Stewart Leads SideStep as 'Next Generation' of Online Travel

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Travel search engine SideStep is about to spark a star war.


The online firm is using former Star Trek actor Patrick Stewart as the face of a sweepstakes campaign called "Out of This World" to help raise its standing in e-commerce's No. 1 category, online travel.


This one-shot online endorsement from Stewart -- who played Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" on television and film -- pits SideStep against rival travel site Priceline, which uses original "Star Trek" series stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.


"Our aim is to promote SideStep and the travel search engine as 'the next big thing' in online travel," said Phil Carpenter, vice president of corporate marketing at SideStep, Santa Clara, CA.


"Priceline has spent millions on promotions using William Shatner [and Nimoy], and we thought tapping 'Next Generation' star Stewart would be an excellent way to communicate SideStep's trumping of the online industry's old guard," he said.


Formerly reliant on its name-your-price model, Priceline in April added disclosed prices that can be searched to adjust to consumer preferences. Shatner, who played Capt. James Kirk in the first series, is already out there, touting the new Priceline on TV.


And as expected, the "old guard" isn't taking SideStep's challenge lying down.


"It takes a long time to build a brand," said Brian Ek, Priceline's vice president of communications in Norwalk, CT. "We have been using William Shatner since 1998 to build Priceline into one of the best-known brands in the online travel space.


"Certainly [SideStep] doing it this way also raises awareness for the Priceline brand, and I don't think anybody is going to confuse the benefits that William Shatner has communicated for Priceline for over seven years."


Still, the lure of a Star Trek actor is hard to ignore.


Participants in the sweepstakes at www.sidestep.com/win can win a grand-prize vacation for two to Britain. The winner also gets the new Sony PSP handheld gaming device, a stay at London's St. Martin's Lane hotel, shopping with $15,000 in cash, dining at Nobu, and also meets Stewart for drinks at Asia de Cuba.


Via other SideStep deals, multiple entrants in the sweepstakes stand to win luggage from TravelPro, inventor of the Rollaboard wheelies. Another 1,000 participants will get free 8-by-10-inch prints from Kodak EasyShare Gallery, formerly ofoto. The sweepstakes is open to U.S. residents 18 or older. It ends Oct. 24.


"We're looking to reach savvy online users, consumers who are open to new, better Web services," Carpenter said. "The travel search model is still new to many, so targeting early adopters helps us to connect with consumers who are most likely to try a product like SideStep."


SideStep will send millions of e-mails to the 2.5 million consumers who subscribe to its TravelFinds Specials and TravelFinds Spotlight online newsletters. The e-mails show Stewart's visage against a gallery of stars and the Earth. A public relations effort supports.


"Promoting SideStep aggressively in conjunction with a high-profile star like Stewart helps us to raise awareness and drive trial among large numbers of prospective customers," Carpenter said.


An estimated 4.7 million unique visitors flock to SideStep monthly for travel deals from 585 airlines, 80,000 hotels and 30,000 rental car outlets worldwide. Alliance partners include JetBlue Airways, Continental Airlines, Hyatt Corp., Best Western, National Leisure Group and Thrifty Car Rental.


Travel accounted for $52.4 billion of the $141.4 billion spent last year on e-commerce, according to Forrester Research's State of Retailing Online 8.0, released in May for the National Retail Federation's Shop.org online arm. E-commerce revenue last year rose 23.8 percent, including travel.


The Shop.org report projects that online sales this year, including travel, will rise 22 percent to $172.4 billion. The online sales figure, excluding travel, is expected to reach $109.6 billion.


Airline and hotel sites received a huge chunk of the online sales last year, as did online intermediaries like Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity. Sites like TravelZoo, Site59.com, Kayak and SideStep point to deals online.


But SideStep's use of a Star Trek star is a direct invasion of Priceline's territory. Priceline's foray into disclosed prices for air and hotels to complement its name-your-price model was a factor.


"Consumers deserve to know that the emperor has no clothes," Carpenter said. "The travel search model can offer them substantially better bargains than the 'old-school' agency model exemplified by Priceline."


That said, Priceline is not a competitor to brush away. The dot-com heyday survivor has deals with almost all hotels and air carriers, bar JetBlue, Southwest Airlines and Northwest Airlines. Priceline last year reported gross travel bookings of $1.6 billion, including taxes and fees. Net income for the period was $30 million on revenue of $914 million.


Ek said Priceline's chief advantage was its dual model.


"We sell on retail and opaque [pricing methods]," he said. "We allow customers to do something that a search engine will never let you do: name your own price."


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