Hipmunk Takes On Hotel Search

With an elegant flight search tool that debuted last August, San Francisco-based Hipmunk essentially issued a challenge to the travel industry. Most online travel search and reservation systems, the Y Combinator-backed startup argued, are simply too complex and tedious; co-founders Adam Goldstein and Steve Huffman showed how new Web interface technologies could be used to offer a radically simplified alternative.

Today Hipmunk renewed its argument by turning on its second major product, a new hotel search engine. It’s designed to offer quick, obvious answers to key questions that hotel sites and other travel sites never seem to answer, such as: Which hotels are close to the fun stuff? How much should I expect to pay, and what’s a good deal? How do I know the hotels ranked highly in a search are actually good?

Hipmunk’s fundamental goal as a company “is just to help people find the best trip with as little trouble as possible,” says Goldstein, now CEO. In practice, that boils down to using some clever visualization techniques to present lots of data quickly and efficiently.

Hipmunk’s flight interface, for example, shows individual flights as stripes on a horizontal timeline, and it stacks up many comparable flights vertically, giving searchers an instant picture of their options. Users can sort the options according to parameters such as departure time, price, duration, or “agony” (a combination or price, duration, and number of stops). Befitting its subject matter, the new hotel interface is organized according to geography rather than time. It arrays hotels on a Google map with heat-map-style overlays that show where each property sits relative to a city’s hottest tourist, restaurant, shopping, nightlife, and “vice” areas. Users can sort results according to quality, price, reviews, or “ecstasy” (a combination of price, amenities, and Yelp ratings).

Hipmunk’s products aren’t necessarily all about visualization, Goldstein says. But he admits that “our products tend to have a visual slant, because that’s how we like to process information ourselves. I think it’s a symptom of what we’re trying to achieve, but it’s become something that people think of when they think of us.”

Goldstein gave me brief tour of the new interface, which was designed to fix what the company sees as three main pain points in searching for a hotel.

“Number one, we wanted to make sure people could understand where the best place to stay is, physically, in a city or town,” he says. “So the first pass we’ve taken at that is helping people understand where the interesting stuff is happening—where the restaurants and tourist attractions are, so they can figure out which hotels are near those things and pick one of those.” To create the heat map overlays, Hipmunk is using data from San Francisco-based startup location data provider SimpleGeo and other sources, Goldstein says.

Second, Hipmunk wants to help searchers get a picture of the going rate for hotel rooms in the city they’re visiting. “The way a lot of sites do it, you can filter by price, but if you’re going to a place like New York or San Francisco for the first time, you don’t really know what you should be expecting to pay,” Goldstein points out. The startup’s strategy is to color-code the hotels on its maps according to their relative cost. The most expensive hotels in a city relative to the average are in red, for example, while the cheapest are green and the average hotels are blue.

Finally, Goldstein says Hipmunk wants to increase users’ trust that the hotels they’re seeing are ranked according to some objective criteria. Kayak, to name one major industry player, offers a “featured sort” option for hotel search results where hotels can bid for the highest placement. “We think this is totally anti-consumer,” Goldstein says. “Our goal is not to list hotels by who is paying the most but instead by user reviews and amenities and price. The combination of those things, we think, makes for a more relevant and consumer-friendly ranking.”

Once you’ve found a hotel on Hipmunk’s maps that looks good, you can click through to another service such as HotelsCombined.com or DHR.com to make a room reservation. (Or, if you want even more granular information, you could head over to Room 77, the hotel search service introduced last week that uses Google Earth to show you the simulated views out the windows of specific rooms in each hotel.)

Hipmunk has grown from just two co-founders—Goldstein’s colleague Huffman was formerly CEO of Reddit, which he sold to Conde Nast in 2006—to a current staff of seven. In January the company picked up $4.2 million in a Series A financing round led by Ignition Partners and a posse of travel industry veterans, including former Expedia CEO Rich Barton, former Expedia CEO Eric Blachford, TravelPost co-founder Simon Breakwell, and Preview Travel founder Jim Hornthal. RealNetworks founder Rob Glaser also invested.

And what’s that “vice” criterion I mentioned earlier? I thought at first that it had to do with crime levels, but Goldstein says it’s a way of mapping a city according to the locations of strip clubs, adult video stores, casinos, and “stuff like that,” meaning, well, use your imagination. The company doesn’t specifically try to map red-light districts, Goldstein says, but “effectively, if you look at a city like Amsterdam, I think you will see a pretty high overlap.” Which, I guess, could give new meaning to the site’s ecstasy rating.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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