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Transcript

Travel Search Engines

Brian Barth
CEO, SideStep.com
Tuesday, June 24, 2003; 1:00 PM

Have you started working on your summer travel plans? Many of us browse the web for the best airfare and travel package deals. With all the travel Web sites out there, how do you know that you are getting the best deal?

SideStep.com is a travel search engine that can help consumers find the best travel values across the Web. SideStep has attracted 3.5 million users in three years. The travel engine focuses on a more effective user interface that increases functionality in searching for flight, hotel and rental cars.

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Post business travel reporter Keith Alexander hosts Brian Barth, CEO of SideStep.com, a travel site search engine.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Keith Alexander: Hello everyone. Thank you for participating in today's discussion onSideStep.com, an Internet tool used to find the lowest air fares and hotel rates in Cyberspace. First let me thank our guest Brian Barth, CEO and founder of SideStep for taking time out of his schedule to spend an hour with us. Brian Barth, before we take questions from our readers, what do you want them to know about SideStep?

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Brian Barth: First of all, we're a travel search engine -- like Google, but for travel. We search dozens of travel Web sites to find the best air, hotel and rental car deals. We also make it easy for people to compare prices with other popular travel sites, such as Expedia and Travelocity. We can display our options directly alongside those offered by other travel sites to make it easy to find the best bargains.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm very wary about downloading software off the web. How do you ensure your clients that they won't be bombarded by unwanted ads or information or bugs when they download the travel search software? Also, why did you choose a software over a web-based search engine?

Brian Barth: SideStep is focused on the travel business, as opposed to being a media company. We're not interested in bombarding customers with ads, as it doesn't serve either you nor us well. We offer our product as downloadable software because it makes it easy for you to run the side-by-side comparisons that SideStep is well known for.

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Towson, Md.: I really like the Sidestep service, and it was really unique in the beginning. Now though it seems that all the other sites have the webfares and I no longer find the booking bonuses for most of the airlines. Instead there are mostly ads. What plans do you have for the service to make it again different than a service like Expedia?

Brian Barth: We continue to offer booking bonuses for many of the airlines included in SideStep, although not all. If you compare SideStep with other online travel services, I'm confident that you'll find that our pricing is often better. For example, we recently ran an internal study in which we looked at the 100 most heavily trafficked routes (as defined by the Department of Transportation). SideStep beat Expedia 65% of the time.

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Alexandria, Va.: I love SideStep. I've been using it since it first came out (and I found it on the US Airways site).

However, recently I used it to help a friend find a flight. When I clicked on the info for the lowest fare, it didn't take me to the airline's site but to a consolidator (www.airfare.com).

When did SideStep start doing this?

Brian Barth: Glad to hear that you love SideStep! Think of us as a search engine -- like Google, but for travel. We search not only suppliers' sites, but also online agencies (like Orbitz) and consolidators (like airfare.com). We cast a broad net in order to find you the very best deals.

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Silver Spring, Md.: How did you come up with the idea for the software and to incorporate the search tool as part of the user's Internet browser? Your software works better on IE than on Netscape. Also, how did you come up with the name?

Brian Barth: We decided to make SideStep part of the browser because it makes it easy for you to compare prices side-by-side with other online travel vendors -- something you can't do with a standard Web site. You're right -- SideStep is optimized for use with Internet Explorer. We do, however, support Netscape 4. As for the company's name, it has a number of different connotations. It refers to the fact that we often take people directly to travel suppliers' web sites, "sidestepping" traditional travel distribution channels. It also communicates the idea that we run on the side of your screen -- adjacent to other sites -- which makes comparison shopping easy.

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Fairfax, Va.: Does SideStep allow you to book directly from your browser? Also, what is the percentage of accuracy of Sidestep finding the lowest fares for users? Brian Barth: You do need to download SideStep in order to use our travel search engine (in other words, SideStep is not just a Web site). Once you have installed SideStep, we make it easy for you to compare prices with other travel sites -- something a standard Web site just can't do. When you're comparing prices, it's safe to say that we won't win EVERY time -- no one can. However, because we cast such a wide net in the search for travel bargains, we win regularly. In fact, in an internal pricing study that we recently completed, SideStep beat Expedia 65% of the time and Travelocity 62% of the time.

