Like most busy executives John Williams Jr. travels to business meetings twice a week. Unlike his counterparts, however, Williams doesn’t travel first class. Instead, he climbs into the cockpit of his six-seat Beechcraft Bonanza A-36 airplane and charts his own course through the wild blue yonder. “One of the good things about having a plane is that you don’t have to stick to anyone else’s schedule,” says the 45-year-old licensed private pilot.
The flying bug has trailed him throughout his career in some form or another. As a senior vice president at American Express, Williams managed the company’s Consumer Travel Network, which he grew to $1 billion in travel sales-quadrupling its previous earnings in just two years. While there he also designed ExpressNet, the company’s first online presence. In 1996, Williams left American Express to head a travel-related Internet start-up, Biztravel.com. “The Net is as fundamental a shift in our economy as the invention of the internal combustion engine,” says Williams, who imbued the New York City-based Biztravel.com (www.biz travel.com) with his understanding of the travel industry.
“No other industry relegates the consumer to such a powerless position,” he says of the traditional booking process. “We strip away all of the filters and put travel information directly in the hands the consumer.” Traffic on travel-related Websites is growing at around 20% per year and Jupiter Communications, a New York City-based new media research company, expects that by 2002 more than $7 billion in airline tickets will be purchased online. Although Biztravel.com doesn’t publish its revenues or traffic to the site, it’s generally regarded as one of the top selling online travel destinations.
Since its launch in January 1997, Biztravel.com has received numerous awards from Internet and travel magazines. That’s no easy task considering most travel agencies, virtual or otherwise, have access to the same airline databases. “The key is not just to give the consumer mounds of information, but to use their prerecorded personal preferences to rank their flight choices accordingly,” he states. The site lets you rank your preferences based on shortest flight, aisle or window seats, lowest fare and frequent flier destinations. It also offers automatic upgrades based on your frequent flier level.
To stay ahead of the pack, Williams recently introduced paging and calendar update features. BizAlerts notifies you of flight status, gate information and weather conditions at your destination via your alphanumeric pager on the day of your flight. The site’s Calendar Direct service lets you drag and drop your itinerary from your browser into your scheduler such as Microsoft’s Outlook.
While it faces competition from other travel agencies such as Travelocity and Preview Travel, BizTravel also has to contend with the commercial airlines’ desire to drive traffic to their own online booking sites. Earlier this year, Delta announced a $2 service charge for all flights not booked on its Website, but it rescinded the fee after it was criticized by travel agents and consumers. Last year, some airlines reduced the commission for online booking that traditional travel agencies receive.