Think Travel with Google – video conference clips [video]

I stumbled upon these two videos uploaded to YouTube over the last few days from a travel/internet conference in South America “Think Travel with Google”.  The first has a speaker, Lothaire Ruellan from Google discussing analytics and data for travel, the second on where Google fits into travel by the CEO of The Futures Agency.  Really interesting viewpoints and information.

1. Lothaire Ruellan discussing Google analytics with a slant on RailEurope

2. Gerd Leonhard discussing where travel fits into the Google world

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Room 77 grabs $30M investment from Expedia

room77_logo_rgbHotel metasearch engine Room 77 announced last night that it has closed $30.3 million in Series C financing with participation from a brand new investor Expedia.  The company’s existing investors also participated, including Sutter Hill Ventures, General Catalyst Partners, Concur Technologies, Felicis Ventures as well as Expedia’s founder Rich Barton, former Expedia CEO Erik Blachford and Spencer Rascoff, CEO of Zillow.  This brings Room 77’s total capital raised to $43.8 million.

As most readers will know, I love the great work that the team behind Room 77 are doing – they are fundamentally challenging the way consumers search and shop for hotels and instantly search hundreds of travel sites at once to find the best hotel at the best price.  The company combine this with some great technology to enable a unique shopping experience (see previous posts here).  Since launching its hotel metasearch platform a year ago, Room 77 bookings and revenue have accelerated dramatically.  In the past nine months alone, the company has driven hundreds of thousands of room nights through its marketplace, recording significant month-over-month growth.

By combining fast and comprehensive search technology with unprecedented service, Room 77 claim they are proving it helps users save time and money whilst getting them a great room.  Based on internal analysis of more than five million hotel searches, Room 77 uncovered at least one lower price for travellers in two out of three searches, averaging $72 per stay.  The real asset to me is Room 77’s “Room Concierge” service, which leverages the company’s proprietary room data, such as blueprints and simulated RoomViewSM technology, to help travellers get in a great room when they book through Room 77.

Mobile Room 77

“We believe metasearch is an increasingly important model and complementary to our travel transaction businesses,” said Dara Khosrowshahi, Expedia, Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer. “The level of innovation and depth of content at Room 77 excites us about its future role in this important customer acquisition channel.”

COO of  Room 77 Kevin Fliess commented: “Room 77 is obsessed with helping travellers uncover the best hotel deal anywhere in one fast and easy search.  Our investors recognize the inherent value of metasearch and the importance of rapid innovation in this category, and we’re delighted to welcome Expedia, Inc. to this esteemed group. As recent events in this category demonstrate, hotel metasearch represents a massive market and huge global opportunity. This round will only help Room 77 grow our marketplace to help travellers around the world find great hotel deals which, in turn, drive incremental business and revenue to our hotel and travel agency partners.”

Room 77 expects to use the additional capital to grow its team with top talent; expand into new markets; increase investment in product; engineering and room-level content; and step up its marketing efforts to build a world-class brand.

When I first heard the news I immediately thought that Expedia were on the way to buying the company, or more to the point, buying the technology that Room 77 have built their business on, after all  their search is far superior.  But I was somewhat pleased to read that Expedia do not hold a majority stake in Room 77 and the company is retained by founder Brad Gerstner.  Congratulations Room 77 – we look forward to seeing what 2013 brings!

As Google Hotel Finder ramps up, what do consumers think functionally?

Google Hotel Finder has been on most of our lips over the last twelve months, as we eagerly (and in some cases, nervously) await to see just how adoption of Google’s latest foray into travel goes.  This week brings about Google’s next phase of the project, opening Google Hotel Finder up to other markets outside of the US.  You can now visit your Google homepage and append /hotels to be taken right into the tool and start searching for hotels all over the world.  Exciting move.

But how will we as an industry measure the success of Google?  Of course, we will look at volumes of unique visits, searches and booking conversions, but what about pure usability?  What do end consumers think of the search process and is it what they have been looking for to rival the service provided by online travel agencies?  Let’s take a look at the tool in more detail.

So first up, we have the welcome page.  A nice idea from Google, and not something you’ll find in traditional online travel websites or chain brand.com websites.  Of course, it’s less needed in the later, but Google choose to start with a welcome and explanation of the tool because it’s new and because they are potentially collating a lot of results – the emphasis is on the power of their search and trying to understand travellers current search pain points.