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McLean, Va.: I recently booked a trp on Orbitz. Because of an emergency kidney stone operation, my doctor told me to cancel/postpone the trip. Orbitz referred me to the airlines who were not particularly helpful - especially American. How does SideStep handle such situations? Is there a policy so such?

Brian Barth: SideStep refers all such questions to the sites in our network (suppliers, online agencies, and consolidators). We focus on doing search extremely well and let the others manage customer service inquiries.

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Washington, D.C.: I've tried to download the software but I can't get the plug-in. Any suggestions?

Brian Barth: Our customer service team is first rate. Visit the customer service area of our Web site - http://www.sidestep.com/support - and we'd be glad to help you.

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Arlington, Va.: Where does Sidestep get its info from? I see it as a good tool for finding some great deals- once I was able to find two nights at a 5-star hotel for $45 a night! Couldn't find that rate anywhere else. Keep up the good work!

Brian Barth: Many thanks. We search dozens of different sites to help you find the best bargains, and we're constantly adding more.

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Washington, D.C.: I've heard so much about airfares being so low, however, I don't ever find any that are truely a deal. The often advertise the one-way price. Am I not looking in the right places?

Brian Barth: When you search with SideStep -- we show you true round trip pricing, including taxes/fees (unless you search for a one way fare, that is). We understand that consumers value candid communications, and that's the way we strive to operate.

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Keith Alexander: Are there any plans on making Side Step available for Macs? Brian Barth: We'd love to offer SideStep for the Macintosh, and the project is on our "to do" list. I can't tell you when we'll address this market, but there are a lot of Mac fans here at SideStep, and we'd like to bring our search engine to the Mac.

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Keith Alexander: Are there any major airlines, or large hotel chains that Side Step does not have access? Brian Barth: You'll find all of the major hotel chains and airlines in SideStep, as well as many smaller players -- like USA3000 and even Hooters Air. Offering smaller travel suppliers that Expedia, Travelocity and others don't include is one of the factors that makes SideStep unique.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is SideStep owned by an airline or a consortium of airlines? How does that affect which airlines appear in your results?

Brian Barth: No - SideStep is entirely independent. We list our flight results by price, although you can also sort the results in other ways that may be convenient for you (e.g. by carrier).

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Washington, D.C.: We've been hearing so much about how airlines are financially hurting but everytime I travel you wouldn't know it. Flights are just as full as they always have been. Why is that?

Brian Barth: During these tough times, many airlines have reduced the number of planes that they have in service. It's not good business for them to fly planes that are 25% full. This is the reason that when you fly these days, the planes still carry plenty of passengers.

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Keith Alexander: Can airline passengers upgrade on SideStep? Brian Barth: You search with SideStep, but book through one of the many sites we search. If you want to upgrade, you should contact the travel supplier directly.

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Keith Alexander: What do you see as the future of airline travel and the Internet? What more can the travel industry do with the Internet that it currently is not? Brian Barth: The Internet will continue to be a great accelerator for the airline industry -- and for the hotel and rental car sectors, too. Web-based distribution is the most efficient way that these companies can sell their products. With increased efficiency comes lower costs, which also enables these companies to compete more aggressively for consumers' travel dollars. That translates into lower prices, which enables more people to travel. What more can the travel industry do? Travel industry players can leverage the Web to make it increasingly easy to shop for and buy travel. Travel is an "information rich" category -- and that means that it is perfect for the Web. We've only just begun to tap the true potential of the Internet to help people research and buy great travel options.

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Virginia: How do you market Sidestep? In the article it says that you are known mostly through word of mouth but it is hard to believe that a company can only exist solely on that. Do you do aggressive ads and pop up ads like your competition such as Orbiz and Expedia? And if not, what do you think about their annoying pop ups?

