recognition,” says a Microsoft official.
Although Gates is due to divert much of his attention to his philanthropic activities from 2008, Microsoft – with him continuing to act as a key advisor on major products – will almost certainly continue to leave its mark on the online world.
“We hope the innovations Microsoft is continuing to drive – from the new generation of business and productivity software, to the next raft of web services and devices – will continue to feed back into the travel industry to promote ever better customer experience and more effective business practices.”
Mark Jones, Online Travel Company
Mark Jones claims the Online Travel Corporation is the firm behind the single most important invention for the online travel industry – dynamic packaging.
True or not, Jones is certainly a pioneer of the dynamic packaging revolution. What isn’t in doubt is the quality of OTC’s technology, which encouraged online travel giant Lastminute.com to part with £55 million to acquire the company in 2004.
However, Jones’ decision to pursue a white-label business strategy – allowing other companies to overbrand his technology – makes him the least well-known of online travel’s pioneers.
The company’s success has seen it power a number of the industry’s top websites, including Thomson, since Jones co-founded OTC in 1998. Its technology is currently behind 80 of the country’s best-known website’s including Thomas Cook and Cheapflights.
Jones, who ran his own travel industry chartered accountancy business, co-founded OTC after growing tired of seeing his clients refuse to take his advice and invest in web technology.
“I was frustrated my clients wouldn’t build new technology systems, nor did they see the web as a distribution mechanism,” he says.
In 2001 the company launched its Build-Your-Own technology and its fortunes took off.
“Dynamic packaging really changed things as it allows consumers to do what only travel agents could,” Jones says. “It was not a stroke of genius but common sense. Airlines were giving travel agents net rates so they could package them up, while customers were demanding flexibility, but the systems were not available.”
Its pursuit of the white-labelling strategy is the real secret behind Jones’ and OTC’s success. The strategy means the company hasn’t had to plough millions into developing a consumer brand and can continue to invest in its technology.
Lastminute.com was in discussions for more than a year before it acquired OTC – ironically stumbling across the company through its powering of deadly rival Expedia.
Brent Hoberman and Martha Lane-Fox, Lastminute.com
Brent Hoberman and Martha Lane-Fox rocked the travel industry to its foundations with the launch of Lastminute.com in 1998.
Not only did they use the Internet as an alternative distribution mechanism to travel agencies and call centres, but they encouraged holidaymakers to book at the very last moment – flying in the face of the traditional offline industry’s bid to maximise margins by getting consumers to book as early as possible.
Their enthusiasm and charisma encouraged suppliers “to give us deals that other agencies couldn’t get”.
“We were telling suppliers even if it didn’t work, Lastminute.com is an important experiment they will learn a lot from,” says Hoberman, who is now part-time chairman of the company.
Hoberman’s and Lane-Fox’s ability to create such a powerful brand put the company at the forefront of the brave new online travel world, while the company’s flotation in 2000 – 22% of the company for £113.5 million, valuing Lastminute.com at a massive £571.3 million – made them major protagonists of the dot-com boom.
The agency grew rapidly, splashing out £39.7 million and £16.1 million deals for Holiday Autos and Med Hotels respectively.
Travelocity bought the company for £577 million in 2005 – £5.7 million more than the flotation valuation.
Ironically, Hoberman fears its success in establishing the online agency as a major player in the wider travel industry could hinder the brand’s core value – innovation.
“When Lastminute.com launched it was the outsider of the industry,” he explains. “We are not as much of an outsider as I would like us to be as it’s easier to innovate when you are on the outside.”
Stelios Haji-Ioannou, EasyJet
Stelios, the London School of Economics graduate and 39-year-old son of a wealthy shipping magnate, is one of few businessmen, never mind human beings, who can proudly boast they have joined the likes of Pele, Madonna and Jesus in the list of people universally known by a single name.
And for a businessman to achieve that suggests there is far more substance behind his success than a nepotistic leg up from the start. However, even he concedes the importance of the Stelios ‘brand’ and a little self promotion.
“I am not sure who voted but it’s probably higher name recognition than other more important players,” he says of his selection as an online travel pioneer.
