For making the most of its hosts. By this summer, Airbnb will usurp the InterContinental Hotels Group and Hilton Worldwide as the world's largest hotel chain--without owning a single hotel. The startup, which allows users to rent out their spare rooms or vacant homes to strangers, surpassed 10 million stays on its platform last year, doubled its listings to 550,000 (in 192 countries), and, according to a source familiar with the company's business, tripled revenue to an estimated $250 million. Befitting its growing might, last fall CEO Brian Chesky poached boutique-hotel pioneer Chip Conley to be its head of global hospitality. Already, Conley has created a baseline nine standards of care for Airbnb hosts to follow as part of a bigger revamp of its mobile tools. Up next, the company is doing a massive rethink on every aspect of the trip experience. "Our goal," Chesky says, "is to teach a million people hospitality." Read more >>
For obliterating the major barrier to wider adoption of electric vehicles. Sure, Tesla has carved out an undisputed lead in the electric-car industry with its revolutionary Model S. But the unveiling of the company's charging stations were equally noteworthy and less heralded. Billed as "the fastest charging station on the planet"--because it is--the Tesla Supercharger can fuel up a Model S in as little as 40 minutes, removing the so-called range anxiety that has been the biggest bugaboo of EV doubters. But in January, Tesla took another leap: It expanded its rapid-charging station route to more than 70 locations, letting Model S owners drive coast-to-coast for the first time. Read more >>
For solidifying its place as the world's travel agent. It's only a testament to Google's unmatched ambition that it dominates so many other fields--search, mobile, consumer electronics--and still manages to be the quintessential travel company. The Google Maps mobile app, which it revamped last year, is currently (and unsurprisingly) the most-used app in the world. After the upgrade, each user's map is personalized with venue suggestions from his search history, and thanks to Google's $1 billion acquisition of travel startup Waze, users also get real-time traffic and accident updates, which the app will help them navigate via automatic rerouting. Even Google Now, the company's intelligent predictive assistant, is somewhat of a travel agent, suggesting flights, rental cars, and hotel reservations based on the busy traveler's time and location. When paired with Google Glass, it becomes the ultimate tool for users to explore the world around them. Read more >>
For pedal-powering urban transportation networks. The private Portland, Oregon–based company designs and operates bike-sharing systems, which are helping cities of all sizes ease traffic, improve commuting options, and promote convenient exercise. Bike sharing seems self-governing, but behind the scenes, Alta uses vans to shuttle bikes among stations to ensure availability. Using this and other clever techniques, it manages systems in New York, Boston, and Chicago, as well as in Columbus, Ohio, and Chattanooga, Tennessee--two of its newest installations. Plans for 2014 include adding four new programs and expanding the two largest, in New York and Chicago. Read more >>
For taking China's surging middle class on luxe travel tours. When Mei Zhang started Wild China 13 years ago, she introduced international jet-setters to China--but the idea was always to serve Chinese clients traveling abroad. Now that China's emerging middle class is booming--from 4% of the population in 2000 to 66% in 2012--they're her fastest-growing clientele group. Zhang, who has lived in China and the United States, can offer a sensibility other traditional tour groups cannot, from journeys through the Tibetan Kingdom of Bhutan to canoeing and halibut fishing in Alaska. "We can educate," Zhang says. "The essence of travel is to understand and live the life of the destination area." Read more >>
For going the extra mile for its constituents. With its quirky, pink-mustachioed community of drivers--there is one with a Ghostbusters-themed car and another who holds cookie-baking contests--Lyft has managed to avoid much of the public criticism that its rival Uber has allowed itself to become mired in. Lyft's services let ordinary people become drivers and then matches them with passengers who request rides through its mobile app. The company has surpassed 1 million rides (it averages 30,000 per week), expanded to a total of 19 cities, and secured $60 million in funding from renowned venture firm Andreessen Horowitz. The resources will be put to good use: Lyft recently announced a $1 million personal insurance policy for drivers, only one example of Lyft's determination to keep its community--and regulators--happy.
For riding out the storms with its users. There are thousands of weather apps--maybe even 100 good ones--but WeatherSphere puts them all to shame when it comes to travel. The company, founded by ex-eBayer Raghav Gupta, already had a suite of weather apps (including the No. 1 paid weather app, NOAA Hi-Def Radar) when it added to the mix TurnCast, a navigation app that uses a combination of satellite radar and mathematical algorithms to allow users to navigate around inclement weather. Like other up-and-coming weather products, WeatherSphere's apps also employ "nowcasting," a feature that informs users the exact time a storm will hit and how long it will last. While TurnCast only hit app stores several months ago, WeatherSphere has amassed 1.7 million paid users, which is a feat in such a crowded field.
For putting a tour guide in customers' phones. Ruzwana Bashir's travel-experience site is often described as "beautiful" and "magazinelike" for the way it uses photography and big-name testimonials to help curate trips and events for vacationers. But Peek, which takes a 15% to 30% commission from the event tickets it sells--Disneyland passes, wine-blending lessons in Napa--also stands out among the travel-startup crowd because of its growth. The company has been around for a little more than a year and has already expanded to 19 cities, including London and Paris. In December, Peek made a play for travelers' pockets with a mobile app that curates local activities for instant purchase.
For introducing us to the virtual flight-assistant future. Over the past couple of years, strange new airline employees have been popping up in airports--they're polite, knowledgeable, and actually helpful. Perhaps it's because they're actually holograms, made by the New York-based developer of airport tech, Tensator. Lauded by some as the employee of the future--and not just at airports--Tensator's holograms are projected in HD, speak in multiple languages, and answer passengers' questions about security, flight and gate locations, and airport navigation. The holograms, which sport such cute names as Carla and Paige, are currently located at Dubai International, Washington Dulles, and Boston's Logan International airports.
For checking in with users to fuel its international expansion. The app that lets users find cheap hotel rooms at the last minute is now available at 250 destinations in 17 countries, expanding its service further into Europe with the additions of Germany and Switzerland last year. The company also added a couple of innovative features: Users can now "gift" a room to someone else, and "Snap Your Stay" encourages users to snap, edit, and upload shots of their hotel rooms to receive credits ranging from $5 to $10. It's a smart move on HotelTonight's part. Instead of hiring professional photographers to get in on the visual shift (like Airbnb does), it crowdsources photos from social media addict customers. The company recently reached another milestone by signing agreements with major hotel brands--including Hyatt and Best Western--to make it easier to negotiate lower reservation rates for guests.
Correction: Tensator is based in New York, not Florida. The entry has been updated and we regret the error.
[Image: Flickr user Les Haines]