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 the fact that every hotel room has an escape-route map on the back of the door. A sketch or a photo of that map, once digitized, can serve pretty well as Room 77′s base map, Fliess says. (In fact, there’s a “Sleuth” feature in the company’s iPhone app, also released today, that lets individual users send the company pictures of these maps and other hotel features. Fliess says an Android version of the app is on the way.)

Using a system designed by Room 77 vice president of engineering Calvin Yang, a former Googler who led development of the search giant’s image-search tools, the company creates digital drawings of each hotel floor. It’s then able to calculate parameters such as the walking distance from each room to the elevator banks, as well as the latitude, longitude, and altitude of every room.

And having that geospatial information is the key to what is perhaps Room 77′s single most gee-whiz feature: the ability to preview the view out the window of every room in every indexed hotel, using the Google Earth browser plugin. If you’ve ever explored Google Earth’s 3-D representations of real cities, as I have, you know that the tool’s simulations are startlingly accurate. So you can tell, before you take a room on the 15th floor of that beach hotel in Waikiki, whether the view of Diamond Head is as beautiful as the property’s brochures promised, or whether there’s actually another hotel in the way.

But what’s the use of all this information if prospective hotel guests can’t simply point and click to select a room, the way they can with a seat on a plane? Well, that feature might be coming—more on that in a second. For the time being, says Fliess, the idea is to give travelers the data they need to get the best room possible when the time comes to call a hotel and make a reservation.

The company offers a number of tips to help with that process: For one thing, you have to speak to front desk staff—call center representatives aren’t empowered to assign individual rooms. It’s best to call during off-peak times (9 to 11 am, 1 to 4 pm, or after 6 pm). Also, most hotels don’t assign rooms until 24 to 48 hours before guests arrive, so there’s no point in asking for a particular room more than two days in advance. Callers should have a range of options in mind, rather than a single “best” room. And it really helps to belong to a hotel’s loyalty program, since members get first dibs on room assignments. The company’s final tip: “Ask politely—you know, the ‘catching more flies with honey’ bit.”

Down the road, says Fliess, Room 77 may introduce an advanced feature that it’s tentatively calling “Room Request Guarantee.” For certain hotels, prospective guests would be able to ask for a specific room or set of rooms directly from Room 77′s site, and the startup would then work directly with the hotel to reserve them (and probably earn a sales commission in the process). Certain hotels are interested in the feature already, Fliess says, but the company wants to get as many properties on board as possible before offering it.

But for now, Room 77 is “just about getting information into the hands of consumers,” says Fliess. “We feel like step one is creating this transparency and empowerment for consumers, and we think that is going to get the demand going [for more options]. Hotels are starting to understand that their best customers care about this, and that if they can get their best customers into the right rooms, that drives greater guest satisfaction and loyalty and can lead to incremental revenue.”

Room 77 has 20 employees, half of them engineers, including several from Google and Facebook. The whole business development staff comes from the online travel industry, including Fliess, who was previously founder of a social travel planning site called Travelmuse, which acquired last fall by New York-based Travel Ad Network. Fliess says the startup has raised about $3 million in capital last April from Sutter Hill Ventures, PAR Capital Management, and a posse of individual travel and Internet veterans including Expedia founder Rich Barton, former Farecast CEO Hugh Crean, Bing.com travel industry director Krista Pappas, and Zillow co-founder Lloyd Frinka.

The 500 hotels included in Room 77′s searchable index at today’s launch span 15 North American cities—including New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Seattle—as well as London. And it’s adding more cities all the time; Fliess says the goal is to index the majority of the three- to five-star hotels in each city before adding that city to the index.

It would greatly surprise me if Room 77 stayed independent for more than 12 months—my bet is that a travel information company like Newton, MA-based TripAdvisor will snap it up swiftly. It’s not just that Room 77 is applying the mapping idea from TripAdvisor’s SeatGuru site to hotel rooms (right down to the red, yellow, and green squares). It’s that helping travelers identify the best hotels for their trips is the very core of TripAdvisor’s business—and Room 77′s database could help the company go to the next level, allowing users to select (and perhaps even review) individual rooms.

On top of that, the online travel industry is consolidating fast, with a few big travel-IT companies like TripAdvisor and Concur busily rolling up smaller ones—last month Concur bought San Francisco-based TripIt, and earlier this month TripAdvisor bought Palo Alto, CA-based EveryTrail. So it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see Room 77 checking in at a bigger company sometime soon.

[Update 2/25/11: Yesterday Room 77 won the "Best Overall" prize in the 1.0 competition at San Francisco's Launch conference.]

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

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