Couple’s journey charted through online travel business

The path between INSEAD and Expedia in the U.S. was well trodden for a few years around the turn of the century.

Beth Birnbaum and Barney HarfordBarney Harford, MBA’98D, was with the online travel company from 1999 to 2006, and enticed five of his former classmates to join the firm with him in Seattle.

Not quite satisfied with that success, he also encouraged Beth Birnbaum, MBA’03J, to apply to Expedia, a recruitment effort that delivered a colleague . . . and a wife.

Barney, originally from the U.K., joined Expedia straight from INSEAD and in his early years there he brought in Dermot Halpin, Diarmuid Russell, Adriano Meloni, David Roche and Arthur Hoffman, all of whom were from his section at the school, except for David, who was in the same year but in a different section.

While the recruitment reflected the skills of his classmates, it is also witness to the deep professional and personal relationships that are developed during the intense MBA year at INSEAD.

The connection between the two future marital partners came about rather differently.

“I was working on an Industry and Competitive Analysis (ICA) project in a class with Prof. Karel Cool,” explains Beth, an American who had worked in online travel before coming to INSEAD. “The project was related to online travel, and by this time Barney was at Expedia headquarters, so Karel suggested that I contact him.”

At the outset of their conversation, Barney assumed that with Beth he would be dealing with a student with little or no experience directly in online travel.

“Pretty early in our conversation it became clear she had much more background in the field and certainly was more knowledgeable than I would have expected from a student,” Barney says. “I realised pretty quickly that I had better start being a little careful with my comments.”

A couple months later the two met up at the INSEAD Summer Ball, with Barney back for his five-year reunion and Beth attending in her graduating year. Barney got busy chatting up Expedia to her and encouraging her to apply, which she did successfully.

If anyone, Prof. Karel Cool had the greatest hand in connecting them and it’s a link that has endured well past the pair’s INSEAD days.

“I have worked a fair bit with Karel, including inviting him over to the U.S. to give lectures to people at Expedia,” Barney says. “More recently I helped Karel develop a case on online travel, and I regularly join him in teaching the case.”

The INSEAD experience, in the meantime, became even more of a family affair, after Barney’s sister Chloe arrived to study at the school.

“I suspect my experience at INSEAD helped her in her decision to go there,” he recalls. Chloe now lives in Seattle, and in keeping with the family attraction to online business, works at online real estate firm Zillow.

For Barney and Beth, who were married in 2009, they both eventually moved on from Expedia. Barney left the company in 2006 and spent two years travelling, advising early stage companies (including Kayak, RealSelf, Orange Hotel Group and LiquidPlanner) and searching out adventures. While at Expedia, he had taken on a number of positions, including serving as President of Expedia Asia Pacific from 2004 to 2006, during which time he headed up the company’s expansion into China, Japan and Australia.

In 2009 he joined Orbitz Worldwide, a Chicago-based online travel firm, where he is currently chief executive officer.

Beth stayed at Expedia until 2011, when she left to join Chicago-based GrubHub, a mobile and online food-ordering company that connects diners and takeout restaurants. At GrubHub she is senior vice-president, product. In her eight years with Expedia, she held various leadership roles with the firm, among them vice-president of connectivity and product management.

“GrubHub was an opportunity for me to move to Chicago in a field that was commensurate with my background,” she explains. And it brought the couple together geographically again. Beth and Barney now have two young children. Beth Barney and kids

For anyone looking over the numbers, it is the case that for their first two years of marriage they were not just half a continent apart, Beth in Seattle and Barney in Chicago, but their employers were also competitors.

As for the professional challenges, “as it happened, I was working in a part of Expedia’s business that did not exist over at Orbitz, so there were minimal competitive concerns,” Beth notes.

Professionally, there promises to be some interesting days ahead for Barney. In a case of events coming full circle, in February Expedia announced it was acquiring Orbitz Worldwide and the deal was formerly approved by shareholders in May. The acquisition still requires regulatory approval.

“Within a few months of me joining Orbitz Worldwide, the share price hit a low of $1.20,” Barney explains. “Expedia has now agreed to acquire the company for $12 a share.”

Both Beth and Barney share some similar reasons in their decisions to attend INSEAD.

“I had a former colleague who had been and had talked to me about the school, so that started my interest,” Beth explains. “I became pretty keen on INSEAD. The things that attracted me were all the things that make INSEAD unique. It was international, diverse and the student body was older than that at schools in the U.S. And there was the one-year degree.”

“For me INSEAD was a great fit,” Barney recalls.  “I had done a fair bit of work across Europe and had lived in France, so it made sense. Also the school’s diverse population was appealing.”

As for the INSEAD experience, Barney says he enjoys the memories of living and studying “in the middle of a forest.”

“It was great to work and study with people from so many places around the world with so many different backgrounds,” he adds.

Beth welcomed the new perspectives she got from studying at INSEAD.

“It opened my mind to ideas that I would never have encountered,” she says, adding that runs in the forest are fond memories as well.

Then Barney offers an overview of one of the benefits of being an INSEAD graduate.

“While we may not have the largest number of U.S. alumni compared to U.S. schools, when you are abroad you realise the great global reach of the alumni and the shared INSEAD experience,” he explains. “I saw that first-hand when I was living and working in Beijing. You know that wherever you travel in the world, there is going to be a fun group of INSEAD people.”

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