Travel startup Hipmunk is launching a big redesign of its hotel search feature today, one that should help travelers find a place to stay in the neighborhood that best matches the type of trip that they’re looking for.
The company first launched hotel search in early 2011, but co-founder Steve Huffman told that at first, Hipmunk brought the wrong approach to the problem. The company’s flight search, with its calendar-based results layout and “agony”-based rankings, was a response to real problems faced by its co-founders. On the other hand, Hipmunk “learned quickly that we needed a hotel product if we wanted to survive as a company,” because there’s more money to be made in hotel search.
Huffman argued that Hipmunk’s existing hotel search is already a good product, but since it wasn’t really built to solve a specific problem, he found himself getting “frustrated” with it in the same way he was frustrated with other hotel search products. For instance, he recalled taking a trip down to San Diego, when he hoped to avoid the tourist traps and stay somewhere closer to the local San Diego experience. He ended up in the Gaslamp District, which is pretty much the opposite of what he wanted. Similarly, Huffman said that his main advice to San Francisco visitors is to “avoid Fisherman’s Wharf and the Tenderloin,” yet most of the city’s hotels are in those two neighborhoods, so that’s where a random traveler would probably end up.
Hipmunk’s solution? Neighborhood guides, written by local travel writers. The new hotel search feature keeps the map-based view of the old version, but now the maps are broken up into neighborhoods, which you can click on to learn more. Once you’re looking at a neighborhood that seems to fit your needs, Hipmunk will recommend the best hotel results based on a combination of price, amenities, and reviews. Speaking of price and amenities, Huffman said Hipmunk has been calling hotels to find out whether they charge for WiFi, parking, and so on, so that the site can give users better sense of what the stay will really cost. Of the 300,000 hotels (pulled from various sites) that show up in Hipmunk’s search results, Huffman said the company has collected data on all of the “major” ones where users actually stay, and it’s now working on filling out “the long tail.”
Of course, if you’re really interested in finding the right neighborhood for your trip, you can already do your own online research. However, trying to incorporate that research into your hotel booking experience can be a pain, leaving you going back-and-forth between multiple tabs in your browser. Hipmunk makes it easier by bringing that information directly into the search results. Huffman said the changes should also make Hipmunk a site that users might want to browse even if they don’t need to book a flight or hotel. Plus, if someone hears about Hipmunk for the first time, they can actually check out the site right away and find interesting content, rather than waiting until they actually plan to travel (and then probably forgetting about it).
And in the same way that Hipmunk lets travelers prioritize flight results based on the factors they care about (whether it’s agony, trip time, fewest layovers, or whatever), it now allows you to identify the type of traveler you are and the experience you’re looking for with your hotel, whether it’s business, romance (straight or gay), exploration, or family. Hipmunk will then filter the results to point you to hotels in neighborhoods that match your interests. The company is still working on fleshing out its neighborhood guides, so not every area will have a written description (especially if you’re not traveling to a major US city). But Huffman said the company can still use local data to make neighborhood-based recommendations, for example by noting that a neighborhood with a lot of law firms and banks is probably the city’s financial district.
When you’re ready to book a hotel, you might not even have to leave the Hipmunk site. If the listing comes from Orbitz, you can make the reservation directly from Hipmunk, while Orbitz handles the booking on the backend (thanks to the Orbitz API). This is the first time people have been able to book directly on Hipmunk, and when I asked about whether we might be seeing something similar in flight search, Huffman said, “We could in theory do it on flights, but we’re not going to right now,” because in flight search “it’s a little more of a political issue.” Nor is it a big priority to incorporate more booking features on the site.
“As a company, if we have a choice between gravitating towards becoming more of a travel agency or becoming more a content company, it’s obvious for us,” Huffman said — offering better content and presenting it in a better way is something Hipmunk was “made to do.”
Update 1: A Hipmunk spokesperson tells me that there were issues with the feature allowing users to book directly from the site, so it’s not live right now. I’ll update this post when it’s fixed.
Update 2: Here’s a statement from Orbtiz about the booking feature and its integration with the Orbitz API:
The reason that feature is not live is because there is no agreement between Orbitz and Hipmunk to provide for this service – so we were confused by what Hipmunk indicated to you. Furthermore, while we are discussing various possibilities, any potential agreement would not include the ability to make an Orbitz booking directly from their site. The Orbitz booking experience is only available to consumers visiting Orbitz.com.