Travel tech is becoming a fact of life. As the web and mobile usage become ubiquitous, booking, comparing, preparing trips are all done online. Travel agents are basically the Blockbuster and Kodak way to permanent irrelevance. The sector is dominated by the big names like Priceline, Tripadvisor and Expedia but smaller firms enter the game and compete on a variety of services. Here are some of them.
Bizly is a mobile app for instantly booking meetings at hotels.
Professionals can compare prices/options, pick meeting rooms, choose food, beverage and other amenities and invite their guests. Bizly will show you a list of hotels in your city with available event space along with an hourly price to rent out a room for a meeting — think a 20-person board room in the Ace Hotel for $75 an hour, or meeting space in the Mandarin Oriental for $150 an hour.Hotels are happy because they are generating revenue from a room that otherwise sits empty, and meeting organizers get to host a meeting in a luxury setting like a five-star hotel. And hotels still get to offer food and beverage to groups, which is traditionally where they generate revenue from meeting-room rentals. But by using Bizly to rent to small groups (instead of the traditional 200-person wedding or conference), hotels should end up increasing the utilization of their meeting space and maybe be able to reduce their dependence on food and beverage.
The company focuses on meetings with 40 attendees or fewer. Users can search by date and time, compare hotels and prices, and select whether they want additional amenities like food and beverage service, projectors or whiteboards. “The way we do it, it’s like going to any hotel-booking site,” Shah said. Competitors include companies like New York-based short-term office-space rental service Breather, which arrived in Chicago in February, and San Francisco-based LiquidSpace.
RewardExpert helps travelers use and understand their rewards programs. RewardExpert helps travelers navigate the world of frequent flyer programs and credit card rewards.
Using a sophisticated algorithm, RewardExpert creates simple strategies for using points and miles to help travelers reach their individual travel goals. Simply decide where to go and let RewardExpert do the rest.
Reward Expert has created a service that will help people get the maximum benefit for their spending and flying. Everyone knows about reward programs, but only a few know how to really take full advantage of them.
The best use of points and miles is when you use them to book an airline award ticket. But many people opt for cash back or gift cards instead because frequent flyer programs are too complex to sort though. People often don’t know which program to use or what airline to fly on to make the best use of their miles and points. There are a lot of rules that confuse people and discourage them from booking award tickets. And many are shocked when they see the taxes and surcharges levied on some of those tickets.
CityKey is a B2B platform helping its hotel partners build custom branded interactive city guides to distribute to their guests. It then leverages the platform to sell exclusive VIP discounts for guests staying with its hotel partners.
The startup creates interactive, customizable online city guides created by travel writers and tourism experts in a given city. Hotels and Airbnb hosts who sign up for the service get branded websites tailored to their clientele–upscale restaurant recommendations for luxury hotel owners, or under-the-radar hotspots for those who cater to experiential travelers.
“Hotels are masters of creating the ultimate guest experience,” said Hollander, who cofounded the company with his twin. “They’ve found all the ways to make you have the best experience and feel as at home as possible when you’re inside their hotel. But the reality of the situation is you’re going to spend the majority of your time outside the hotel.”
In addition to creating guides curated by local experts, CityKey connects to the Yelp API, Google reviews, and links so guests don’t have to search elsewhere for information. “The problem isn’t that there isn’t information out there. The problem is, it’s all over the place, it’s totally fragmented,” he said.
Hotels can be as hands on in customizing the website as they want, he said. The modular style of the sites allows hotels to pick and choose subcategories (such as “eat” “drink” “play”) that cater to their guests, and they can connect guests to the content whenever they want, whether alongside a confirmation email or as an automatic login from the hotel Wifi. Currently the service costs $4 per hotel room per month. In initial tests, they’ve found 26 percent of hotel guests use their service, and 89 percent of guests said it improved their travel experience.
Though Hollander’s background is in hotels (and CityKey has rolled out in three San Francisco hotels already), they’re currently piloting the program with Airbnb hosts, and he said they plan to target “superhosts” who have multiple properties.
The hospitality industry is converging, due to the rise of homeshare, he added. Airbnb is attempting to give a more streamlined experience, while hotels are aiming to offer guests more of a local experience.
“We see hospitality startups as needing to plug [into] both,” he said.
Hospitality startups can’t ignore Airbnb He’s not the only startup founder thinking this way. Since Airbnb popped up in 2008 startups have latched onto its growing prominence in the hospitality industry, such as Guesty, Beyond Stays, and Pillow, all Airbnb management services, as well as Urban Bellhop, which handles Airbnb listings if a host is out of town.
