SideStep Moves Straight Into the Online Travel Battle

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SideStep Inc., a travel search engine, is sharpening its positioning and awareness efforts to compete better with more aggressive online travel agencies like Travelocity and Expedia.


After narrowing 225 prospective tag lines to eight, the Santa Clara, CA, company soon will dump the current generic-sounding tag line, "The travel search engine," in favor of "The traveler's search engine."


"The change seems slight -- the addition of four extra characters," said Phil Carpenter, vice president of corporate marketing at SideStep. "But the difference in interpretation was dramatic.


"Consumers saw this line, and SideStep, as a product designed for them, a service they felt they owned," he said. "It felt personal. It appealed to their self-identification as travelers rather than tourists. It seemed inviting and adventurous and also made SideStep sound extremely useful."


This change comes three months after SideStep raised $8 million from Trident Capital, a travel-focused venture capital firm with $1.3 billion under management. The dot-com company, which claims it has been profitable since April 2002, has raised $15 million to date.


SideStep delivers search results to consumers through a downloadable toolbar, allowing side-by-side results comparison with Expedia and Travelocity, among others. It also produces SideStep TravelFinds, a newsletter with discounts related to hotels, flights, rental cars, cruises and vacation packages.


Five million consumers have downloaded SideStep's toolbar, 40 percent of whom turn to the service monthly for travel deals. Also, 1 million consumers have subscribed to the e-mail newsletter.


In March, SideStep debuted a Web-based version of its hotel search service at www.sidestephotels.com. Like the toolbar, it takes users directly to its marketing partners' sites to book travel. Similar Web-based flight and rental car search offerings are due this summer.


Marketing partners that sell inventory through SideStep's travel search engine include Orbitz, British Airways, Thrifty Car Rental, JetBlue, Continental Airlines, Priceline, Radisson Hotels & Resorts, Dollar Rent A Car and Fairmont Hotels.


Despite that blue-chip list, SideStep feels the need for more traction from consumers. It recently completed a round of consumer research, polling its core audience of heavy travelers.


First, respondents in many cities were surveyed for their attitudes toward the online travel space, the players in it and the benefits and frustrations of buying travel over the Internet.


Next, SideStep messages that resonated most effectively with them were tested. Consumers were asked to identify which were most compelling and why. Finally, their opinion of the old tag line was sought. Suggestions on improving that line were asked.


The feedback helped clarify SideStep's new positioning.


The company not only will run the new tag line. It also will emphasize its attributes -- an exhaustive search of dozens of travel sites for deals, in one instance -- in marketing and Internet advertising, home page design, media pitches and online demos.


"We see our primary competitors as the big online agencies, specifically Travelocity and Expedia," Carpenter said. "These are the companies that consumers look to most regularly as they shop for travel online.


"The good news for us, however, is that many consumers don't see many differences between the big agencies," he said. "With a product like ours and clear, strong messaging to support it, SideStep can stand out as a distinct alternative."


Travel has become the largest e-commerce sector. According to Credit Suisse First Boston, online travel sales will reach $71 billion in 2006, up from $21 billion in 2001. Penetration of the Internet out of all travel sales will rise to 29 percent in 2006 from 10 percent in 2001.


"For SideStep, the biggest challenge continues to be getting the word out, both to consumers and to prospective marketing partners," Carpenter said. "Competitors in the travel space are spending tens of millions of dollars a year on marketing, both online and off.


"SideStep is investing aggressively in marketing, but we won't be outspending companies like Expedia. As a result, the clarity of our messaging is all the more important. We need to be sure that when we reach both consumers and partners with our marketing, the value SideStep offers is instantly apparent."


Public relations now plays an even more critical role in SideStep's marketing. The agency sought a PR agency with experience not just in travel, but also consumer products and services. An initial list of 14 agencies was drawn up.


In the first phase of the selection process, Carpenter spoke in detail with representatives of all the agencies: How sharp were their people? Which travel and consumer companies had they represented, and what had they done for them? That list included big-name agencies such as Fleishman-Hillard, Porter Novelli, Edelman, Brodeur, Manning Selvage & Lee and Golin/Harris International.


"In the second phase, we brought a subset of these firms into our offices for capabilities presentations," Carpenter said. "We wanted to see them strut their stuff and to meet their people firsthand. I consider my PR firm to be an extension of the SideStep marketing team and wanted to be sure that the SideStep team would connect on a personal level with the people we hired."


Two finalists were asked to produce detailed action plans. The company sought creativity, clarity of thought and execution skills.


Manning Selvage & Lee won. The shop has worked on travel clients like British Airways, Crystal Cruises and The Venetian Las Vegas. It also conducted campaigns for consumer brands like Nike, eBay, Quicken, Sunkist and Procter & Gamble Co.'s Pampers.


In the past two months, SideStep's new agency has bagged it articles in USA Today, Redbook and Money magazine, and on air on CNN.


SideStep will continue running its advertising online. This way it reaches consumers when they are in the market for travel deals. Online ads are working for SideStep, but PR has equally high expectations.


"PR is one of our most important tools for building awareness and acquiring new customers," Carpenter said. "It builds credibility and gives us tremendous reach. Yet the cost is significantly less than other marketing programs we might consider."


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