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Last updated: February 16. 2013 6:00AM - 150 Views

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FORT WORTH, Texas — With pointy red gnome hats, a cruise giveaway and plenty of balloons, Travelocity turned sweet 16 last month.


But it hasn't been all cupcakes and champagne for the Southlake, Texas-based travel website that operates a customer contact center in Hanover Industrial Estates.


Once considered a trailblazer, Travelocity has struggled for the past few years to keep up with competitors like Expedia or Priceline.


"We weren't moving as fast as we needed to," CEO Carl Sparks said about newer, nimbler competitors. "We're 16 and so sometimes we think of ourselves as one of the elderly companies in the space because we were around since its inception. ... Yet 16 is quite young for a multibillion-dollar company."


Since Sparks took the top job a year ago, he and his executive team have refocused the company on hotel products, build-your-own-vacation packages and mobile devices. In February, the company launched its first iPad app, which allows users to book airline tickets, hotels and rental cars from their tablets and offers hotel deals exclusive to its mobile users. Created in 1996 by the Sabre Group, then part of American Airlines' parent, AMR Corp., Travelocity first offered travel content to consumers browsing the Web with 28.8 Kbps modems. Within a year, they could buy airline tickets, book hotels and reserve rental cars on the site.


As dot-coms hit Wall Street with soaring initial public offerings, Travelocity became publicly traded in 2000 through its acquisition of Preview Travel. But it faced increasing competition from Expedia, which was adding to its hotel offerings, and Orbitz, a new site founded by a group of U.S. airlines.


As Travelocity slipped out of first place, Sabre Holdings brought the company back into the fold and combined it with Lastminute.com, a European travel site. In 2007, Sabre was taken private by Texas Pacific Group and Silver Lake Partners in a $5 billion deal.


In a survey Harteveldt conducted late last year, 13 percent of consumers said they used Travelocity to book their leisure/personal travel within the previous 12 months, as many as Priceline, Orbitz and Hotels.com. Expedia ranked first, with 21 percent.


When Sparks came in as CEO last April, he recognized that having staff spread among three offices hurt the company by slowing down business decisions. Sparks, who previously was president of Gilt Groupe, an online fashion retailer, and had worked at Expedia and Hotels.com, closed Travelocity's offices in New York and San Francisco, consolidating employees at its Texas headquarters.


He also added more executives with experience in e-commerce and continues to hire developers to create products and apps. And instead of trying to make Travelocity all things to consumers, Sparks decided to focus on three areas: hotels, vacation packages and mobile platforms.


"We could do a lot more with this brand than we have," Sparks said, adding that he is pleased with the past year's progress. "It's done well. We're very proud of the fact that we're large and we're profitable and we're growing again.


"Our biggest markets — the U.S., the U.K. and France — we are now growing in all three of those markets. We are taking share, we think, in a number of those markets across multiple product categories."


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