Hotels make a play in the online booking space


Airlines have not been shy in recent months about trying to shift the booking channel to a direct model, avoiding online travel agencies or other middlemen. At the same time the hotel industry has been mostly quiet, moving along with the status quo. That changed this week, however, as a group of hotel chains teamed up to build a new hotel search engine, RoomKey.com.

The new site is a collaborative effort between six major hotel brands and features only their properties in the results. And that’s only one of the "features" that’s not so useful with the site. I gave it a quick spin and the initial results were not too impressive for me.

The main search screen is reasonably clean, though the emoticons in the date bits are arguably a bit too cutesy.

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The search results page has many of the familiar slider style filters on top, covering price, rating, date and distance. All functional and such, but not particularly different than many other sites out there.

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What is different about the search results is the grid view results display. Of all the different sorts of search results views I’ve seen, I truly believe this is the most confusing and least intuitive. Trying to compare features, location or prices of the properties is painfully difficult, though I suppose the bigger pictures are nice.

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There is a list view as well, which at least makes the comparison bits easier. That said, I was surprised by the number of "One Single Bed" results that were returned when I did a search for a room for two adults. Maybe they want me to feel nostalgic for my days as a college freshman in the dorm.

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Booking is farmed out to the direct channel sites of the brand so transactions are not handled by the site. Given their goal of reducing costs to the brands and allowing direct control over price and inventory this isn’t too surprising. But it also speaks to my biggest beef with the site: limited choice. Somewhat ironic in that a major benefit the brands are touting is that it expands choice.

Steve Sickel, senior vice president, distribution and relationship marketing for IHG, agrees. “Room Key came together because we have a common need in the market; we know it’s nothing unique to IHG, Choice or Marriott,” he says. “Travelers like to shop, and while each of our IHG brand websites has the best price guarantee and the information to find a great hotel, guests only see the choice of our brands. We know that customers like multiple choices, but they want to be able to book direct as well, so we all saw the common need that led to a common solution.”

I can understand the hotels (and the airlines) trying to cut out middlemen; it costs them money and limits their flexibility. At the same time, however, it isn’t as good for the consumer. There is never going to be a site that can show all the hotel options in a particular location – there are simply too many independent properties for that to be feasible – but a site like this is even more limited. On the plus side, there is a decent mix of brands that are included in the listings, but there are still only a tiny fraction of the options listed, especially compared to an OTA site that is more brand agnostic.

USA Today’s hotel guru, Barbara Delollois, posted about the new site on her FaceBook page and it introduced an interesting conversation between hoteliers and customers, a/k/a me. The hoteliers love the new site for all the obvious reasons. The costs to them are dramatically lower. This allows them to invest more in their product or offer better rates to the customer (though none of them suggested the latter in the discussion). As a consumer, however, I dislike options that limit choice. I dislike options that reduce transparency. And I dislike options that pretend they’re doing me a favor when they aren’t. Simply being able to say that there’s at least an option or three in even smaller markets doesn’t do me so much good when I know there are dozens more options beyond those brand walls.

It is a pretty site (except that grid view) and it is certainly a cheaper site for the hotels in terms of distribution costs. But it isn’t likely to sway me from broader search tools such as hotels.com anytime soon.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

11 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review. I looked over the site yesterday and thought it might do some of the functions Kayak used to do but not so useful for Best Rate Guarantee purposes.

    Looking at the selection of hotels in the screenshots makes me want to join Choice Nordic.

  2. Best Western signed on today to RoomKey.com meaning the site now covers 7 of the 9 major loyalty programs for the US market: Best Western, Choice, Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental, Marriott and Wyndham Hotels.

    Carlson and Starwood are the biggest hotel programs not represented.

    This might work out to be a good site for a loyalty traveler focused on these programs.

  3. Like you said, the rates aren’t markedly better. If the hotels are saving money by providing their own site, I would hope they could promise to have the lowest price, too, or even a small discount, just as most airlines have some kind of best-price guarantee on their own websites.

    1. The booking actually happens direct on the brand’s website so the BRG’s should apply there.

      I wasn’t looking for the rates to necessarily be better, but I really find it hard to see a new entrant that is working to not show all the options out there as a useful tool. I don’t want to have one tool for 7 brands, another tool for 5 others and yet another for the unbranded options. Too much work for me, not making things better.

  4. I don’t agree your assessment of the search results view. I don’t find anything confusing or not intuitive about it…if you want to compare location, use the map view. If you want to compare on price, sort by price, etc. Maybe I have simple booking requirements, but I love the graphics and I wasn’t struck by anything overtly negative in terms of the search results display.

    As someone who is pretty brand-centric, I can actually see myself using this from time to time, as the independent properties that Hotels.com returns are often extra clutter on the screen that I don’t like sifting through.

    1. I found the grid view to be a debacle, making comparison and review of the options pretty difficult. The list and map views are fine. But the grid is the default and that was pretty bad.

      If you’re brand-centric then why not go directly to your preferred brand. Or is it that you don’t care which brand it is so long as it is branded. I guess there are enough people out there who buy into that view; it doesn’t make sense to me. I love those independent properties. I stay in them all over the world, saving tons of cash and getting a much different (and, to me, better) experience.

  5. I don’t see the benefit of the Room Key site to me either. I tend to use the main chain hotels only in the U.S. as I also like to stay in independent places overseas if possible. And when I am looking for a chain hotel I’m often focused one, or two, in particular if I’m trying to make/keep status or they have a lucrative bonus going. So I’ll just go directly to their sites – it’s not that time consuming to do so.

    It seems like a compromise between the 3rd-party sites and individual chain sites – with no real consumer benefit to that compromise.

  6. Nice post. I read this article, and found it quite interesting. Hotels are saving money by providing their own site, I would hope they could promise to have the lowest price, too, or even a small discount, just as most airlines have some kind of best-price guarantee on their own websites.

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