Hugh Crean is the general manager of Bing Travel, Microsoft’s new travel search engine. Microsoft is trying to chip away at Google’s search engine dominance, and Bing Travel is part of a multi-pronged effort that also includes shopping and health-related microsites. Crean’s company, Farecast, was acquired by Microsoft last year and folded into MSN Travel. I asked Crean about what Bing means to travelers.
Q: Farecast. MSN Travel. Now Bing Travel. My head is spinning! Couldn’t you just leave well enough alone?
Crean: It’s true that we’re giving the guy who changes our name on the front door some good business this year, but we’re excited that as part of the overall Bing search strategy, Bing Travel is a solution that a lot of travelers will discover and learn about in the coming weeks, months and years. Frankly, we’re simplifying things. With Bing Travel, Microsoft now has a single online destination for travelers.
Q: How is Bing Travel different from MSN Travel?
Crean: For starters, we incorporated all the great Farecast features – price predictor, hotel rate indicator, deals, planning tools, fare alerts, and more. Plus, we added the travel editorial travelers have used and read for years at MSN Travel. Beyond those core features, we have a really deep integration with Bing.com that makes Bing a great search site for travelers. Try a general Web search on Bing.com for ‘flights from LAX to SFO.’ Right at the top of the results you’ll see our prediction on whether to buy now or wait, deals out of LAX, a link to our flexible travel tools and more.
Q: Bing is about a week old. Has anything surprised you about the reaction to the new site, and particularly to Bing Travel?
Crean: We’re excited that travel is a key vertical in Bing and that the user response to the Bing and Bing Travel has been generally positive. There is plenty of room for improvement and we’re anxious to receive any and all feedback from customers so we can make it even better.
Q: At the heart of Bing Travel is data-mining technology that predict the price of an airline ticket or hotel room. Can you explain how it works?
Crean: At the core of Bing Travel is a passion to help consumers make faster, more informed decisions by delivering a more organized travel search experience and providing interesting features and functionality which help users accomplish key tasks more easily.
The prediction is a good example of how we make customers smarter and more empowered when shopping for airline tickets. Every night we gather and analyze millions of airfares (we basically run and catalog every possible search for every destination and every possible date). We then monitor those fares over time. Through machine learning and other really complex methods employed by our team of data miners, we are able to predict airfare pricing trends over time. The process and the information we provide for hotels is different, but employs many of the same basic principles.
Q: I really like the way you turn airline yield management on its head. Yield management tries to predict how much money a passenger is willing to pay for a ticket. But Farecast — sorry, Bing Travel — tries to predict when airlines are likely to offer the lowest fares. How much money have you saved your customers?
Crean: We are complimentary to the airline’s yield management and in fact, we give consumers the confidence to buy when they otherwise wouldn’t open their checkbook. The airlines control their pricing, and we are offering a free tip that builds consumer confidence. Importantly, we’re a search experience and not a travel agency, so when the consumer is ready to buy we connect them with a click directly to the airline or online travel agency to buy their tickets. A third-party audit showed that we save the average couple $50 per trip. I couldn’t tell you how much money we’ve saved travelers over the life of our company, but we get emails and tweets all the time from fans who save $100, $200 and even more by using our price predictor.
Q: Those fare prediction charts that show up when I do a fare search are extremely helpful. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been asked, “Will fares go up?” But I’m wondering: How do you know if you’re right? Have you ever subjected yourself to an audit of any kind?
Crean: Yes, we have subjected ourselves to a third party audit. Navigant Consulting found that our airfare predictions are 74.5 percent accurate. We’ve never claimed to be perfect, and you’ll see that alongside our predictions we include a confidence rating. Our goal is to be transparent and provide as much information and data as the consumers need so they can make a smart decision about their travel.
Q: When you look at hotels on Bing Travel, you don’t see the same kind of chart as you do when shopping for fares. Instead, there are three given designations: “Deal”, “Average” and “Not a Deal.” How do you come up with those labels, and how is your algorithm for hotels different than it is for airfares?
Crean: Hotels is a very different product than air with distinct comparison and pricing dynamics, so our approach is unique based on the category. With hotels we aren’t predicting what that particular rate is going to do over time, the way we do with airfare. We mark hotels as “Deal” or “Not a Deal” based on the historical rates for that hotel over time, and a few other indicators. Again, we’re presenting as much data for travelers as possible so they make and informed choice. We like to say that all our results are based on science, not marketing.
Q: Don’t look now, but car rental prices are climbing. They could sure use a little Bing attention. Any plans?
Crean: Don’t drive any conclusions from this, but we’re definitely keeping the door open on a rental car product.
Q: I’ve noticed that Bing Travel includes more than just a way to search prices. There are blogs and forums. How do these fit into a search engine?
Crean: With Bing Travel, we’re extending beyond comparison shopping and providing content that helps travelers get inspired about where to travel and be up to date with the latest travel news. A recent Forrester report said that 20 percent of travelers start their search without a specific destination in mind. So, the idea is to complement quality travel editorial content with community content to provide useful planning insights for travelers.
Q: Bing Travel isn’t the only site that tells travelers the best time to buy. Others, notably Farecompare.com, have similar features. How do you plan to differentiate yourself from those products, moving forward?
Crean: To be clear, no other online travel site provides a Price Predictor, which predicts if airfares are rising or falling and provides consumers with a recommendation to buy now or wait. The Hotel Rate Indicator, which uses science to indicate which hotel rates are deals, is also a differentiated offering available only to Bing Travel. Even our approach to airfare deals, leveraging billions of historical airfares to help consumers know what is a deal and why it’s a deal, is unique to Bing Travel. We’re committed to continued innovation to help consumers make faster, more informed decisions when searching for travel.