Name recognition extends to his empire of businesses. There can hardly be a person living in the UK who, after EasyJet was launched in 1997 when Stelios was a youthful 28, would not recognise the corporate orange of the EasyGroup.
“The most crucial business decision I made when starting out was to discount £5 to those who booked online at EasyJet in 1998,” said Stelios.
Like Richard Branson and Freddie Laker before him, Stelios was the latest airline entrepreneur to believe he could take on the giant of British Airways and arguably, by embracing the Internet as a form of distribution, he has scored most direct hits.
EasyJet is now Europe’s largest low-cost carrier, with a fleet of 100 jets that welcomed 30 million passengers on board in 2005. Stelios is now a household name but he is well aware of the fickle nature of success.
“If I had my time again I would have exercised more caution at the speed of rolling out some of my ventures during the dot-com bubble years. Luckily, I survived to tell the tale,” he says.
Steve Kaufer and Langley Steinert, TripAdvisor
TripAdvisor has been publishing user-generated content since 2000 – years before the online travel industry started fawning over the benefits of reproducing unbiased reviews of hotels or destinations.
Kaufer and Steinert created the website with the help of handful of like-minded and clever friends from the IT industry, and grew the company from an office above a pizza parlour in the US.
The concept was hardly revolutionary – allow users to tell others about their visit to a hotel – but the site caught the imagination of consumers already becoming cynical about the reliability of information they found on the Internet from existing accommodation providers.
Volume has been the key to TripAdvisor’s success. The site now boasts five million reviews and regularly attracts around 20 million users a month, with revenue gained from on-site advertising and referrals.
Its founders have always claimed they can actually help the hotel industry perform better. Although the process is not foolproof, systems are in place behind the scenes to spot malicious activity and hotels have the right to reply.
Nevertheless, the philosophy is actually rather simple: if a consumer highlights a problem in a hotel, fix it – chances are subsequent reviews will turn out to be positive.
Kaufer is modest about TripAdvisor’s achievements. “We didn’t invent the concept [of review websites],” he says. “We took it up a notch and developed the opinionated user-generated content that became the best way to support it. There were other travel content sites on the web, but we built it around the adventures of the public.”
As well as inspiring a generation of travellers to become regular reviewers, TripAdvisor caught the imagination of online travel giant Expedia, which bought the company in 2004.
Michael O’Leary, Ryanair
Ryanair introduced Europe to budget flying and will carry 35 million passengers this year – a far cry from the 5,000 it ferried between Ireland and mainland UK in 1985.
Michael O’Leary is fierce when defending its business model against attacks from environmentalists, politicians, rival airlines and the traditional travel trade alike.
O’Leary has never tried to hide his contempt from anyone who questions his right to sell airline seats as cheaply as possible and, of course, paying commission to a third party was always going to be an unnecessary drain on resources that would be avoided at all costs.
Ryanair, along with the likes of EasyJet, has been at the vanguard of making travel, along with porn and gambling, one of the most profitable and patronised retail sectors online – and this is why high-street travel agents have demonised people like O’Leary, who have led the revolution.
Also into race horses, rugby and farming, O’Leary’s story is not one of those rags to riches tales so often associated with entrepreneurs who champion the rights of the less well off to enjoy the trappings of a more affluent existence.
Now estimated to be worth £300 million, the 44-year-old married father of one had a privileged start in life, attending the Irish equivalent of Eton, Clongowes Wood College and then Trinity College, Dublin, before graduating as an accountant, advising on tax with KPMG. It was at school that he met the sons of millionaire Tony Ryan, who would in 1998 employ him as a financial advisor for his fledgling Ryanair airline, then operating between Waterford and Gatwick.
In 1993 he was made chief operating officer and everything was in place for Ryanair to join EasyJet in pioneering the online no-frills airline revolution.
Who else was on the shortlist?
Pierre Chappaz and Dominique Vidal, Kelkoo
Bob Deiner and Dave Litman, Hotels.com
Dinesh Dhajima, Ebookers
John Hatt, Cheapflights
David Filo and Jerry Yang, Yahoo!
Terry Jones, Travelocity
Andy Philips and Adrian Critchlow, Active Hotels
Simon Talling-Smith, BA.com
Jay Walker, Priceline
Alex Zoghlin, Orbitz