Friday, July 31, 2009

TripAdvisor Answers Back, Infers Who?

Brian Saltzburg, a former Travelocity guy who is general manager of new initiatives at TripAdvisor, took great umbrage at my post yesterday, Toe-to-Toe With TripAdvisor Flights.

Saltzburg didn't trash specifically, but he made some pointed remarks about what he characterized as TripAdvisor Flights' organic-growth strategy versus those competitors which grow through unsustainable marketing spend.

Hint, hint: I think he was referring to

After all, Travelzoo reported this week that it spent $9.6 million in marketing in the U.S. and Canada in the second quarter, an increase of $2 million from the second quarter of 2008. And, Travelzoo attributed much of the jump to "a $914,000 increase" in marketing.

But, first, here's Saltzburg's main beef.

Saltzburg, who heads up the TripAdvisor Flights metasearch effort, argued that the data which I used from Compete Inc. in yesterday's post "grossly under-represents" the number of searchers and visitors using TripAdvisor Flights and wrongly gives the impression that the gap between the TripAdvisor metasearch effort and is surprisingly narrow.

The TripAdvisor official added that the Compete portrait of the metasearch market "doesn't accurately represent the trajectory of our business."

Michael Redbord , a travel analyst for number-cruncher Compete, told me yesterday that in an effort to get an apples to apples comparison between TripAdvisor Flights and competitors like, Kayak/SideStep and Bing Travel, Compete measured traffic that came directly to domains like and and didn't take into account searchers and visitors that arrived from "third-party lead generators."

Those lead generators, I believe, include Expedia Inc. units in the TripAdvisor Media Network, including SeatGuru, CruiseCritic and SmarterTravel etc.

Hence, that may be part of the reason behind what TripAdvisor perceives as a larger-than-advertised gap between TripAdvisor and, both of which launched their metasearch offerings within a few weeks of one another in February.

Although TripAdvisor regularly boasts about its "more than 25 million monthly visitors," Saltzburg, citing competitive reasons, declined to disclose any numbers about TripAdvisor Flights.

However, Saltzburg did say that the number of searches conducted through TripAdvisor Flights in the second quarter was "significantly higher" than the 2.4 million that disclosed.

Asked for's take on the numbers and TripAdvisor's point that the gap is wider than Compete portrayed, Brian Clark, general manager of search products at Travelzoo, said: "Other data show moving up the ranks as well. Hitwise shows as the #18 most popular website under Travel – Agencies for June, which was only our 5th month of operation, and only slightly behind Bing."

Clark added: "I'm not sure where Hitwise puts TripAdvisor Flights. We’ve asked them where that site is in their rankings and they said they would 'look at the site.'”

Meanwhile, Saltzburg went on to show why he considers TripAdvisor Flights to be a different beast than its competitors.

"We are on a slow and steady growth trajectory that we feel great about," he said, adding that TripAdvisor measures itself against major OTAs and not against most of the metasearch crowd.

Saltzburg said TripAdvisor's strategy, unlike unidentified others (hint, hint) is to grow TripAdvisor Flights organically, to leverage the TripAdvisor Media Network, and to build the offering in a sustainable manner.

He claimed TripAdvisor Flights has used paid advertising to attract merely "a single-digit percentage" of its external traffic.

"We haven't had to invest negatively in our business," Saltzburg said, referring to companies who allegedly tear down profits to garner traffic.

Putting the TripAdvisor faceoff into context, Travelzoo spokeswoman Mindy Joyce noted that "Expedia Inc. is a much larger company than Travelzoo Inc. -– over 35x larger ($2.9B to $80M annual revenues). They have many more resources which will help them drive traffic to TripAdvisor.

"With that said," Joyce continued, "we do have over 10 million active U.S, subscribers who receive deals from Travelzoo that drive traffic to directly, and with recent fare calendar enhancements using technology, Travelzoo e-mail subscribers have new tools that help finding airfares easier than with any other site. We are using the tools that we have very effectively."

Joyce pointed to's 85 percent growth in traffic from May to June as evidence of Travelzoo's leveraging of its subscriber base.

"It does make us a highly relevant player in the space, only 5 months after we launched," Joyce added.

So, is's growth strategy, replete with its marketing spend, a sustainable endeavor?

I went for an answer to someone renowned in the travel industry for having a point of view.

And, Steve Hafner, the CEO of Kayak, inferred that the jury is out on's marketing strategy.

"I really wouldn't know if it's sustainable or not," Hafner said. "We spend a lot more and it's been sustainable."

Meanwhile, like TripAdvisor, Kayak has its eyes on other issues and competitors.

Said Hafner, "Overall, I'm not terribly interested in, TripAdvisor or Bing. I'm much more interested in navigating a potential Google entry."

I blogged about where I thought Google was trending in The Brave New World of Google Travel 3.0.

Hafner has a somewhat different take on Google's possible entry.

Fodder for another day:)

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