Loved the hotel, hated the room? Room 77 can help. Unlike deal-oriented travel sites and apps, like Priceline or Kayak, Room77 takes a novel, technical approach to putting its users in ideal lodgings; it gives them a way to peek inside each room, or out of its windows, before booking.
The vice president of engineering at Room 77, Calvin Yang, well known for his work as the designer of Google’s image search, explains how they do it:
"We have developed a platform [called RoomView] that lets us quickly digitize hotel floor plans and compute accurate latitude, longitude, altitude and orientation for each individual room and window in a building. This is the basis for accurate view calculation. Such data never existed before—only paper floor plan drawings were available. We were the first one to make such data digitally accessible."
While travelers can see if they’ll be staying over a parking lot or a pristine lake, thanks to this technology, RoomView doesn’t automatically generate all the details about a given hotel room. The company supplements room profiles with user-contributed content including photographs taken from inside hotel rooms, as well as proprietary and shared data from hotel chains and online travel booking partners.
According to the vice president of product at Room 77, Kevin Fleiss, users' preferences vary widely: Some travelers like to be far from the bar, others close to the action; some need pet-friendly rooms or wheelchair access, and everyone, these days, wants Wi-Fi or free Wi-Fi. Whatever they prefer, Room77 stores their preferences to enable faster searches and booking.
With just 20 full-time employees, Room 77 has already indexed 750,000 hotel rooms from about 3,000 hotels, and the number is growing by the day. The rooms they list are in many major U.S. cities— Las Vegas, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston—and in London, Hong Kong, Paris, Frankfurt, and a few Canadian cities.
Founder Brad Gerstner says his business could share revelatory data and customer feedback with hotel executives someday, to help them manage yield, and plan improvements to their rooms and services that will prove a hit with customers.
Given an onslaught of competition from the sharing economy—with companies like Airbnb, Couchsurfing.org, HomeAway, or OneFineStay drawing new customers—any competitive advantage should matter a great deal to providers of traditional lodgings.
Gerstner is a veteran of the travel industry, whose earlier ventures included the first online cruise-booking system, National Leisure Group, and is the founder and CEO of Altimeter Capital in Boston. He says the inspiration for Room77 hailed from his own travel frustrations dating back to 2001.
"When I was traveling a lot for business, I’d show up at a hotel after booking online, only to be tired at the end of the day, and frustrated that I had to go back down to the front desk, try to find the right person to have a conversation with to get into a room that was more like what I thought I was getting.
I started keeping track in my BlackBerry of the rooms in hotels that I liked, and why I liked them. I’d go to Miami and stay at the Mandarin Oriental, and I’d say 1919 has a great view of the Bay, an oversized balcony and whatever else. A couple friends who also traveled to the same cities a lot would ask, ‘hey can you shoot me that list of the best rooms for such and such hotel?’
I kept the idea in mind for when I found the energy and time to start another company. But there was always this need for a higher level of transparency here... We spend so much time and money on hotels. But we’ve been completely blind before the moment of arrival, it was room roulette."
Someday, Fleiss and Gerstner believe, Room 77 could apply its technology to help other industries as well. They won't, however, say which industries the company might focus on.
Several cleantech ventures today—including Boston-based Retroficiency, and solar providers SunRun and SolarCity—already use 3-D modeling, satellite imagery, and building data to help figure out, for example, optimal positioning for solar panels, HVAC systems, or energy-generating or money-saving equipment.
Meanwhile, image-gathering businesses from Helinet to Digital Globe are supplying high-quality visuals to law enforcement, environmental monitoring groups, and television networks. Last week, Google also launched indoor mapping of places like airports and malls.
Engineering VP Yang maintains that Room 77’s technology stands apart from all of these. It’s all in the way that it calculates the view from a given room. The company has filed for patent protection of its technology. It's already a hit with travel sites Expedia, Hotels.com, and Orbitz—Room 77 features real-time price and availability from those sites. Users have the option to book directly through Room 77 or through these other sites via Room 77. (The travel sites pay a fee to Room 77 if you book through a Room 77 referral.)
Room 77 executives say that they plan to add multi-language, multi-currency booking capabilities to their site and app, and will one day add real-time information to their room profiles. Travelers could learn about things that might impact their stay in a given room, like noise levels of construction nearby, or political demonstrations causing traffic and other disruptions in the area.
Room 77 unveiled its service and app for the first time in February 2011, at the Launch conference in San Francisco. The company has raised $13.5 million in venture funding to date, from backers including founders and board members of well-known travel and media brands: Orbitz, Expedia, MTV, and many more.
[Image: Flickr user MichaelKuhn_pics]