Brian Barth: We focus on making the product great. The better SideStep serves its customers, the more likely they are to tell their friends, family members and colleagues about it. This "grass roots" support is the most powerful marketing tool one can have, and we work hard to cultivate that support.

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Keith Alexander: Some travelers have written saying they believe SideStep favors center airlines based on their search results. Does this ever happen? And if so, why? Brian Barth: No - we don't favor certain airlines in our search results. We display our flight results in order based on price. But we also allow customers to resort these results based on other things that things that may be important to them -- like departure time, arrival time, or carrier name.

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Somewhere, USA: How do you think finding fares online affects the travel industry? Do you think that having people search for their own fares eliminates the jobs of travel agents and the booking depts of the airlines? Somehow, I think that having an agent makes the client feel a personal connection for customer support. Everything seems to be automated these days.

Brian Barth: Travel agents play an important role in the distribution of travel products -- particularly when consumers are making more complex purchases, such as a cruise or an international flight to a new destination. A search engine like SideStep serves a different role, and sometimes a different customer. SideStep is particularly well suited to travelers who want to serve themselves. It's a bit like the difference between a full service restaurant and a vending machine. Sometimes, you're in the mood to be pampered. At other times, you need to grab that Snickers bar and run.

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Fallls Church, Va: Does you program offer a way to check for the cheapest fares regardless of the need to plug in a particular date? I love that feature on Travelocity- I can see the very cheapest fares and craft my travel dates around that information. Thanks

Brian Barth: We don't have this capability yet, although it's certainly something we have on our "to do" list. It's always great to hear this kind of input directly from our customers, as it helps us determine what gets done first.

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Keith Alexander: Obviously SideStep has a very valuable database of travelers. That database along with your technology would make SideStep a very attractive buy. Are there any plans to merge your company with another? Have you been in any such M&A talks? Brian Barth: We're focused on building a great company, rather than on exit strategies. We're extremely excited about where we're headed, and the impact that we can have on travel distribution. If we keep our priorities straight and make SideStep an outstanding service for consumers, the rest should take care of itself.

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washington dc: I am trying to book airfare to Caribbean and cannot understand why the cost can fluctuate by day and airline ,literally $600 a ticket!;!;!;What would you suggest?

Brian Barth: When you see a good deal, grab it!

As you can tell, the world of airline pricing is wild and wooly. Pricing can change dramatically based on the availability of inventory, competitive pressures, and the like. Moreover, as you've seen, prices also can change quickly. The moral of the story: when you find that great bargain, don't wait to buy.

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Bethesda, Md: I know that Southwest prices do not appear in Orbitz, I guess because they do not like the big carriers. But does SideStep do as well against Orbitz as it does with Travelocity and Expedia in finding low fares?

Brian Barth: Orbitz is actually a SideStep partner, and we often include their search results in the selection of options that we offer to our customers.

When you compare SideStep against ANY single Web site, we'll often offer better prices. Why? Because SideStep searches dozens of sites to find the best travel values. By looking at a broad range of sources, we'll often turn up bargains that a single site will miss -- "Web specials" from carriers like AirTran, ATA and Frontier Airlines, for example, or special consolidator rates. Another way that we can help you to save is by including airlines and airports that other sites may not. For example, travelers flying out of the Bay Area from San Francisco will also see options from JetBlue, which flies out of Oakland. In this case, we're highlighting both an airline that other sites don't offer, and an airport that may not be top-of-mind. Most major metropolitan cities have multiple airports, which gives us the chance to "wow" customers with deals they may have missed if not for SideStep.

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Keith Alexander: Well time has run out. Thank you all for participating. We had numerous questions but time would not allow us to get to them all. Brian Barth, I will give you the final word.

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Keith Alexander: Brian, do you have any final thoughts or comments? Brian Barth: Thanks for inviting us to participate in the chat, Keith. I'd like to sign off by encouraging those folks who haven't tried SideStep yet to take it for a test flight of their own. And for those who've found it to be useful, please tell your friends! We greatly appreciate your support.

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