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Booking.com, the biggest travel site you've never heard of, looks to grow brand

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Then Microsoft president Darren Huston is pictured in in Tokyo in a July 9, 2007 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Shizuo Kambayashi

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Then Microsoft president Darren Huston is pictured in in Tokyo in a July 9, 2007 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Shizuo Kambayashi

TORONTO - When Canadian Darren Huston was recruited to join the leadership team at the Priceline Group, he sheepishly had to admit he'd never heard of the biggest company in the group's corporate stable.

No, not Priceline, the travel bidding site popularized by the wacky ads starring fellow Canuck William Shatner. And not Kayak, the travel search engine that grew big enough that Google figured it should build a competitor.

The biggest company in the group is Booking.com, a challenger to the likes of Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity that's big overseas but little known on this side of the pond.

"When I took on the role of CEO for Booking.com I was on the phone at a hockey game in Vancouver ... and I'd never heard of the company," admitted Huston during a recent interview in Toronto, where he was launching an ad blitz designed to raise the travel company's profile here.

"Our brand awareness is quite low but our usage in Canada is actually quite high; we have more properties in Canada than any of our competitors and we have offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal.

"So we definitely have a presence here, but it's an underground presence."

Huston, a Hope, B.C., native, was a senior vice president with Starbucks and president of Microsoft Japan before taking on the Booking.com CEO role in the fall of 2011. Earlier this year he took over as president and CEO of the Priceline Group.

The new ad campaign he returned home to promote is a funny take on the travelling challenge of "booking right."

A minute-long TV spot titled "Booking.yeah" shows anxious travellers nervously preparing to open the doors to their rental properties —which Huston notes are all real places that can be booked through the website — while an amusingly over-the-top voiceover grows increasingly enthusiastic and uses "booking" as a euphemistic adjective.

"You got it booking right," "it doesn't get any booking better than this," and "look at the booking view, this is exactly what you booking needed" are a few of the commercial's one-liners, which some will find puerile and others will find hilarious.

Huston said the campaign was designed to make the Booking.com brand a bit more memorable, given that much of its business comes from consumers hitting the site through Google searches, not because they're familiar with the company.

"We were a blue link in Google, we were like a utility that was very effective but had no personality," he said.

"It's like being the elephant behind the tree, you're kind of hiding behind there growing not thinking anyone sees you, but over time they do see you and that's the time to come out a little bit and say, 'Hey, here's what we're all about.'"

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