Chief Executive Officer of Travelocity
Born c. 1971; daughter of an environmental engineering executive. Education: University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, undergraduate degree, 1983; Pembroke College, Oxford University, graduate degree.
Addresses: Office—Travelocity, 3150 Sabre Dr., Southlake, TX 76092.
Founder, A New Generation for Peace, c. 1986; financial analyst for a Citibank office in Senegal, early 1990s; management consultant and case leader, Boston Consulting Group, 1995–98; White House Fellow, senior advisor to U.S. Secretary for Labor Alexis Herman, 1998–99; Site59.com, founder, 1999, and chief executive officer, 1999–2002; Site59.com acquired by Travelocity, 2002; Travelocity, senior vice president for product strategy and distribution, 2002, chief operating officer, 2003, president and chief executive officer, 2003–.
Awards: Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, 2002.
Michelle Peluso became one of the youngest chief executive officers in American corporate history in the late 1990s as head of Site59.com, a travel website. In 2002, Site59.com was bought by a major player in the industry, Travelocity.com, and Peluso became president and CEO of Travelocity less than two years later. Her goal was to make this second-largest online travel company in the United States a much more visible presence with consumers. "There isn't really a brand out there in online travel … at least not in the way a consumer emotionally identifies with one, like a Coca-Cola or Starbucks or Ritz-Carlton," she told Investor's Business Daily writer Doug Tsuruoka.
Born in the early 1970s, Peluso grew up in upstate New York, where her father ran an environmental engineering company. Her grandparents were also entrepreneurs, as innkeepers for an establishment in the Long Island resort community of the Hamptons. As a teenager, however, Peluso's interests were focused on world peace, and she founded an organization called A New Generation for Peace that provided her with the credentials to join a media mission to the Soviet Union as an unofficial junior diplomat during the height of cold war tensions. "My parents did an incredible job in instilling in me a fierce sense of responsibility and accountability," Peluso recalled in an interview that appeared on the website Leader Network.org. "They were very clear with me, even from a young age, that because I was fortunate and had been given gifts, I owed it to myself and to society to give back and to push myself beyond what I thought my limits might be." Peluso earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business in 1993, and won one of the school's prestigious Thouron scholarships, which enabled her to earn a graduate degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Pembroke College of Oxford University. During one of her college summer breaks, she traveled to the West African nation of Senegal to work as a financial analyst for Citibank. In 1995, she formally began her career with the Boston Consulting Group, and spent three years as a management consultant and case leader.
Peluso won another sought-after honor in 1998, when she was one of 17 chosen among a thousand applicants for a White House fellowship. She spent a year as a senior advisor to U.S. Secretary for Labor Alexis Herman during the second administration of President Bill Clinton before returning to the corporate world. An associate from her Boston Consulting days contacted her about running a new travel-planning website, and she signed on to take the position as founder and chief executive officer of Site59.com. The website, which offered last minute—hence the "59," as in fifty-ninth minute of the hour—deals on airfare and hotel travel packages, launched in May of 2000. It did relatively well in the travel business until the events following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States brought air travel to a virtual standstill. Site.59 offices and the 80 employees under Peluso were based in New York City, and were unfortunately located in the downtown area not far from the World Trade Center disaster. It was a trying time for Peluso and her company, she told Leader Network.org. "We saw things we never should have seen; we couldn't find our last employee until late that evening; we desperately tried to help our stranded customers with a crippled operations capability [and] our revenues dropped by 70 percent overnight."
Six months later, Site59.com was acquired by a major player in the Web-based travel-services business, Travelocity, for $43 million. Peluso was brought on board as senior vice president for product strategy and distribution at Travelocity, and soon implemented several major changes that helped improve its numbers. She advanced to the post of chief operating officer in early 2003, and in December of that year was made president and chief executive officer, overseeing Travelocity's multiple U.S. offices and nearly 2,500 employees.
Travelocity had been launched in the earliest days of the Internet boom in 1996 as a division of Sabre Holdings Corporation, a computerized airline-reservations pioneer first developed by American Airlines and IBM back in the 1950s and later used by travel agents in the pre-Internet era. Travelocity was a pioneering site that let consumers book their own flights directly over the Internet, and it soon became the number-three e-commerce company in the United States after Amazon and eBay. It was eventually spun off into a separate entity, but then Sabre bought it back in May of 2002, not long after Peluso joined the company. By then Travelocity had lost significant market share to Expedia, which was owned by the Microsoft Corporation, and was also losing revenue to another newcomer in the online travel game called Orbitz.com.
Peluso's task was to revitalize Travelocity, and she did so by introducing a "merchant model" of business to the site, in which it would offer direct deals to consumers on hotel rooms. Her plan was to sign up 4,000 new hotels during that first year, but more than 9,000 hotels came on board as new accounts, which made her plan an immense success. Travelocity also seemed to need a more fully formed brand identity, and committed to a national advertising campaign launched in 2004 that featured a winsome globe-trotting gnome.
At Travelocity Peluso is a popular CEO, known for bringing in home-baked brownies for her co-workers. She also instituted a weekly contest for innovation or excellence, with nominations culled from workers in various departments at the company's Southlake, Texas, headquarters. Her job leaves her little time for extracurricular hobbies, but she manages to read at least one book a week. "I always read before I go to bed," she told Financial Times journalist Amy Lee. "Otherwise I would stay up thinking about Expedia."
Dallas Morning News, December 21, 2003.
Financial Times, September 2, 2004, p. 10.
Investor's Business Daily, December 8, 2003, p. A4.
New York Times, August 2, 2004.
Travel Weekly, February 25, 2002, p. 65; December 8, 2003, p. 9.
Wharton Alumni Magazine, fall 1998.
"Leader of the Month for July 2006: Michelle Peluso," Leader Network.org, http://www.leadernetwork.org/michelle_peluso_july_06.htm (May 8, 2007).