Hotwire hopes TV spots will lure travelers

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A year ago,'s VP-marketing, John Hommeyer, was readying the Sock Puppet for its appearance in a Super Bowl spot. What a difference a year makes. Gone are $50 million launch campaigns for Web sites, soaring IPOs, gushing venture capital-and, which formally disbanded as a corporate entity last week after shutting its site in November.

Enter the new era of dot-com advertising, where the Super Bowl is not a consideration and Web sites pinch pennies with media buys. And Mr. Hommeyer, who left in May to join Hotwire, finds himself this January commenting not on the value of a $2 million single spot, but how the fledgling travel e-tailer is leaving its options open with a cautious TV launch effort that includes only spot buys in New York, San Francisco and Portland, Ore.


At least outwardly, Mr. Hommeyer is blase enough about the campaign, which launched last week, to say: "We're not committed to TV advertising." Instead, the spot effort will be evaluated for effectiveness before future plans are made.

Hotwire, backed by the investors Texas Pacific Group and eight major airlines including American and United, has relied mostly on public relations efforts for marketing since its October launch. Mr. Hommeyer, Hotwire's chief marketing officer, said TV is one of only 20-plus marketing strategies the company is exploring.

He would not elaborate or release spending figures for the TV effort. When Omnicom Group's Goodby Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, was awarded the account in September, it was reported as a $40 million win, but this initial thrust is estimated to be less than $10 million.

The campaign from Goodby Silverstein features animated spots that make the safety instruction cards aboard planes come to life. One spot takes direct aim at Hotwire's chief competition, Priceline, which launched a new TV campaign using animation earlier this month after jettisoning pitchman William Shatner.

Hotwire's humorous spot warns that people who overpay for travel options on a "guess-your-price travel Web site" (Priceline touts its "name your own price" model) may wind up in Paris, Texas, instead of the Gallic capital. The other spot, which seeks to position Hotwire as a broad option for affordable plane tickets, features a passenger who "overpaid" for his family's tickets being tossed overboard. Both spots the tagline: "A great trip starts with a great deal."

Unlike Priceline, Hotwire does not require users to bid for a travel option and then pay for the service if their price is accepted. Instead, users submit a proposed itinerary, Hotwire offers a price for a plane ticket (hotel and rental car options are coming soon, as well as international flights) and the user can either take it or leave it. Neither Priceline nor Hotwire allow users to see the name of the airline or other vendor prior to a purchase-or the times of their flights.

Neither offers frequent-flier miles to customers, either, the reason being that airlines want to limit usage of the sites to leisure travelers. If departure times were released and frequent-flier miles doled out, business travelers normally willing to pay through the nose for tickets may try to cut costs by visiting the sites.

Hotwire differs from Web site Orbitz, backed by some of the same airlines, which promises full disclosure. A spokeswoman said Orbitz will offer users the chance to access every fare available for a travel option as well as airline names and departure times. Thus, Orbitz, whose launch has been delayed until June from its initial target of fall 2000, will compete against Microsoft's Expedia and Travelocity, which function as online travel agents.

Can Hotwire turn a profit? Priceline has yet to post one and has watched its stock price fall like the discarded passenger thrown from the plane in the Hotwire spot. Mr. Hommeyer believes the site can be successful because its business model relies in part on fares the airlines make available only on Hotwire.

One risk Hotwire faces is users may go to Expedia or Travelocity to determine the lowest fare for a route and then compare it to Hotwire. But Mr. Hommeyer said Hotwire encourages price shopping and believes his site has the best rates. A search last week for a February trip between New York and Dallas showed Expedia offering a best price of $260.50 while Hotwire offered $182.

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