There are four boxes on the left hand side detailing how you could use the tool.  Firstly, and probably the best part of the tool, is the ability to interact with the search results, displayed on a Google Map to be very specific about your hotel location draw any shaped area to automatically filter results.  Secondly, there is a location search designed so you can look at common tourist areas.  Thirdly, users are able to create a short-list of hotels, particularly useful as Google Hotel Finder will aim to return vast numbers of results and lastly, highlighting that you are able to compare hotel results to get the best value for money.

Then come the results….

For the purposes of this post, I’ve based my search on London.  Interestingly, when I start out with Google Hotel Finder, I’m not asked for any search criteria, only my destination.  This is really unusual in the online search world, but it actually works very well.  Google then take me to their map display, showing pinpoints of all the hotels in the given city, with more detailed hotel descriptions and options listed in a scrollable side panel to the left.  This is working on a principle that we will show the user every possibility, then given them to the chance to strip back the results to exactly what they want.  First of all, you are automatically prompted to enter a date and duration on the calendar.

Each time you apply a search criteria / filter, the results map and hotel listing dynamically update, and we begin to see a customised display.

Next comes the clever bit, and my favourite feature of Google Hotel Finder.  Here is the chance to set a search radius.  The user is no longer governed to search in or around a or attraction, but can actually draw an area over the map results to specifically ask Google to only recommend hotels in that geographic area. You are also not restricted to use a box of circle, you can draw any shape at all to cover any area of the city you wish to view, as shown below.

I really think this a great feature of the tool, especially for large cities that have numerous hotels.  No longer does a traveller have to be price or brand lead.  Sure, many OTA’s and even brand websites utilise map displays, but all tend to rely on a very generic “I want to be in New York” logic rather than being able to specify your very own, unique location demands.

Next, you are able to really start homing in on your perfect hotel by applying a range of filters and criteria, from filtering results by price, star rating (both ascending and descending  user rating, amenities and ‘price compared to usual’.

At any point in the process, you can browse for hotels via the detailed list on the left hand side.  Clicking on  a given hotel will replace your map display with a detailed view of the chosen hotel where you can start to look at photos, general information about the hotel and look at Google’s user-generated content.  You can also start adding hotels to a favourites list so you can flick between properties you are trying to choose between.

In all of my searches, when I try to book, I have no alternative to facilitate my booking with Booking.com and certainly outside the US, I’ve struggled to find over OTA’s where I’m directed to make the booking.  Most hotels also have their brand.com website listed, but a lot of the independent hotels out there are missing this information, so here’s out first action point for the smaller hotels out there.

In fact, a lot of people complain about multinational hotel websites (TripAdvisor springs to mind) saying they can’t get access to their own hotels content or update details.  Google Hotel Finder actually make it very clear how you can do this and ways to improve and add your content – for any hoteliers reading this post, I’d really urge you to take a look at this early and make sure your details are up to date.

This tool really was made for complex city searches… when I tried to plan a trip to New York, I entered the same search on Google Hotel Finder, Booking.com and Expedia – guess which was best to use?

So, functionally as a search tool, I think Google Hotel Finder ticks a lot of the boxes. I’ve been very impressed with the content and usability of the website, especially the map shopping, and for this reason I think it will be a success.  Quite how quickly, I’m not sure as there are lots of ‘quirks’ that need to be ironed out, but this will come in time. One thing’s for sure – Google want to succeed in travel and have invested heavily to do so.  This is one piece of the jigsaw, and we, the hotel community would be naive to close out eyes to it.  Whether we are hoteliers, working in distribution or we are online sellers of hotels, a brand new, free tool like this will have implications for us all.  I include in this statement the word ‘sellers’.  What’s to say that Travel Management Companies don’t start sourcing best available rates with Google Hotel Finder?  Or high street travel agencies and hotel booking agencies?  In fact, at a recent HBAA Technology conference, this notion was being explored.   This tool really does have a proof point for all sectors.  As such, I’ll be writing more posts on Google Hotel Finder shortly, looking at the commercial aspects of the tool and seeing how hotel chains, independents and third-party companies can, and are working with Google in this intriguing new platform.

