For Minnesotan Mike Ewing, newly minted as general manager of the Independent Traveler, the travel website business based at the Princeton South Corporate Center in Ewing, business has been a lifestyle as long as he can remember. His father worked for Target and then for Target’s creator, Dayton-Hudson, and his mother worked in management on either end of being a special education teacher. “I’ve always loved business,” he says. “Around the dinner table we talked about how businesses worked — small businesses and large businesses.”
The Independent Traveler is a unique story in its own right. Founded in 1990 the service was hosted on AOL before becoming its own independent website in the early days of the World Wide Web. Independent Traveler outlasted thousands of companies that came and went during the first Internet Bubble of 1999-2000. Under the direction of founder Kathleen Tucker, it also outlasted most of the early Internet companies such as Prodigy and Compuserve, which were competitors to AOL. Acquired as a subsidiary of the Massachusetts-based TripAdvisor Inc. in 2007, the Independent Traveler continued to thrive in central New Jersey.
With the retirement of Tucker in May of this year, Ewing takes the reins of a company operating in a very different era than the one in which it was founded.
“Independent Traveler is great opportunity,” he says. “It has the benefit of having a great history, and they have a large, successful parent in TripAdvisor that has tremendous resources and scale behind it.”
Ewing is responsible for the company’s three online travel sites, which reach 6 million travelers each month:
Cruisecritic.com provides resources for planning cruise vacations to its now 5 million monthly site visitors, and familyvacationcritic.com has similar resources that target planning vacations with children, based on their ages and the family’s interests. Independenttraveler.com calls itself “a comprehensive online travel guide for a community of travelers who enjoy the fun of planning their own trips and the adventure of independent travel.” The site includes travel deals, tips, message boards, trip reports, and destination-specific planning resources.
Ewing sees lots of opportunity ahead for his new company, and cites two areas he will be tackling. The first is “how we make more people aware of our sites, contents, and the rich expertise available to them when thinking of planning their next vacations.”
Also important, Ewing continues, is developing the user experience and websites “to be as mobile friendly as possible and as user friendly as possible” so that people can “find the information they need to plan the next best vacation, whether cruise, family, multigenerational, or independent travel that is off the beaten path.”
The challenge is to make each site usable by a diverse population. “People have very different needs depending on what kind of vacation they want to have,” he says. For cruise vacations, the timing of when they can go may vary as well as what they are interested in seeing; and if they want to go with family, they may need a specific type of ship and itinerary. The different sites must make all the potential options clear and provide as much information as they can on each one, including reviews by other travelers and by travel professionals that make it easier to narrow the options and make a choice.
While working to expand recognition and improve site usability, the company will be focusing, Ewing says, on “how we allocate resources and expertise so that we get the best return on those investments and allocations.”
The business employs about 70 people, the vast majority in Ewing, with some remote employees and others in the United Kingdom and Sydney, Australia. An editorial group of seven or eight is focused on developing editorial content in the New Jersey office and several more people work internationally. Working largely like a newsroom, people are assigned a beat, like river cruising, a specific destination or geography, or cruise deals, and they also do features on content areas of interest to the site’s readers, for example, a new ship coming out.
As far as the state of the business, Ewing says, “We have been growing for the history of the company, we continue to grow, and we do so profitably.” But, he adds, “we hope to be able to bring better information to our customers that not only compels them to come back again and again but does so in a way that our advertising partners are willing to continue to partner with us, and spend their dollars to be on the website,” he says.
As an online media company, revenue comes from cruise and travel-related advertising on the three sites. Melissa Paloti, director of product development, explains the two major sources of ad revenue: banner ads, where advertisers pay per thousand viewings; and links, buttons, and ads where the user takes an action and the advertiser pays per click.
The company’s history started when Kathleen Tucker proposed creating AOL’s first travel forum. The fast growing and then innovative online media company accepted, and she founded her company in 1990, launching the Independent Traveler as a place for travelers from all over the world to share travel experiences and advice.
After graduating from Stanford in 1981, she had been a consultant working on the CompuServe account, doing competitive analysis and business strategy. From there she went to online services at the San Francisco Chronicle and then to a small California office of AOL.
Tucker moved to Princeton in 1993 with her husband, who was an administrator at Princeton Day School, and brought her business with her. The same year, the company launched its own site on the World Wide Web apart from AOL. In 1996 she hired her first full-time employee.
Early on, the focus of the business was sharing travel experiences. Contributors could write trip reports or participate in chats to exchange first-hand information, and Tucker’s staff would facilitate online participation and write tips and summaries.
Through that forum a community of travelers developed, including backpackers and people looking for off-the-beaten-path trips. “Kathleen saw this as an opportunity to build on that and create a full resource for people looking for travel information,” Paloti says.
Although Independent Traveler is not as in-depth and detailed as a travel guidebook, Paloti says, “What you are going to get is practical advice on planning and maybe inspiration as well.”
