Room 77 Helps Travelers Pick the Best Hotel Rooms—And Get Virtual Peek Out the Windows

2/24/11Follow @wroush

Why can people planning trips online “see every cabin on a cruise ship and every seat on a plane, but not every room in a hotel?”

That was the rhetorical question posed to me yesterday by Kevin Fliess, an Internet travel industry veteran. The basic answer, of course, is that hotel chains use antiquated reservations systems that make it impossible for guests to screen or select specific rooms in advance, the way airline passengers can when they’re buying tickets online. But that doesn’t mean you have to arrive at your next hotel totally unarmed—at least, not anymore.

Today Room 77, a Sunnyvale, CA, startup where Fliess is general manager and vice president of product, took the lid off a huge hotel room database that, for the first time, will allow travelers to figure out which rooms they’ll probably like best at specific hotels. Using information from the Room 77 site, guests can arrive at a property ready to negotiate for the room they want. Or they can use the Room 77 mobile app on the spot to screen rooms offered to them by front-desk staff. Thanks to a little Google Earth magic, they can even see what the view out the window will be like.

Ever heard of SeatGuru, the TripAdvisor-owned site that lets you zero in on the best seats on almost 800 models of planes owned by nearly 100 airlines? Room 77 is like that, but for hotel rooms. The startup has painstakingly assembled floor-by-floor maps of 425,000 rooms in 2,500 hotels around the world. (About 500 hotels are searchable at the Room 77 site starting today.) If you like rooms on high floors that are close to the elevators, you can sort through the possibilities according to those criteria, and others. Just like SeatGuru, Room 77 shows you the best matches on each floor in green, poor matches in red, and in-between choices in yellow.

The site is the brainchild of founder and chairman Brad Gerstner, who also runs Boston-based Altimeter Capital Management, a travel, technology, and Internet investment firm. Gerstner “has been in the travel space for over a decade, and he grew increasingly perplexed by the fact that there are dozens of sites where you can learn about hotels, but the hotels themselves are a complete black box,” Fliess says. “The room you are assigned is a crap shoot, and you know nothing about it until you open the door. [Gerstner] is a big believer in creating transparency where it doesn’t exist on the Web. So we started building what amounts to the first hotel room search engine.”

There’s a fascinating story to how the company built this engine (at least, it’s fascinating to me, a certified mapping and travel geek). The first hurdle was creating an annotated map of every floor in every three- to five-star hotel in every major world travel destination. Room 77 couldn’t simply tap via the Internet into hotels’ existing computerized reservation systems, called property management systems, because most don’t even have programming interfaces that can connect to other software. So they started by asking individual hotel managers to hand over their detailed floor plans.

Some cooperated; some were more reluctant. But hotel floor plans are public data—in most cases the information is available from city planners. So “we can make this happen with or without the hotel’s participation,” Fliess says. Room 77′s secret weapon is … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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