Help Name Pluto’s Newly Discovered Moons

Pluto
Pluto is one of the little mysteries of our solar system. An icy dwarf planet far from Earth, it’s never been studied up close. The best scientists have been able to do is to examine it with the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the coolest scientific instruments ever invented.

In 2011 and 2012, they discovered two new moons around Pluto, bringing the total number of its satellites to five. Right now they’re known by the boring scientific designations S/2011 (134340) 1 and S/2012 (134340) 1. Most astronomers call them by the shorter yet equally boring nicknames P4 and P5. Now an online poll on the website Pluto Rocks!, run by Dr. Mark Showalter of the P4/P5 Discovery Team, is letting YOU help decide what to name them.

All the choices come from Greek and Roman mythology but one has a special significance for science fiction fans – Vulcan. None other than William Shatner has gotten behind the push to name one of the moons after Mr. Spock’s home world. He’s urging fans via his twitter feed to vote for Vulcan. On his own twitter feed, Leonard Nimoy said, “‘Vulcan’ is the logical choice. LLAP.” LLAP stands for “Live long and prosper,” of course.

According to the current tally, Vulcan is way ahead, with Cerberus and Styx neck-and-neck for second place. I decided to release my inner Trekkie and voted for Vulcan. Since there are two moons to be named, you get to go back and vote again. I’ll be voting for Thanatos. It’s way behind but it’s the coolest name on there after Vulcan.

P4 is Pluto’s smallest moon, measuring an estimated 8-21 miles across and orbits Pluto in about 31 days. P5 is 6-16 miles across and orbits Pluto in 20 days. Little is known about their physical makeup although it is thought they are a combination of water ice, other frozen elements and molecules, and small bits of rock.

While astronauts and space tourists won’t be getting to these destinations anytime soon, it’s nice to know that you had a part in naming them. Voting ends at noon EST on Monday, February 25.

[Photo courtesy NASA via the Hubble Space Telescope]

Brand Wars: The Airline Booking Battle Will Be Televised

Brand Wars: The Airline Booking Battle Will Be Televised

Online travel agencies have had a solid run over the past two years. They picked up some market share as would-be travelers were willing to poke around a little more to score cheap tickets. High rates of unemployment and under-employment and general economic uncertainty, of course, were enough to make consumers value every dollar a little more. This opened an opportunity for online travel agencies to advance in the marketplace, and chip away at the dominance of their suppliers (i.e., the airlines) on the web.

Yet, the market is turning. Next year is expected to be a strong one for the air travel industry relative to 2010, and 2010 was a vast improvement over 2009. For online travel agencies, this provides some benefit as a rising tide, but it’s likely to favor their suppliers, as customers are more likely to go with what they know over putting in some effort to find the largest discounts.

Online travel agencies will have to overcome this tendency by investing smartly and substantially in their own brands. This is what we’re seeing in the latest move by CheapOair, the one of the 10 largest online travel agencies in the sector, in its recent announcement of a marketing mix change, which teases a broader strategic shift given changing market conditions.


A Changing Travel Market
From 2008 to 2010, online travel agencies were able to chip away at the online market share of their suppliers, reducing the suppliers from owning 62 percent of the online business in 2008 to 59 percent in 2010, according to travel industry research firm PhoCusWright. Bargain hunters drove the market, which eroded the importance of brand loyalty.

From 2009 to 2010, PhoCusWright notes a “strong countercyclical performance for the OTA category.” In 2009, sales fell only 1 percent for the sector, compared to 5 percent for the total online leisure/unmanaged business travel market. And, online travel agencies have posted double-digit gains in 2010.

Stronger industry conditions, however, are better for the suppliers, and PhoCusWright observes, “With the rebound continuing, supplier websites will likely regain momentum as the OTA fight to hold on to their share gains.”

In regards to the actual travel experience, ostensibly, the airline’s brand matters most. When a passenger books through an online travel agency, the brand associated with the transaction lasts for a few minutes – or a few hours, depending on the diligence of the buyer’s search. Meanwhile, interaction with the airline’s brand starts during the search for a ticket, persists through the flight and ends sometime after the passenger hops into a town car to get to his ultimate destination. To register in the customer consciousness, online travel agencies need to develop the sort of presences that will keep them top of mind.

This runs counter to the traditional online customer acquisition models associated with the online travel agency business, which involve a combination of search engine optimization, online ads, affiliate programs and social media. These are transaction-oriented tactics, which speak directly to the brand-barrenness of big discounting.

More Than the Transaction
The largest online travel agencies have already moved past transaction myopia: everybody knows the Travelocity gnome, Priceline‘s William Shatner and the likes of “Cooper” from Expedia. For all but the top players, however, investments in mass media brand development (such as television) have generally been eschewed in favor of what’s been known to work. Speaking at Business Insider’s IGNITION conference last week, Buddy Media CEO Michael Lazerow noted that Travelocity grew to $4 billion in revenue through online means before it moved to television to get to the next level.

