Expedia president sees site’s personalized future

NEW YORK (AP) ? The president of Expedia Worldwide imagines a day when the online travel company will make getting stuck at the airport less of a hassle.

Scott Durschlag, the former Skype CEO, is bringing an eye for new technology to his current company, which he hopes will one day become the “Netflix of travel” ? streaming a person’s travel preferences and friends’ recommendations into a customized itinerary that’s ready to rebook you when things go wrong.

He is also trying to reignite customers’ passion for travel despite onerous airport security and proliferating fees.

“It’s a privilege to get to go to work every day and get to do this stuff, because it’s travel for God’s sake,” Durschlag says. “How cool is that?”

Durschlag sat down with The Associated Press in New York and discussed everything from the economy to his favorite travel destinations. Below is a portion of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Q: What’s the next big thing in travel technology?

A: What matters is what you can do with that smartphone in your hand. What you can do is carry an active itinerary with you that you can interact with us on. Say you were rushing out to JFK today to catch a flight. Expedia can come to you with a message that says, ‘Hey, we know you’re running late to the airport,’ because we can see where you are by the GPS in your phone. ‘Don’t worry. Your flight was delayed.’ And we can tell you your best two rebooking options. We know your profile; we know you like to fly on American. We know that you tend to fly an aisle seat in economy. We’ll check that and say, ‘Here are your two best options. Just click accept.’ Now when you get to the gate, you have 150 other people from your flight and a surly agent who’s trying to manually rebook everybody. You’ve got the gift of time.

Q: What’s your outlook for travel demand?

A: We are seeing a real flight to value and much greater sophistication on the part of the consumer about what they’re looking for. We do see people tending to stay a little bit closer to home. But the bottom line is people are still traveling. They’re just being savvier about where they go and what value they seek. There’s a big market for spontaneous travel. You’d be shocked at how big that segment of people is. Even in this kind of economy, if people feel there’s a big value to be had, it stimulates the behavior.

Q: What are the (opportunities) to grow in the airfare booking business?

A: I think it’s starting to be complemented with more of a view toward destinations and experiences. So it isn’t just about checking Munich off of your ‘I want to see this’ list. It’s, ‘I want to experience Oktoberfest.’ There are opportunities in the marketing (of) package experiences. Part of what triggers people to travel, especially during these types of times, is that sense of escape. We’ll be doing more to make that possible. There’s a whole set of things that the airline would like to make visible in terms of fees or premium seating and things like that. That will surely happen. But I’d like to see it go beyond just the things that they’re charging incremental fees on, into sources of information that the consumers would directly value. For example, which planes have Wi-Fi? What’s the age of the plane that you’re taking? Which routes have the new Dreamliner on them?

Q: What’s your management style?

A: It’s important for top management to do three things well, which is set a very clear vision and strategy, get the required investment and put great people in charge and empower them. That’s it. Much easier said than done. But really, at the end of the day, that’s it. Then putting in place the supporting metrics that cascade up and down the right way, because if you’re going to empower those people, you need to be able to define what success is, and they need to know how they’re doing on that. Then it’s giving them the freedom to fail, but fail forward. It’s got to be OK to make mistakes, because you can’t be fast and agile in this world, and then also have management telling you, if you make a mistake, I’m going to put a bullet in your head. It doesn’t work.

Q: Who are your heroes?

A: My business heroes are, not surprisingly, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Steve Jobs, Howard Schultz at Starbucks. But my broader heroes are Winston Churchill, the Dalai Lama, and Abraham Lincoln. I’m a bit of a history buff.

Q: What’s your favorite spot to travel? What are the three places that you think people must see?

A: I am taking my kids to Disney World, and we’re going to go on Disney Dream in December. This cruise ship is the coolest thing. If I didn’t have kids, my favorite place in the world would be the Amalfi Coast in Italy. My three favorite must-sees: Vietnam, which I find utterly fascinating. Then the Seychelles. Then the third one is probably San Francisco. I love the neighborhood quality of it. The three for other people? You’ve got to go to Rome if you want to understand Western civilization. Everybody should experience the Himalayas, be it in Tibet or be it in Nepal. And I don’t think you can be forward-looking about this millennium without going to China.