I’d love to hear what you think of the tool, the project and how you think it will impact the hospitality industry.  Please do leave a comment.  Thanks for listening.

Hipmunk launches new hotel search

This is why I love Hipmunk.  As you probably know, I’ve blogged about this company several times in the past, and their latest product enhancements are well worth a mention again today.  This time, they have introduced location-based searches.  We are not talking enter the city or airport and off we go – we are talking detailed locations and neighbourhoods e.g. “I want to be in the shopping district” or “I don’t want to be near the nightlife areas”.  Essentially users can now filter hotel results by traveler type and review curated neighbourhood guides to find the best hotels in the best neighbourhoods for their unique interests.  Here’s Hipmunk’s positioning video:

Clever isn’t it?  What I like is that Hipmunk once again try to solve a problem that travellers trying to find hotel accommodation on numerous OTA websites struggle with time and time again – and this one’s pretty hard to get right.

For those who’ve not read my previous posts, Hipmunk is an online travel website using new technologies and search approaches to offer various travel options.  They created “Agony” search and sort options, claiming to ease the pain of searching for and booking flights using their rather different approach to the normal OTA formats.  Similarly, and as I’ve blogged about before, Hipmunk also have an “Ecstasy” sort to find the best hotels and home rentals.

To add some context to the latest announcement, Hipmunk announced its new hotel search product which now helps match travellers to the best hotel in the ideal neighbourhood or area for their specific interests and provides detailed neighborhood guides and local information making it easier for travelers to imagine staying in a given location.  Hipmunk’s new tailored hotels product will not only give travellers more context into booking their stay, it will also allow users to make their hotel reservation faster than any other competitive travel search site.

“Travellers are used to the hassle of toggling between hotel sites, maps, reviews, and online destination guides in order to find that perfect hotel,” said Adam Goldstein, Hipmunk CEO. “Hipmunk now serves as your hotel matchmaker, and we’re thrilled to be the first travel site to offer all that information in one place to provide faster and more insightful booking decisions.”

Features of Hipmunk Hotel Search include:

  • Map-based Results — Hotel results are displayed on a map so users can visualize the destination and hotel options within that destination.
  • Neighborhood Guides – Proprietary information sourced by travel writers local to the destination, which recommend the best places to stay in a given destination based on personal travel style and needs.
  • Traveller Type Filter – Traveler type filter is incorporated into the search, allowing users to find neighborhoods best for business travel, romance (straight and gay), exploring and families.
  • The Best Hotels — Top hotels ranked by a combination of rate, amenities, and reviews, are highlighted on maps.
  • Options – Multiple booking options, including directly with hotels.
  • Calendar Integration – User meeting and event locations are plotted on the map alongside hotel results in that destination, allowing users to find hotels with the best location relative to a user’s meetings.
  •  No Dates Search – Users can search for hotels within a city without entering a specific date range, allowing them to explore a destination without certain travel dates in mind.

Is Hipmunk one of the cleverest online travel companies in the world?

Yes… I think they could well be.  If they are not, they certainly will be very soon.  What do I mean by clever?  Well I talk a lot and openly criticise a lot of travel brands selling online travel in very boring and unhelpful ways.  Travel should be passionate, that’s what I believe in any case.  Travel shopping should be inspirational, fun and easy.  Choosing the perfect hotel for example should be a pleasurable experience, after all, it’s going to be the place you kick back and relax and enjoy your time.  But more often that not, I find OTA’s all offering the same shopping experience – enter a city, date and duration and pick a hotel from a list of 200 options.  This is not a shopping experience.  This is not helpful.  This is not enjoyable.  Most importantly, this zaps the life out of me when I should be inspired and happy that I’m booking my hotel of trip.

Hipmunk is a remarkable new travel search site that aims to take the agony out of travel planning.  Their website is designed to help people who are overwhelmed with pages of irrelevant search results – something I find myself with every time I use an OTA – flight results are presented in a visual “timeline” that allows people to select the best flight for them at a glance, and hotel results are shown on a map so that people can view where in a destination they will be staying and the landmarks near them.  Hipmunk also have a business travel planning service in beta which could revolutionise the self booking tool approach.  Imagine having your search results embedded over a copy of your Outlook calendar – pretty cool, hu?

“At Hipmunk, we want to make your experience a lot better and put the fun back into travel planning”.