Yet, for the online travel agency sector to hold its ground – and even grow – in 2011, brand has to matter more, and this means casting a wider media net. This, plus the size of CheapOair relative to its competitors, is what caught my attention about its recent media diversification. The company is launching its first television ad campaign, “Get More for Less,” in an aggressive move to get out in front of the imminent online travel market shift.

The move to television is an aggressive one, and it comes a bit ahead of “schedule” for CheapOair, if you use the Travelocity number as a reference point. Expedia pulled in close to $3 billion in revenue last year, for example, and Priceline at $2.3 billion. Travelong/CheapOair generated $825 million in revenue in 2009 and has grown at a year-over-year rate of 45 percent this year, resulting in forecasted 2010 revenues of $1.2 billion.

The company’s CEO, Sam Jain, says, “TV is a new strategy for CheapOair and as we head into our 6th year we believe this is the right time to expand our marketing efforts. TV is a natural evolution from our current digital marketing and will help build awareness among a larger audience and introduce more people to the brand.” The countercyclical tendencies of the online travel agency market relative to travel as a whole reinforce this point.

Pointing to the potential for a virtuous cycle, CheapOair’s Sr. Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, Bill Miller, adds, “This new TV campaign should draw in more customers for us which in turn will bring more value to our supplier partners. Our suppliers — airlines, hotels, car rentals —- want valuable and efficient distribution partners. I believe we are all that and more and this TV campaign is just another example of how we can extend our marketing reach on the behalf of our supplier partners.”

Fashion versus Reality
It’s been fashionable among the digerati to claim the death of other forms of media, and I’m as guilty as the rest. But, the reality is that SEO and online ads (a la Google’s pay-per-click model) are becoming increasingly crowded and competitive. Since they are focused on the transaction rather than the brand, they don’t provide for a relationship with the customer that results in a gradual reduction in cost per revenue over time. It’s strictly “pay by the drink,” and that can get pricey.

With the travel market starting to tip in favor of the travel suppliers over the online travel agencies, the costs associated with traditional online marketing will become even higher, as brand brings customers back to the suppliers and online travel agencies chase a shrinking share of bargain hunters. For online travel agencies to compete effectively, they have to make their own investments in branding – a commitment that lacks the predictability of other forms of marketing.

Strangely, television may become the key to winning on the web in the travel industry in 2011. A better market translates to the amplification of the importance of brand, and commercials are still a critical aspect of this in the consumer world.

A battle of the brands is about to break out. The good news is that it’s for your benefit … and you’ll get to watch it on TV!

[photo by Do u remember via Flickr]

Budget travel – mastering the art of Priceline hotel deals

You have probably seen the commercials – poor traveler needs a hot deal, and in jumps William Shatner, “The Priceline Negotiator”.

Priceline has been around for almost 10 years, and in those 10 years they have helped me (along with millions of others) snag a hotel room where I need it, when I need it, for the price I want.

I know it sounds like I’m being paid by Shatner himself, but when you can book a room for $50 when all other sites are still selling them for $200, you’ll learn to appreciate how handy Priceline can be.

Sadly, the whole process of “naming your own price” can be a tad daunting, I can still remember the first time I submitted a request to their site. There is something amazingly scary about handing over your credit card to a booking site and telling them to go ahead and just book you “something”.

It’s like haggling at the market – you never know when you’ll get a good deal, or when you’ll walk away with your trinket with the sad realization that you overpaid.

Thankfully, there are some handy tricks to becoming a master of Priceline – and ways you can be sure you’ll get the best value for your money.
But first, a little bit about Priceline and how they operate.

Priceline does a lot more than just “name your price”, they also operate as a regular travel booking site, with hotel, air, cruise and car rental rates pretty much on par with most of their competitors.

For the sake of this article I’ll only focus on the name your own price feature, as that is the one that makes them stand out from most others, plus it’s the best option out there for budget minded travelers.

Your first step in making a bid for a hotel room is to pick your destination and required dates. Once you have selected this, you are presented with a map of the area, and the various Priceline “zones”.

STOP

Before you do anything else, you’ll want to stop for a minute. Sure, you may know where you want to stay, and how much cash you have available for the dates you require, but what if you bid $50 for a hotel you could actually get for less? Or what if you bid $40 when Priceline only has rooms available for $90?

This is where the Internet can help you. You are not alone – many people just like you use Priceline, and take advantage of a weakness in the Priceline system – sharing information.

See, the whole name your own price system only really works in their advantage if everyone overbids. Sure, plenty of people will blindly enter $75 and get a room that costs Priceline $50, but the real pro’s only pay $50.

So, head on over to betterbidding.com and spend some time checking out the various winning bids from fellow Priceline customers. You’ll get a much better idea what kind of deal you can get, and which hotels are currently being offered on the site.

Betterbidding.com uses a fixed format for all submitted deals, and in each post you’ll find all the information you need to snag yourself a similar bargain.

