Travel Q&A: Five questions with Kayak CEO Steve Hafner

— -- Launched in 2004,* is one of the most popular online travel search engines, with a unique business model in which the site collects results from more than 140 other sites and steers consumers directly to the vendor's site to book and purchase the selected flight, hotel, cruise or rental car. Last year, Kayak added to its portfolio by buying former rival

In a recent conversation, Kayak CEO Steve Hafner predicted that the online travel industry will undergo further consolidation as "redundancies" are eliminated during the economic downturn. A member of the start-up team that founded Orbitz, Hafner also spoke about the importance of reading customer e-mails, being true to your inner-nerd and running a lean shop.

Q: What changes can we expect in your industry in the coming years?

A lot of consolidation actually. In tough economic times...when (companies) can't grow revenue and you still have pressure to grow and maintain profitability, they'll take a hard look at cost. You'll see staff reductions. A little bit of (mergers and acquisitions) ... some consolidation as people take out redundancies. You might see a bit of tweak to their business model. On the airline side, that means (incorporating) more of (the airlines') a la carte pricing. On the hotel and car side, same thing.

Q: Tell us about some changes in the works to improve or expand your current products and services?

We're going to work on making our core website better, which is only about four pages — the home page and three result pages. We're going to expand to more markets. We have 11 markets, including the USA, and you'll see us launching more. We'll have a few more before the end of the year. We're looking at a couple more European countries...and launching in China.

We have new features every week, believe it or not. The last one we added, which is in beta, is a collaboration feature. If you go to any of the search result pages, you'll see a link on the top of the page that says "share" or "collaborate." It's the first time (in which) any travel company has allowed multiple people to look at your search results. This allows you to look at flights or hotels and compare in real time with friends. If you pin a flight or hotel, the hotel shows up on the top of your friends' search results. It's pretty cool.

Q: What do you hear from travelers about your products/services?

Paul English, our co-founder, and I read every single piece of e-mail that come in to the company. Thankfully, it's not a tremendous amount, about 1,000 a day ... a small amount when considering that a couple million visit the website every day. We make sure everyone gets a personalized response and we take suggestions to heart. The collaboration feature is an example (of) something that people have asked for, and we said 'well, let's go with it.'"

People love (our website's) comprehensiveness and they love the power of the filter on the left-hand side. But for the new user, it's a bit overwhelming. The question I get a lot is 'how do I do this?' or 'wouldn't it be great to do this?' And the answer usually is we already do that. Our biggest challenge is to take all the things on the website and make it easily digestible to the average consumer. If grandma can't use our website, then it's too complicated.

Q: Tell us one thing about your company or product that most people don't know.

I think the biggest surprise to people is how few employees we have relative to the size of the company. To have 2 million people come to the website every day, and we have only 75 employees. That's pretty remarkable.

And how much we like to travel. We're just a bunch of nerds who love to travel and we're building a travel website we'd like to use. Somehow that's seems to be catching on with consumers.

Q: What's your biggest gripe when you travel for business?

Security lines. Having to wait in line and showing up two hours early. And security could be 10 minutes or an hour and a half. It's really added a lot of hassles to the trip. I belong to Clear (a registered traveler membership company), but my daughters don't. And the time I want to clear security the fastest is when I'm traveling with my family.

*Kayak is a business partner of USA Today