The following video will gives a great overview:

So why am I writing about Hipmunk?  Simply because they are different.  Because they have opened their eyes and not just copied the masses – innovation springs to mind.  They haven’t looked at travel and joined the thousands on online travel agencies and tried to sell flights and hotels as quickly as possible, simply plugging in content and forgetting user experience.  They have looked at people’s existing pain points and decided to make travel shopping fun.  From using price graph searches for air fares (so you can see where a price changes) to the great Google Map based hotel search with fully integrated TripAdvisor review scores and price banding, you will enjoy the shopping experience of using Hipmunk.  Check out the usability of the hotel search results – especially the “heat maps” function – instantly guiding a user to the right area of a city, for example landmarks, restaurants etc.

I really am impressed with the usability and true shopping experience of Hipmunk.  They have got search spot on.  Why do I want to go to an OTA and be overwhelmed with irrelevant search results?  I want to choose the results my self, and Hipmunk let me.  Why do I want to read glossy marketing text the hotels written?  I don’t – and Hipmunk how me the TripAdvisor Reviews instead.  The list goes on. I’m left excited by online travel search for the first time in a long time.  Excited about what they will bring next.  Check it out today.

Super creative Room 77 launch free Wi-Fi summer [Hotel Insight editor falls in love]

As regular readers of my blog will know, I love to see companies in the hotel industry innovating and bringing something new to online technologies and search.  I also have a real pain point of hotel Wi-Fi charges.  I talk (some would say, moan) about this a lot, and it’s certainly a topic that will not go away and makes travellers frustrated.  So when I saw that the creative team at Room 77 had launched a free Wi-Fi campaign, my heart melted ever so slightly and I had to write a quick post to share it with you.

Quite simply, once you’ve booked your hotel stay through the Room 77 website users can log in with their account details and submit a rebate request for their Wi-Fi charges.  What intrigued me was how an OTA, who doesn’t own the hotels they are selling, or control a local Wi-Fi charge was going to pull this off and why they would do it.  But it’s actually quite a simple process and quite simply, Room 77 are doing this because they truly understand what a traveller wants from a hotel stay, and the pain points for booking that stay and the threat to their enjoyment once they’ve checked in.  Charges for Wi-Fi in hotels will remain a hot topic for travellers, so Room 77 have listened and acted.

Examine your customers pain points.  What is it about a hotel stay they most annoyed them.  In your top three answers, paying for Wi-Fi is one of them, making such a promotion is engaging and of immediate interest to Room 77’s clients – promotions like this bread loyalty.

For those who are yet to discover Room 77, you can take a look at my recent post on this super initiative company by clicking here.  Room 77 are literally taking B2C hotel search to another level with their technology and shopping approach – take a look at their site and you’ll see what I mean.  This promotion is another simply example of actually understanding your customers needs.  Design a website that the user will want to be on – making booking a hotel fun and taking the hassle (and often boredom away), then take it a stage further and target them with something dear to their hearts.  This simple recipe will end in success.

Taking hotel search to a whole new level – how Room 77 create an online shopping experience all of their own [with Interview]

With so many online travel agencies selling hotel content to the public, along with hotel chains own websites, it always strikes me that very few actually provide a true and enjoyable shopping experience.  To me, I find this very strange.  When you think about all of the travel related products you need to purchase to book your travel arrangements, the hotel part should be the most interesting, and the part the consumer spends the longest choosing (they should also find this a pleasure!).  Personally, I can’t get excited about browsing the web for hundreds of different air fares, car rental deals or insurance.  They are all essential parts of my holiday or business trip, but the hotel is by far the most important.  It’s has to be the place that I want to spend my precious vacation time at, to sleep at, to eat at – to recover in even!  It has to fit all my requirements.  Because of this notion, I find it bewildering that so many OTA’s don’t deliver what I would call a shopping experience to their consumers.

Since the beginning of time (well, when OTA’s started to appear at least), a hotel shopping process has been the same.  Enter a destination, stay dates and then choose from a list of hotels which you want to go to.  Hardly inspiring.  Enter Room 77.

That’s why I am so impressed with a relatively new company called Room 77.  I urge you to pick your destination and give Room 77 a try – this is a true hotel shopping experience.  You’ll see what I mean.  Their focus is on search – to summarise, you don’t just pick a hotel and hope for the best, you can actually get the view from each floor of the property, and even each room number, so you can pick the perfect bedroom for you!  Of course, they also incorporate the more traditional decision making tools – TripAdvisor, Google Maps etc.

