How to make a web travel site really sticky

christopher Roberts has had huge success as the project manger of - what is the secret of his success?

christopher Roberts has had huge success as the project manger of - what is the secret of his success?

Christopher Roberts was put in charge of creating a UK version of a popular US online travel agency

When Microsoft launched the UK version of its online travel agency in November 1998, there were doubts over how many consumers would use the Internet to book flights and holidays, writes Isabel Choat. Fifteen months on those doubts have proved unfounded - at least as far as is concerned.

Until it cancelled its registration requirement a month ago the site had 600,000 registered users: in January it received three million page impressions. In addition, it picked up two awards for Best Travel Site in 1999 from research analyst Forrester and marketing magazine New Media Age.

Creating a UK version of the original American site meant more than simply changing the dollar signs to pounds. In fact it took Christopher Roberts, project manager of the UK launch, and his colleagues, a year to get the site up and running. is a fully bookable online travel agency offering all the services you would expect in a high street agency. For Roberts the biggest challenge was integrating the negotiated airline fares available in Britain into the Expedia flight booking engine.

He explains, "There are big differences in the US and UK travel markets. The US market is dominated by published fares (where the airline sets the price) which are available from centralised computer reservation systems. But in the UK, negotiated airline fares (where the travel agent sets the price) account for a large portion of leisure bookings. So we partnered with a UK travel agency [Thomas Cook] so that we could integrate fares from its databases into our booking engine."

The most important component of the site - which runs on Web server IIS 4.0 and uses SQL 7.0 as its database server - is the booking engine. It supports a whole range of services such as airline ticket booking and hotel and car reservations. It was written in C++ as a single piece of code and designed to display pages in any language.

"The US booking engine code was modified so that it could be used in the UK and elsewhere," says Roberts.

However, the rest of the site, such as pages displaying destination information, was built in Active Server Pages from scratch by the development team in the UK.

curriculum vitae

Name: Christopher Roberts

Age: 30

Job title: program manager

Qualifications: BSc in mechanical engineering from Stanford University

IT skills: Smalltalk, C, C++, Visual Basic, HTML, DHTML, ASP

Favourite book: Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Roberts on Roberts: dedicated, optimistic, amiable

E is for excellence

Next week: Nicola Roderick, project manager of

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