Kellogg World Winter 2010

Steve HafnerSteve Hafner '97

Blazing new trails in the online travel sector

By Sara Langen

If you’ve ever booked a flight or hotel online, you have Steve Hafner ’97 to thank.

During a career spanning more than a decade, Hafner has revolutionized the way people book trips. He first turned into a leading online travel company, and then founded, a website for budget-conscious consumers. Today, as CEO of Kayak, Hafner is directing the growth of one of the world’s most popular travel search engines.

For Hafner, the road to success hasn’t always been easy. After he joined Orbitz in 1999, the company struggled against the Internet bust and 9/11, the latter of which happened two months after its online debut. Yet over the course of four years, Hafner, who served as executive vice president, managed to grow the company from a three-person operation to 1,600 employees.

In 2003, Hafner decided it was time to move on to new ventures. “We had built this great company that millions of consumers used, but it wasn’t that fun to work there anymore because it was so big,” he says. “Also, I didn’t think the website itself was as good as it ought to be.”

Moreover, Hafner believed that he could better serve consumers by creating a website that searched a wider range of travel options and didn’t charge booking fees, as Orbitz did. He consulted with friends who had worked at Travelocity and Expedia to design a sleeker, simpler website. Two weeks after Hafner left Orbitz, Kayak was incorporated.

“We hired the best and brightest away from Orbitz and from other travel sites, and within a month, we had a fully baked team,” he recalls. “We had raised a fair amount of capital, and we had a pretty clear strategic direction. At Orbitz, it took us a year and a half to build the website; at Kayak, we built it in five months. Experience counts for a lot, I’ve come to find out.”

Today, as Kayak continues to innovate, Hafner and his team have set a goal of becoming the No. 1 travel application worldwide. To that end, they are focusing much of their efforts on applications for mobile devices, such as the iPad.

“We’re big believers in mobile,” he says. “We think mobile is going to surpass the use of PC within the next three to five years. What you can do with mobile is amazing, especially for the travel category. It doesn’t just help you find a flight, but can actually facilitate the booking, capture the receipt, put it into one itinerary, suggest places for you to go on your trip and allow you to communicate with your friends. All that is part of the travel app experience that no one’s brought together yet.”

Has Kayak achieved its goal of being the site to rule them all? Not quite, but soon, Hafner laughs.

“We’re on our way,” he says. “We’re not as comprehensive as we need to be — we don’t search everything yet. The site isn’t as personalized or as clean and simple as we’d like it to be and not enough people know about Kayak yet.

“So we still have lots to do — but that’s why it’s fun to come into work every morning.”



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