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How HotelTonight revolutionised booking rooms – without a website in sight

March 2, 2015

(Published in TTG – 06.11.14)

HotelTonight’s co-founder Jared Simon talks to Matthew Parsons about why travel companies need to start ‘humanising’ booking experiences, and shares the secrets behind the app’s rapid growth

“Technology platform shifts only come every now and then,” says HotelTonight’s co-founder and chief operating officer Jared Simon, “and the shift to mobile was every bit as dramatic as when the internet arrived.”

Simon is explaining the impetus that, back in 2010, spurred him to create the mobile-only booking platform HotelTonight, an app that allows users to book a hotel within a 24-hour period – and a website nowhere in sight.

It was a vision that, four years down the line, has produced one of the fastest-growing booking apps: over the past year, downloads have jumped from 6.5 million to 11 million, and it has raised $81 million in funding from various investors including Starwood Hotels Group founder Barry Sternlicht.

But let’s first clear up some confusion surrounding the name – HotelTonight – as last month it announced that rooms could be booked up to seven days in advance.

“The name is more figurative than literal,” Simon says. “You can book your ‘tonight’ from us. We’ve taken a focused proposition and kept with it. We don’t take it lightly, and we are expanding that notion.”

Both customers and hotel partners were demanding it, he adds.

“We’d been looking at this for four months” he says. “It hasn’t damaged that simplicity. We maintain that curation; our list is still just as special… we can still maintain deals.”

Drawing on experience

When it comes to making those deals, Simon has been drawing on his contracting experience as director of Lodging.com, part of Orbitz, and his time spent at the Budget Group.

He says he takes pride in the relationships he has developed with chains such as Hyatt, Accor, Starwood and InterContinental Hotels Group, among others. “I’m often on the road, and it’s labour intensive, but it’s what sets us
apart,” he says.

“What we’re doing is humanising the experience. Hotels have stories, and it’s fun telling stories”

Currently, the business employs 140 staff, with offices in San Francisco and the international HQ in London. New offices are planned for Berlin, Paris, Sydney and Toronto in the coming year.

As for the original business model, Simon claims, worldwide, 15% of hotel bookings are for that same day. “Globally, hotels are at an average of 60% occupancy. There are a lot of rooms going empty every night. This is an opaque option for them – it’s not about cannibalising options,” he argues.

Furthermore, he claims HotelTonight is introducing new customers to those hotels.

Vital role of storytelling

As well as relationships with hotels, customer service is another of his passions. Key to success is allowing customers to talk to a human being, Simon says. At the start, in 2010 he answered every call personally.

However, after six months of being woken up at night, this stopped, although he keeps an eye on calls. Design and storytelling also rate highly. “We take beautiful photos and great copy to inspire users. What we’re doing is humanising the experience. Hotels have stories, and it’s fun telling stories.”

There’s also a visual review system, where users can submit photos of their property.

“Agents use us if they find they have an oversell situation at a property, and business travellers also use us – they like interesting hotels”

With the fast growth of apps such as these, and in the general mobile market, what are the implications for the travel trade? The app features a referral tool, whereby users can make a booking in someone else’s name.

“It’s a good tool for an agent to have in their arsenal,” he replies.

“Agents do use us if they find they have an oversell situation at a property, and business travellers also use us – they like interesting hotels.”

While there is no plan to launch a dedicated trade tool, Simon reiterates his keenness to hear from the trade: “We’re responsive to new ideas.”

Looking further ahead, there are many plans under wraps, although he does share one – declaring that one day he foresees the ability for the app to be merely opened, once the customer is in destination, and it will automatically book what it deems to be that particular person’s ideal hotel.

Maybe a case of the “humanisation” process going too far? But four years ago, building a business without a website similarly raised eyebrows, proving that those who can anticipate seismic shifts in travel technology are well placed to succeed.

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