In 2003, when Paloti joined Cruise Critic, the company had about a dozen employees. Paloti, who studied journalism at Syracuse University and later was introduced to online media while working at a website for teenagers that covered lifestyle, beauty, sports, and video games, got her job at the Independent Traveler after she happened to take a cruise vacation. She wrote a funny cover letter to Kathleen Tucker, which she says probably evoked a chuckle, and it got her foot in the door.
Paloti started out on the editorial side and was managing editor for several years, but looking for some new challenges, she jumped at the opportunity to move into a new role. Paloti’s department focuses on developing the website and the website experience — mostly for Cruise Critic, the largest of the three sites, but also for the other two. Sitting under product development is the community team, which is responsible for moderating the message boards and managing (but not editing) all the review content received from users. The third group comprises the art designers, who do web design for the sites.
Initially the Independent Traveler was the largest website in terms of number of visitors, but after 9/11, cruising got more popular because it was cheap and close to home. “Cruise companies were able to move their ships to where the demand was and to have options closer to home so people didn’t have to fly to take a vacation,” Paloti recalls. “We were able to grow the business quickly by following the trends in the market.”
To fuel this growth, Paloti says, “we brought on editors and other staff to layer in the sections important to us: reviews, deals, articles, and the community.” Search functions on the site are supported by self-generated data as well as data from partners like Expedia and travel agencies.
In 2007 TripAdvisor acquired the Independent Traveler. According to a notice in the Boston Herald, TripAdvisor’s founder and CEO Stephen Kaufer said of the purchase: “This acquisition is a great addition to our portfolio of leading travel communities and content sites and gives us a strong foothold in the $32 billion cruise market.”
Because the Independent Traveler is a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Ewing says, it has access to the parent company’s tremendous expertise in areas like search engine marketing and optimization. “We can learn from what they are doing and apply it to our business,” he says. “Meanwhile we can remain independent and aggressively focus on the things most important to us and our brands.”
Tucker, who was unavailable for an interview, developed Family Vacation Critic in 2009, Paloti says, because she was a mom who loved to travel with her family. “She realized there were not many resources to exchange information and advice with other like-minded individuals,” Paloti says.
Looking at the competitive field, Paloti says that “no one company is doing the same thing we’re doing at the same scale.” She elaborates in an E-mail: “Our focus is less on who’s doing what and more on what we do well — delivering quality content and tools that help each traveler have a great vacation. That will continue to be our focus, and we believe that focus helps shape our position in the marketplace.”
Over time, the business has had to adapt both to changes in technology and in the general travel industry. One example of both is the increasing complexity of shopping for a cruise, requiring the company to “continue to look for new ways to break that information down for people,” Paloti says. To accommodate the increasingly international focus of cruising, the company has offices in the U.K. and Australia.
Another challenge has been the organization’s rapid growth and increasingly larger workforce. “That’s been a big change, culturally, though we are still a quite close-knit bunch,” Paloti writes.
Because the company does its business online, it faces technical challenges, Paloti writes, “such as developing great experiences for mobile users who access our sites on tablets and/or phones.”
A final challenge “is having many more great ideas than we have resources to immediately execute on those ideas. There is a great entrepreneurial spirit at this company, and it’s our intention to foster that, even when we have to make tough choices about what we can and cannot spend time on or invest in.”
The company is also affected by bumps and changes in the travel industry in general, and the cruise business in specific. One example was the recession of 2008. Paloti says that although the cruise industry rebounds fairly quickly because it is a good value option for people, a faltering economy affects how many new ships are coming to market (which inject new excitement into the industry); the lag time is about two years to build a new ship.
Recently the cruise industry has also been seeing a big boom in the launching of river ships, and the company is scrambling to cover this in ways that work well for its users. Another challenge is that the cruise industry is international, and Paloti estimates that 90 percent of the industry is represented on Cruise Critic, which may not cover lines that market exclusively to citizens of one country.
When Mike Ewing was growing up in Minnetonka, Minnesota, he was also influenced by his mother’s work managing an overeater’s nonprofit group and later the nitty-gritty details of events for organizations, associations, and nonprofits.
Interested in politics and government, he decided to attend American University in Washington, DC. “I wanted Washington to be my campus,” he recalls. While living and breathing politics there, he learned what he liked and what he didn’t. In his job working for Union Pacific’s political action committee, for example, he realized he did not like the role money played in politics.
In coaching a Special Olympics team during college, he saw the upside. “What I really fell in love with was the power of passion and mission,” he says. “I get so much reward being involved in a mission-based organization — it’s all about the impact you have on people’s lives.”
In 1990, after finishing his degree in political science and communications, he was hired by Special Olympics International to do public relations for the organization’s 25th anniversary. In “major and minor cities,” he would set up shop at local events that allowed him to tell the story of the Special Olympics, for example, the SuperFest street fair in Pasadena that leads up to the Super Bowl.
