On the second floor of a American Craftsman house in historic Hyde Park, Mathias Friess is trying to carve out a niche in the crowded U.S. online travel business.
WebJet, Australia's largest online travel agency, quietly launched WebJet.com in the spring with Friess as CEO. Now, the business consists of a computer server in Michigan, Friess and eight call center workers in Tampa. He hopes to expand to 20 local employees by year's end.
A veteran of airlines in Germany and Australia, Friess talked with the Times about where WebJet.com expects to make an impact, the complexities of airline ticket prices and what it's like working for an airline owned by Richard Branson.
Why did an Australian online travel agency want to jump into the United States and take on the big online travel agencies? What's your niche?
We feel the international market is not fully covered in the U.S. Until just after Sept. 11 (2001), only 4 to 5 percent of Americans had a passport. Now, it's 12 to 14 percent. Your chance of finding someone going abroad has tripled because now you need a passport to go to Canada, to go to Mexico. You have a new market of Americans who want to explore the world.
And why use WebJet instead of another website or the airlines?
Domestic flights are a commodity. It's very straightforward. On the East Coast, usually there's no need to change planes. But if you go international, there can be 50 or 60 (possible) connections. Let's say you're flying from Tampa to Rome and the summer airfare is $4,500 or $5,000.
But what if someone tells you with a six- or eight-hour layover at Dulles (International Airport), it might be $3,500. I wouldn't usually do it. But if I'm traveling with my wife and kids, I might. We're playing with (search parameters for) connection times and giving you more options.
But unlike a lot of travel websites, WebJet charges a fee, right?
Up to $25 if the airline doesn't pay us. If I have a waiter and he says, "Don't (tip) me," something's not right. If you provide something people need, they'll pay for it.
How did WebJet get to be the biggest online travel agency in Australia?
WebJet was the only one with access to all the network airlines and the low-cost carriers, the only one where you could look into all the reservations systems and put them on one screen. One-stop shopping and the ability to mix and match (airlines on the same itinerary).
How much airline ticket inventory do you sift through?
You're talking about millions and millions of airfares. You look at a (Boeing) 777 with 350 seats. There can be 348 different prices. You have people flying connections to different destinations. You have someone on a military discount or who works for IBM (with a corporate rate). Even on a New York-Tampa flight, I can pay $800 and these other guys are paying $69. It drives people crazy.
How did you chose Tampa for the U.S. business?
For 99 percent of our customers, we won't ever talk to them. But if you have a problem or get stuck somewhere, you want to call someone knowledgeable. Tampa has an American Express call center and you used to have a Continental Airlines call center with 800 people here. Disney has a call center here. You have a lot of trained people.
You started in the airline business with two very different carriers, Lufthansa and Virgin Blue, the Australian low-cost airline started by serial entrepreneur Richard Branson. What was that like?
With Lufthansa, you have a plan for the next 10 years and you do not deviate from the plan. It's a good plan — it takes you three years to make the plan. Everything is perfect. It doesn't move very fast at first, but then it really moves.
Then you have the other end of the spectrum. Richard Branson literally started (Virgin Blue) in a pub on the back of a napkin. A lot of organizations encourage you to (take risks). We made so many mistakes, then made 10 great decisions. The management said, "Let's create value for the customer … and the money will come naturally."
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.