SAMANTHA BOMKAMPNEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Expedia is starting a rewards program for small business travelers who carry Chase credit cards. The world's largest online travel agency already has customers such as everyday vacationers and corporations. The new program is aimed at the crucial small-business segment. Under the program, which is being announced Wednesday, Ink for Chase cardholders will earn $100 for every ten hotel nights. That is on top of frequent traveler rewards they earn separately through an airline or hotel. The program also will allow small businesses to monitor and manage their staff travel without having to buy a system like larger businesses do, Expedia Inc. said. The agency has designed a "dashboard" view that allows owners and staff to see all trips at once. Besides its online travel agency, the Bellevue, Wash. company operates corporate travel-management business Egencia, Hotels.com and a number of other sites. In an interview with The Associated Press, Expedia Inc. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the idea for a program focused on small business came out of a customer analysis. "We saw some power-users out there â¿¿ booking 50 or 100 trips a year. Turns out they were travel arrangers for small businesses," he said. Small businesses, those with fewer than 500 employees, make up more than half of all companies in the U.S., according to the Small Business Administration. But less than one-third of all business travelers use a corporate system to book travel, according to travel industry research firm PhoCusWright. That suggested more tools were needed for businesses to track travel. Expedia's closest competitor, Orbitz Worldwide Inc., launched its own small business-focused product in March. Orbitz for Business Express offers a dedicated booking website with special rates and company travel expense reports. Expedia's Khosrowshahi said he isn't overly concerned about a slowdown in business travel growth as the economy remains shaky. That's because of the importance of meeting in person.
"In an economy like this there is the tendency to be conservative, but all the data we see suggest that there is nothing that can replace the face-to-face relationship," he said.Although the online travel industry has held up fairly well in the sluggish economy, there are signs of weakness. Expedia's bookings and revenue have grown at a much slower rate than some of its biggest competitors in recent months. Three-fourths of Expedia's revenue comes from selling hotel bookings, and that business grew by 16 percent in the second quarter. That more than offset a decline of 8 percent in airline-ticket revenue. _____ Samantha Bomkamp can be reached at www.twitter.com/SamWillTravel