Once you locate a date/area that matches what you need, open up the post to see exactly how they managed to place a winning bid.

You’ll see that most of these users base their initial bid on previous deals scored by others ,and that they take the information provided on the site and use it to their advantage.


The free rebid – your best friend on Priceline

William Shatner may pretend to be your best friend on TV, but in reality Priceline doesn’t really like it when you try and get too smart. The free rebid is one of those tricks that will help not only get a good deal, but get a good deal for the price you want, often even in the hotel you want.

If you make a bid for a hotel, but the bid is not accepted, Priceline will allow you to bid again, with a higher amount – BUT, only if you change at least one of the requirements for your reservation. This means you’ll either have to change the star rating of your desired room, or change/add a Priceline zone.

Here is an example – lets say you need a room in Chicago. You entered the dates you want, picked a 4 star hotel, and bid $60. You go through the booking process, and Priceline denies your bid.

At this point you raise your bid to $63, but in order to get a free rebid, you need to change one of the requirements on your request. Of course, if you add a different zone, you run the risk of being stuck with a hotel miles away from where you need to be. Unless of course, you add a zone with no hotels with the star rating you requested!

Here is how that works – you go back to Betterbidding.com, and select their Illinois hotel list. You’ll see that plenty of Chicago suburbs lack a 4 star hotel. So, pick one of those poor zones, and hey presto – you can successfully submit your free rebid.

Now, simply rinse and repeat until you find the price Priceline is willing to accept.

Sounds too complicated? Check out this real life example from someone at Betterbidding. In that example, you’ll see that they wanted a 4 star hotel in the downtown area. Their initial bid was declined, so they added a new zone (one without any 4 star hotels), denied again, added another zone (once again, a zone with no 4 star hotels), denied again, added yet another zone (once again, no 4 stars in that zone), and bingo – they got what they wanted.

$57/night for a downtown Chicago hotel is a steal. Just how much of a steal? Check out the going rate for rooms on those specific dates, at that hotel:

Thats right – Priceline got them 2 nights for less than the price of one night when booked through Hyatt.com.

If it sounds too simple, then it’s probably time to post a couple of warnings – the hotel lists posted by sites like Betterbidding.com are not guaranteed to be correct. Priceline is not stupid, and they can upgrade or downgrade hotels whenever they feel like it.

This means that playing the free rebid game may come with some risks, and the worst that could happen is that you end up 20 miles away from where you wanted to be – not a nice way to spend your time.

If you don’t want to run that risk, and you have some time to spare, then you can make a rebid 24 hours after the previous bid, without the requirement of changing things.

Another thing to be careful of, is doing free rebids and using a zone with no hotels with the rating your want, but if it DOES have a higher available hotel.

For example – if you want a 3 star hotel and get declined, you decided to play the rebid game and add a zone with no 3 star hotels (but one or more 4 star hotels), Priceline may decide to “upgrade” you to the 4 star hotel in the zone you really did not want to stay in – oops.

If you really want to master the art of getting what you want from Priceline, I recommend reading the successful bookings posted at Betterbidding. You’ll learn in a short amount of time what kind of tricks work, and of cour
se, which tricks do not work.

Once you are confident enough to click the “book now” button, you’ll be surprised just how often you can score a fantastic deal.

Will the hotel know I’m a Priceline customer?

One question I often hear is “will the hotel know I’m a Priceline customer”. The simple answer is yes, the hotel will almost always know you are a guest arriving on a Priceline reservation.

In most cases, this won’t matter, but I’ve occasionally come across a hotel that did not treat me as well as a “regular paying” guest. Unless they are spitting in your face and calling you names, I’d suggest ignoring it and enjoying the money you saved.

If you are a member of the hotel frequent guest program, try calling them in advance with your membership number, and make sure to call the hotel directly with any specific requests (smoking, non smoking etc). I’ve regularly been upgraded to a suite on my Priceline stay, all because I added my hotel elite status to my $40 reservation.

Priceline rooms are generally booked as non smoking, but if a hotel has nothing else available, they usually won’t have a problem sticking you in a stuffy smoking room, so as with all hotels, bring some Febreze.

Anything else to keep in mind?

Yes – when you name your own price, any accepted bid is locked in stone. There are no changes, no cancellations, no refunds and the reservation is not transferable. Priceline is pretty well known for being strict about this rule. If you are a regular Priceline customer, they may make a once in a lifetime exception for you, but it’ll require a lot of begging. If all else fails, try contacting the hotel directly, often their reservations department may be able to help you out.

Bottom line is – book with caution. Check and double check your dates, check and double check your zones before bidding. Yes, if you start using Priceline regularly, you may end up with a couple of reservations you messed up, and it will result in a waste of money when you can’t use them.

So there you have it – a couple of tips that should help you become a real pro at booking cheaper rooms. Got any tips of your own? Share them in the comments section below!