Internet travel company still in its teens

“We have the autonomy of an independent company combined with the technology of a Microsoft company,” says Mark Cooper, senior HR consultant of on-line travel agent Expedia.

This probably sounds like a dream ticket in HR terms – after all, employees are part of a company that is owned by the richest man in the world (plus they all have share options) and, despite Microsoft’s recent problems, since its launch in 1996 in the US and 1998 in the UK, Expedia has managed to become synonymous with on-line travel and claims it is the fastest growing web site on the Internet.

For Cooper though, his work is only just beginning. “I’d describe the company as being in its teens at the moment,” he says. “Next we want to set-up the business infrastructure, which means appointing an HR manager and a finance manager.”

Expedia is based in the same building as another Microsoft company, the Microsoft Network (MSN), an In- ternet service provider and portal. It began life as a channel on MSN and was spun-off on its own two years ago. However, it’s still based in the same building as MSN in Shaftesbury Avenue. “There’s a real buzz in the office and there’s a lot of synergy with the MSN team.”

Expedia has 11 staff and average age is late 20s, says Cooper, with job functions including web site developers and technicians, sales and marketing staff, “content supervisors” and “localisation specialists”. The latter are typical of the new roles found in Internet-only businesses. Content supervisors are mainly technical people who oversee what is put on the site, and localisation specialists ensure the site has the right feel for a UK audience. The mother site is in the US and there are similar roles at its German and Canadian offices.

Key issues for Cooper and managing director James Vaile are hiring the right staff to cope with the projected growth, and retention, because as a young, dynamic workforce they are likely to move on quickly.

“It is also a constant challenge trying to work out how to award employees appropriately and discovering new ways of maintaining a really good team spirit.”

Cooper anticipates the workforce could rise to 40 within the next 12 months. Many of these new people will have travel industry experience, as part of the business plan is to enhance its links with tour operators and travel companies.

Although technology is in constant use, he doesn’t believe all HR functions should be automated and wants to maintain close contacts with the workforce, or ensure a “high touch” factor, as he prefers to call it.

Much of the administrative side of HR is increasingly dependent on technology for head count tracking, salaries, HR database, performance reviews, salary and bonus planning and in the US there is a stock system. Expedia has several Web-based information tools like the employee handbook, standard forms and training schedules for courses that staff can sign up to. “We maximise the use of the company’s Intranet for this kind of thing,” says Cooper.

When it comes to recruiting, Cooper has had best results from on-line methods – he recently ran two on-line recruitment campaigns. And MSN.co.uk has a permanent recruitment site. “We tried using traditional methods for technical and business development personnel but they were not very effective,” he says. “On-line recruitment campaigns provided the best results.”

Expedia’s company culture has been influenced by that of Microsoft, says Cooper, since it was developed using Microsoft’s businesses processes, but he’s grateful he has been given the space to allow it to develop its own personality. “We are trying to get the business to grow itself and we are trying to give people the freedom to develop.”

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