These are exciting times for air travelers, seat-pitch issues notwithstanding. There are more tools than ever for planning flights, buying tickets, getting the lowest fares – and making sure that the lowest fare remains the lowest fare.
Count Options Away in that last category. Since launching in 2013, OA’s ingenious, borrowed-from-the-financial-markets business model – allowing travelers to “lock in” a given fare by paying a small upfront cost — has won converts among business travelers, vacationers, and Millennials. And according to Options Away co-founder Heidi Brown, the best is definitely yet to come.
BHTP: Give me your elevator pitch for Options Away — for a fairly slow elevator in a fairly tall building.
Heidi Brown: Options Away is the world’s only online travel agency that lets consumers lock in the price of an airline ticket while they’re finalizing their travel plans. We’ve been recognized as one of the most innovative new companies in travel, because Options Away leverages the concepts and technologies of the financial markets and applies them to the travel industry. Here’s what I mean when I say that Options Away takes a revolutionary approach to travel planning. Customers pay a small fee – from $4 to $50 – to lock in their fare. That way, they know that if the price of the flight increases, they’ll never have to pay more than the locked-in fare. Best of all, our customers are notified if the price of their fare decreases, so they win either way. We get our flight data from the same distributors as most online travel agencies, so we can offer the same low prices. Options Away has both a B2C website and a B2B solution that we’re now starting to integrate with many of the leading global travel brands.
BHTP: Where did the idea for Options Away come from?
Heidi: Well, us – my husband Rob and I. We’re married now, but that only happened after years of flying back and forth between Germany and the U.K. We had to maintain a long-distance relationship – a very long-distance relationship — while we were establishing our careers in the financial markets. This was during the time that a lot of inexpensive small carriers were popping up in the European market, and what happened was that we found we were able to travel much more extensively as air travel became dramatically more flexible and affordable. The idea of merging something that we knew – financial options — and something that we loved – travel – just seemed like a winning idea, and when we both were ready to leave our corporate jobs and follow the path of entrepreneurship, it seemed like a natural fit.
BHTP: How did you identify the need for a service like Options Away?
Heidi: We got really tired of waking up to see that the price of the flight that we almost booked the night before had increased in price. And we kept hearing the same frustration from our friends. Years ago, there was a lot more flexibility when people booked air travel via travel agents, but we’ve really moved away from that now. Plus, the cost of canceling or changing flights has continually increased. We knew that consumers would be willing to pay to purchase flexibility and peace of mind; we just weren’t sure how much. Our options pricing engine is a sophisticated algorithm that takes a lot of pieces of data into consideration, but the end prices of the options always consider the price of the flight and how long a customer wants to hold it for.
BHTP: Who is a typical Options Away user? Are they the user you expected when you launched OA?
Heidi: Originally we thought millennials would be our target customers because they tend to be more spontaneous — and non-committal — but we’ve seen that flexibility appeals to a wide range of demographics. We were definitely surprised at the response from the “mom market,” but then we came to understand that working women were purchasing the majority of flights for their families, and generally four or five at a time. Coordinating the vacation schedules of two working parents isn’t easy, and we were providing a tool that takes the pressure away. And the price of the options is right, if you consider that a ticket increasing by hundreds of dollars multiplied four or five times can be a deal-breaker for most families.
We’re also seeing business travelers using our service a lot. Planning for a conference or a business trip can take time, what with confirming meetings and finalizing timing. Options Away gives some flexibility to business travelers who aren’t willing to pay for a fully changeable fare.
BHTP: How has Options Away been received? The early reviews seem really positive.
Heidi: Thanks! Yes, Options Away has been incredibly well-received by customers, the travel industry, and the media. I think from a consumer perspective, people are just so shocked when they realize that locking in flight prices is actually possible. “Wow, you can do that?” — we hear this a lot. The media has picked up on this theme too, mostly because there’s so much talk about how overwhelming the travel-planning process is. A study by Expedia a few years back turned up the fact that individuals visited 38 different websites when planning a vacation. And a lot of this has to do with coordinating flights and accommodations. If consumers can lock in their flights while they’re solidifying their hotel plans, it becomes a much more relaxed process. We see a lot of people holding flights while they search for properties on Airbnb and VRBO, because these business models don’t offer flexible cancellation models like most hotels do. At Options Away, we love air travel and airlines, and we see our product as something that can truly improve the booking process.
BHTP: What has the feedback been from travelers so far?
Heidi: The feedback has been extremely positive. We have customers tell us that they rarely book flights anymore without holding them first. We have an incredible amount of data, and it’s really interesting to analyze customer behavior. A lot has to do with timing; for instance, we see a lot of three-day holds on Wednesdays because people are buying themselves some time until the weekend, when they don’t feel as pressured. And often it just comes down to personality types. Many people are obsessive about planning, and some folks are lifetime procrastinators. Luckily for us, our solution caters to both!
BHTP: Just like many other sites, Options Away does not include data from all airlines. What’s behind that, and how does it affect your ability to do business and how does that affect the industry as a whole?
Heidi: Every airline has different policies on where they’ll sell tickets and how their data can be used by others. Delta is a good example of an airline that has recently taken its flights off of most third-party sites with the hope of driving more customers directly to its site. What Options Away does is new and unique, and so it’s taken some time to gather the data needed to show airlines that we actually drive bookings and thus increase yield for the airlines. We’re talking with several major airlines on the back of this data, and we expect to eventually have holds available for all airlines.
BHTP: What’s in the future for Options Away? Where is this all heading?
Heidi: Options Away launched as a B2C company with a customer-facing website, just so we could prove the viability of the models to investors and strategic partners. We put a lot of research into the construction of the pricing algorithms because we wanted to make sure that they worked close to perfectly before we launched. We’ve since transformed into a B2B organization, and so now concentrate on integrating our HOLD button on the websites of OTAs, Metasearch engines and GDS solutions. For example, we have a partnership with Sabre, one of the world’s leading GDSs, that lets more than 200,000 travel agents lock in the prices of their clients’ flights while they sort out remaining travel arrangements. We’re in discussions with credit-card companies and insurance companies and believe the opportunities for mutually successful partnerships are endless. We’re also working with a number of international companies in order to push our solution globally, and we expect to have a strong European offering later this year and an Asian offering in 2016. So we’re constantly growing, and looking for ways to expand. That’s what you need to do to be competitive in travel.
Editor’s Note: You know what goes great with a locked-in Options Away flight? Travel insurance — especially AirCare from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. Get it here.