Beyond these advances shopping techniques, the key to what’s different about Room 77 is their focus on bringing some transparency back into the market and building a product that best serves the needs of the traveler first (something so many OTA’s and direct chain websites forget completely).  At the very start, they spent the time talking to people about their hotel shopping experience and looked at the market in front of them.  Unsurprisingly, Room 77 kept encountering poor user experiences and a general disregard for doing what was in the traveler’s interest.  This was to be the basis for what followed on their own product.

I was lucky enough to interview Roger Wong, Room 77’s Director of Marketing.  Our conversation is shared below:

Q: How did Room 77 begin and what’s the inspiration behind the concept?

Room 77 began with a simple idea: the room you get matters and the existing hotel sites weren’t doing enough to help travelers get into a great room.  From there, we built a database of exclusive room content (floor plans and room views) which now covers over one million rooms worldwide and collected intel on the best rooms at thousands of top hotels, helping travelers pick quiet rooms and secure rooms with a view.  Next, we built a comprehensive hotel search and booking engine that gets prices from hundreds of sources so travelers can get a great deal and a great room on over 200,000+ hotels worldwide.

Q: How would you describe Room 77’s position in the market?

Room 77 aims to deliver on the promise of “best room, best price” and we differentiate ourselves from other hotel sites by focusing on giving travelers a faster search experience, a clear and transparent view into pricing from many different sources, unique search filters like filter by view, and an easy way to get into a great room with our complimentary Room Concierge service on eligible bookings.  We also recently added the ability to search for AAA and Senior discounts on our fast, pop-up free, search experience.

Q: Is the product just available in the US?  And what are the expansion plans to roll this out to the world?

Our website, Room77.com, can be accessed worldwide but our focus right now is on US customers.  We expect to expand our language and currency customization options in the near future to appeal to a broader audience internationally.

Q: Most OTA’s have exactly the same way of shopping for a hotel, but Room 77 clearly takes this to another level. What was the original reaction to this when you launched and how has this changed?

At launch, people really connected with our mission to help them avoid getting a bad hotel room.  We kept hearing the same horror stories from travelers who found themselves in hotel rooms with a view of a dirty alley or being kept awake all night by the ice machine situated outside their door.  We haven’t changed our mission to deliver travelers into great rooms, we’ve just added a really fast and clean hotel shopping experience on top of it.  Today, instead of simply finding information on the best rooms, we also get travelers the best deals and deliver them into a great room with our Room Concierge service.

Q: Do you see other hotel websites (direct or OTA’s) trying to adopt similar functionality?

We work with many OTAs and hotel chains to deliver on our promise of providing price transparency and many of them have expressed interest in providing similar levels of insight down to the room level so I wouldn’t be surprised to see more room data integrated on hotel and OTA sites in the future.

Q: How do Room 77 see search?  Other OTA’s see it as a commodity, a simple city search, select a brand and book, with little or no shopping or guest interaction

We see search as the core of our competitive advantage.  Being a metasearch engine means that we’re going out into marketplace and finding as many prices, options, and choices as we possibly can for consumers so they feel confident that they are getting a great deal and the best selection of hotels.  Our technology team has built a fast search engine that also is comprehensive, getting rates that are normally missed by other search engines such as AAA or senior rates that millions of travelers qualify for but never take advantage of.

Q: What’s next for Room 77?

We’re always working on new features and product enhancements to help make the hotel shopping process more pain-free.  We recently introduced an update to our app for iPhone so travelers can get a great deal on-the-go anywhere they may be.  We’ve got some other exciting product features that we can’t quite share yet but keep an eye on us and let us know how we can build a better hotel search experience.

My thanks to Roger for taking the time in talking to me about Room 77 – I’m sure you’ll agree that his company are really leading the way in re-defining hotel search and it will certainly be interesting seeing how the rest of the worlds responds to their search concept in the future.  One final point – check out the free Room 77 mobile app – available for iPhone and Android.  Why do I mention this?  Because the world of hotel mobile booking apps are the same as online – presenting un-inventive search.  But that’s for another post, another time…