Ewing was hired in 1993 as an account manager at a small advertising and fundraising agency, Target Marketing (now called Amergent), in the Boston area. Much of Target Marketing’s fundraising for its clients used direct mail. From this Ewing says he learned a lot about measured marketing — how to make the choices that effectively use scarce resources and invested dollars to raise the most money possible using direct mail. “In the case of a nonprofit, every dollar matters an awful lot, and they are very prudent about the decisions they make,” he says. “When I was working for them, I had to be thoughtful about risk-where to put dollars so they would get the best return on the fundraising effort for the benefit of the mission.”
In 1996 Ewing joined Integral Resources in Boston as director of client services. Although the small company’s activities were similar to those of Target Marketing, it also offered new challenges. “It was an opportunity to have a bigger impact, take on more responsibility, and continue to learn new things,” he says, noting that Integral used some additional techniques to raise money, like telemarketing. It also offered new clients in the realm of progressive politics.
In 1998 Ewing became account director and relationship manager at Epsilon Data Management. Ewing was tasked with delivering marketing programs and analytics to clients in the nonprofit space, but he also had his first exposure to clients outside of nonprofits: in membership organizations and the medical and pharmaceutical spaces. “Our job in that environment was to use data to help make decisions,” he says, noting that Epsilon was one of the first big commercial users of databases to support business.
During his tenure at Epsilon, technology was changing rapidly. As Y2K approached, many businesses were forced to upgrade their technology and speeds of cycles was getting faster. Whereas in 1998, most industrial or commercial-scale databases lived on large, centrally managed systems and in data warehouses, just a few years later the same amount of computing was possible on a desktop. While Ewing was at Epsilon, which he left in early 2003, the Internet was still a small add-on to direct mail and other marketing approaches.
Ewing says that his 10 years of experience in client services and consulting allowed him to “take a broad set of experiences working for a variety of types of clients and start to leverage that for one client.” So he went to work as vice president of customer relationship marketing for Monster.com where, he says, “it was a chance to join the home team — a team working on a really exciting problem — and be part of that.”
Back when Ewing was looking for his first job, the process involved waiting for the Sunday paper to come out, thumbing through 60-70 pages of want ads, circling those that looked interesting, and then submitting a resume. Monster stepped in on the cusp of the huge transition to Internet marketing and advertising. “Monster came on as the first real global solution for help wanted,” Ewing says. “It rapidly made that much easier for companies to find talent and people to find a job that suits them.” The online approach also reduced costs for both employers and job seekers.
In 2004 Ewing joined Vistaprint as vice president of North American acquisition marketing, where his primary responsibility was to drive small business into Vistaprint’s websites so that they would buy the company’s print and other products. The primary tactic was search engine marketing, whereby Vistaprint would pay to appear on a Google search list whenever a search uses a string of key words relevant to Vistaprint. Another approach was affiliate marketing, whereby a publisher of Internet content seeks out ads contextually related to that content and earns a share of the revenue when people click on an ad. He also used online display banners, E-mail, and magazine ads and inserts, pretty much, Ewing says, “anywhere we could spend advertising dollars to put forth the Vistaprint message.”
Vistaprint gave Ewing the opportunity to be part of a “high-moving, fast-paced business” that was “growing very rapidly.” He says, “I had a chance to learn about the different techniques, but mostly continued to apply measured marketing discipline.”
The opportunity included three years in Sydney, Australia, developing a business for Vistraprint in Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan. “I learned lot about how to build a business — to take one that is almost nothing to one that has great growth and nice profit potential,” he says.
After returning stateside in 2012, Ewing joined LogMeIn, a “software as a service” company that provides remote connectivity, collaboration, and support solutions for businesses and consumers. Its join.me product allows users in two different places to share screens and conduct online meetings. “It’s a great meeting environment in which you can share information or collaborate with a whiteboard,” Ewing says.
Ewing left LogMeIn in late 2013 to join a startup, OYO Sportstoys, as a favor to a couple of friends. OYO made buildable Lego-sized minifigures, licensed by national sports leagues, “that carry the likeness of your favorite professional athlete.” Ewing, who came in as the president of e-commerce and chief marketing officer says of OYO, “I fell in love with it because I loved the product and kids loved the product.” (He and his wife have three sons, 15, 13, and 11.)
He saw his new position as “an opportunity to be part of something new and use my skills as a driver of volume to websites and my online marketing capabilities.”
But after a year or so the Independent Traveler opportunity knocked on his door. “Ultimately what I missed in that environment,” Ewing says, “was the great opportunity that comes with scale, with being in a larger business.”
The Independent Traveler, 200 Princeton South Corporate Center, Suite 330, Ewing 08628, 609-583-0000, www.independenttraveler.com.