International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
Many travellers find the sheer volume of online booking tools to be overwhelming. So this is the fourth in a month-long series that highlights a handful of websites that will change the travel game in 2013. Previous posts were on GetGoing, Flightfox and Superfly.
Reserving the right hotel room is a tricky thing. According to a study by market research firm PhoCusWright, 57% of 2012’s online bookings in the US took place directly through hotels’ websites, with online travel agencies, such as Hotels.com and Travelocity.com, making up the bulk of the rest.
But when booking with an online travel agency, you risk overpaying (since the prices listed may not be the lowest available) or thinking a hotel is sold out (when really the site’s allotment of rooms has sold out, not the property itself). Online travel agencies also give you little control over which room you’ll actually be assigned at check-in.
Then again, booking directly through a hotel offers its own challenges, the most obvious being that finding the best property with the best deal can require a lot of time-consuming comparison-shopping.
Addressing these concerns is Room 77, a hotel metasearch site that aims to get travellers the exact room they want. Listing 100,000 hotels in the US and another 100,000 worldwide, Room 77 scours dozens of sites (including online travel agencies and individual hotel websites) to nab the most attractive accommodation deal, similar to other metasearch engines such as Google Hotel Finder, HotelsCombined and Kayak.
But unlike these other sites, for any property that is rated four stars or better, or for any reservation that totals at least $400, Room 77 offers a virtual concierge service that takes into account which room characteristics are the most important to you, such as a skyline view, a far distance from the lifts, floor preference and availability of a spare cot for a young child. This "Hotel Direct" rate is often slightly more expensive than those found on competing sites, but Room 77’s employees work with the hotel to figure out which of its rooms would best match your preferences. According to Room 77’s post-trip surveys, about 90% of room requests are fulfilled.
Another unique advantage is that Room 77 is the only site to allow users to sort hotels by their TripAdvisor ratings (other than TripAdvisor itself). It’s also the only site that takes into account US-centric discounts such as AAA-membership or senior, military or government rates. Lastly, as of 18 March, when you search Room 77 via a smartphone’s or tablet’s browser or via Room 77’s Android and iPhone apps, you can see mobile-only hotel rates among the other available prices.
In a recent search for hotels in São Paulo, Room 77 fetched a list of hundreds of properties with rates from a variety of hotels and third-party sites. Clicking one of the listings, Hotel Unique, revealed generic details about the property, along with options to book a “standard room" via Expedia, Booking.com and other major sites, from $562 a night.
But the Hotel Direct option for the same property revealed details on a dozen room types, from a basic 25sqm room for $625 a night to a posh 95sqm room for $1,530 a night – all of which included complimentary Havaianas footwear and a nightly turndown service. Hotel Unique’s rules apply, so customers pay on arrival, and the cancellation policy requires a fee equal to one night’s stay. While you could save money going with the generic “standard room” available elsewhere, Room 77’s virtual concierge service could improve your chances of receiving a room you adore.
Flaws that need fixing
Some of Room 77’s functions are needlessly confusing. For example, the map-based search, which involves searching for hotels within specific neighbourhood boundaries, is marginalised by the site’s design, making it hard to find.
Searching by neighbourhood or proximity to major attractions is also oddly complicated. Even if you search for a room based on a specific street address, the results still default to ranking by “popularity”, forcing users to re-sort by distance to get the selections they wanted.
Quirks aside, the start-up, amply funded by Expedia and travel expenses software maker Concur, can bring plenty of resources to bear on improving its service, and we expect additional enhancements to be unveiled soon.
Sean O’Neill is the travel tech columnist for BBC Travel