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.
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.
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.
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.
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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