Startups in Chicago are also getting in on the game, such as PriceLabs, which calculates what hosts should charge per night, and VirtualKEY, which facilitates smart locks for homeshare hosts. Resha Shroff, cofounder of VirtualKEY and a veteran Airbnb host herself, said their startup caters to the direction hospitality is headed. “We … believe that homesharing is not a new industry, however it is only formalizing and consolidating in the recent times,” she said.
“While we saw that emergence of marketplaces like HomeAway and Airbnb helped supply creation for hosts the basic infrastructure to run this as a business was lacking,” she added. “We saw the need for additional services and automation tools which can make the renterpreuners more efficient and increase their profitability while taking away the day to day pains of key exchange and scheduling nightmares with guests and cleaners.”
But while launching a startup is risky as is, building your startup on an industry that is still facing regulation can be a bit intimidating. Austin recently ruled to limit short term rentals through Airbnb and HomeAway. Chicago recently declared Airbnb owners have to pay the full hotel tax.
But Shroff said the growth seen in homeshare has helped her confidence. “Regulation is necessary in any industry,” she said. “However, HomeAway and Airbnb have consistently seen over 30 percent year-over-year increase in property listings. Regulation may change how and where hosts list their property but homesharing and vacation rentals are here to stay.”
Freebird helps travelers book a new flight if another flight is cancelled or delayed. It provides travelers with instant notifications in the event of a flight disruption and offers the ability to rebook in fewer than 30 seconds with only three taps on their mobile devices.
Accomplice and Slow Ventures also participated in the funding for the concept which works in a similar way to insurance. Travellers pay a single or return trip price, currently $19 and $34, to cover their flight in the event of a significant delay (four hours), cancellation or other mishap.
However, instead of having to go through the process of claiming the insurance, Freebird sends travellers an alert about the flight to their mobile device and then enables them to rebook via the alert.
Travellers also retain their original ticket.
The service uses Google-owned ITA Software to present travellers with available alternative flights and claims to enable them to rebook in three taps. The company is not sharing at this stage how it all works at the back-end.
Figures shared by Freebird show that around Thanksgiving when about 250,000 travellers experience a flight cancellation.
While other startups and existing travel companies are taking different approaches to managing disruption, Bernstein believes his company is the only one trying to empower the traveller.
“It’s allowing them to make quick decisions. In three taps they can book any airline of their choice which helps them skip the line and get to where they need to go at no extra cost.”
Another benefit, he says, is that the service is redistributing passengers more efficiently by offering available options across different airlines which should reduce queuing times at airports.
The $19 and $34 fees are introductory and as time goes on the plan is for pricing to be dynamic based on various risk factors such as adverse weather.
Bernstein’s co-founder is a data scientist and the plan is to build up a predictive service through machine learning with accuracy key to the success of the business.
In the short term the company needs to try and get over the huge mistrust from consumers surrounding insurance.
“We are a rebooking service, helping to streamline the process and enable them to make quick decisions.”
Going forward the company will seek to have the service offered everywhere – via airlines, online travel agencies, travel management companies but Bernstein acknowledges the relationships will take time to build.
In a year from now Freebird wants to have grown significantly which explains why it raised the $3.5 million round.
SnapTravel is a messaging bot that integrates with Facebook Messenger, Slack and SMS to help travelers book hotel rooms. The bot uses natural language processing and machine learning technology, if a traveler makes a statement that is ambiguous to the bot a human agent will step in to guide it. SnapTravel will also call a hotel to negotiate a free room upgrade for a traveler’s stay. Snaptavel announced that it launched of its half-bot, half-human hotel booking service and that it had raised $1.1 million in seed funding. The company demonstrated its new service for the first time at MobileBeat 2016 as it prepares to enter the crowded $550 billion hotel booking market.
SnapTravel is taking an hybrid approach by using its chatbot and human agents to assist travelers in finding and booking their accommodations. SnapTravel’s bot will use natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning to conduct conversations to help users find hotels suited to their preferences. And if a user stumps the bot with a unique request, a human agent will intervene and assist the bot.
“Each hotel booking trains the machine learning model as it works towards full automation,” said Henry Shi, SnapTravel CTO and cofounder.
This hybrid bot-human approach allows a company to scale its business while still offering human, personal service — and avoiding the frustration that some customers have felt with “dumb” chatbots. Ecommerce company Mezi also follows this human-assisted approach with its bots.
To access SnapTravel, users connect with the service over Facebook Messenger, SMS, or Slack; there is no app to download. The service is straightforward, with good, clean design guiding users through the basic steps of finding a desirable hotel and booking it. The service pulls data from hundreds of sources and offers a low-price guarantee with every booking. “Finding and booking the right hotel is currently a broken and frustrating experience — having to open numerous sites and apps,” said Hussein Fazal, SnapTravel CEO and cofounder