Today’s travel startup pitch comes from SmartDepart, a hotel search engine that’s taking a direct comparison approach to selecting hotels. Rather than offer a list of available hotels, the startup’s interface facilitates direct comparison of two selections.
The user selects the desired hotels by dragging them to either side of a central column. Once placed, the startup then makes a comparison between each of the hotels based on factors like price, proximity and amenities. The algorithm will then offer an educated recommendation based on the various criteria.
Users can also drill down into each of the criteria to see specifics on what offerings are nearby – for example, shopping and dining listings are culled from Yelp and then presented for review. What makes this especially useful is that it eliminates the next tab step for searchers, as they tab off to another website to look around the hotel to see what’s nearby.
The recommendation is intelligent, offering specifics – including perks – about why the chosen hotel is better. The startup also curates the recent reviews to deliver what has most recently been said about the hotel – an incredibly useful tool to avoid poring through dozens of reviews to create an overview opinion.
Read on for the Vine and the Tnooz Q&A.
Tell us how you founded the company, why and what made you decide to jump in and create the business.
SmartDepart was founded out of our personal frustration with online hotel search. Most travelers have at least several hotels they’re interested in booking, but no tool to help them decide which hotel is best for them. The information people need to make an informed booking decision was scattered all across the web.
Before SmartDepart, you had to open 15 tabs in your browser to look up everything from where each hotel was on a map, to how far it was from where you wanted to be, to what restaurants and shopping venues were around the hotel, to reviews from all the travel sites out there. Of course, once you gathered all this information (hopefully you wrote most of it down) you then had to manually compare your notes to try and make the best decision possible.
This was an extremely time consuming and tedious process. That’s why we built SmartDepart. We pull all the information you need into one central location, allow you to compare hotels in our side by side comparison interface, and our Decision algorithm even tells you which hotel is the better choice and why.
What are the funding arrangements?
We’re currently self funded and have not accepted or started seeking outside capital.
Please share your estimation of market size.
The online travel market in the US saw $157 billion in revenue in 2013. That number was just over $400 Billion worldwide.
What/who do you consider as competition?
We compete with anyone who offers a hotel search product. With that said, we feel we have a truly unique and highly effective tool for travelers to decide on and book the best hotel for them.
What is your revenue model and strategy for profitability?
We currently get a small commission when a user finds a hotel though SmartDepart and completes the booking with one of our partners.
What problem does the business solve?
If you look at the current landscape of hotel booking sites, they do a great job at helping you find the best price, but very little to actually help you decide which hotel is best for you. The information people need to make a decision is scattered all across the web. Thats where we come in. We pull reviews, proximity data (Restaurants, Shopping, etc), the best price, and much more into one intuitive interface. We then allow you to compare hotels directly against each other in a side by side comparison, and our Decision algorithm even tells you which hotel is the better option and why.
Before we launched SmartDepart, travelers had to do hotel comparisons manually by going to all those different websites themselves and comparing what they found. We’ve taken what use to be a 10 step process down to a few clicks.
How did the initial idea evolve and were there changes/any pivots along the way in the early stages?
The first iteration of SmartDepart was to pull in data from all over the web and display it side by side for every hotel. This way it would be easy for the user to sort through and make the right decision. As we got deeper, we began to realize that simply displaying all that data for the user to sort through on their own would cause information overload, and even be counterproductive. To solve this, we developed our Decision algorithm that sorts through all the data and not only recommends which hotel the user should book, but also explains why we are making that recommendation.
Why should people or companies use the business?
The decision of which hotel to book can have a huge impact on your overall travel experience. We help travelers and businesses find the best possible hotel, at the the best possible price, in the absolute shortest amount of time. What use to take 45 minutes can now be done in 90 seconds with better results.
What is the strategy for raising awareness and the customer/user acquisition (apart from PR)?
Aside from continuing to iterate on the site, we are active on social media, and will soon be launching a blog that will give inside tips on how to travel smarter (or as we put it “Raise your travel IQ”). We also plan to launch a series of city guides for popular destinations in the US that will help travelers see the city as if they had a local tour guide.
Our primary challenge is to get loyal users and establish a known brand, but we’re very confident that the unique value proposition of the product will help set us apart.
Where do you see the company in three years time and what specific challenges do you anticipate having to overcome?
In the short term we will continue to expand the reach of our hotel search into Europe.
We also have plans for a native iOS and Android app in the near future.
Long term we plan to expand into other sectors of travel. Our hope is that SmartDepart will become an invaluable tool for travelers all across the world.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that it requires a startup like yours to help it out?
Up until we launched SmartDepart the process of deciding which hotel to book consisted of having to visit a large number of websites to get all the information you needed. It was a long and tedious process. No one had taken the time to bring all this information into one central location so the user could make an informed decision. SmartDepart now does the legwork for you by pulling in all that information, displaying it in a side by side comparison, and even sorting through it to make a recommendation.
What other technology company (in or outside of travel) would you consider yourselves most closely aligned to in terms of culture and style… and why?
Our culture is as unique as our hotel search. We’re heavily influenced by design, and our users are our number one priority.
Our company mission is to help people decide on and book the best possible hotel, at the best possible price, in the absolute shortest amount of time.
Which company would be the best fit to buy your startup, and why?
To be honest we really haven’t given this any thought. Our main focus is to build an amazing product that grows into a large company. Thats not to say we wouldn’t consider an acquisition at some point, but right now we just want to build an amazing product that people love.
Describe your startup in three words?
Hotel Decision Engine.
Searching and comparing hotels is a breeze with this service, and it really offers promise as far as being able to made a better educated decision when it comes to hotel bookings.
The primary concern here is the replicability of the technology. Expedia.com recently announced an upcoming tablet app refresh which is explicitly organized to allow for more direct hotel comparisons. This means that the technology and interface won’t be the only differentiators that the startup can depend on.
The importance of the recommendation is the key. By ensuring the most relevant, successful matches with searchers, the startup can build the kind of trust that creates loyal, return customers from the get go. And as the interface makes it more fun to search and compare hotels, the startup has a real chance at accomplishing this.