Boutique hotel aggregation is a sizzling sector in the travel industry: Jetsetter was just purchased by TripAdvisor, startups like Want Me Get Me are aiming squarely at the segment, and stalwarts like Mr and Mrs Smith are still thriving amidst the upstarts - the latest being Coo Boutique.
These sites function by vetting hotels for customers and then aggregating availability of all approved niche hotels to customers. By offering a particular perk for booking with the curated search engine rather than direct, the sites siphon sales from the direct channel and build customer loyalty for their own brand.
Jetsetter offers editorial and deep discounts, Want Me Get Me offers special VIP-only perks, Kiwi Collection promises free perks with the Kiwi Advantage, and Mr and Mrs Smith has their own membership program called BlackSmith that offers various levels of cash back and perks.
Coo Boutique is joining the fray by offering up to 7% cash back without any paid membership cards.
The crowded field also includes savvy lifestyle curators Tablet Hotels, and so the startup is differentiating itself with an elegant design, smart font choices and interactive travel guides.
Co-founder Tushar Roy, a lifelong traveler, started the business after struggling to find unique, special hotels to stay with his wife when traveling to India.
We researched places to stay, eat and shop like most travelers and booked our hotel based on reviews (like Trip Advisor) star rating and price. The hotel we booked was a 5* and excellent reviews but did not live up to our expectations.
The staff was very rude, people were knocking at our door middle of night (to where we had to call security who came to check it out like an hour later), food was mediocre...and not to mention we missed our flight due to the car service the hotel arranged which dropped us off at the wrong terminal.
After I returned from my vacation I realized there wasn’t a site out there that offered simply the best hotels and stuck to their claims “of removing hotels failing to maintain standards”. And so Coo Boutique was born as a streamlined collection of only the best hotels in the world.
Coo Boutique launched in January 2012, with approx. 400 hotels, and is completely self-funded.
The team consists of Tushar and Director of Communications Elizabeth Heggie, alongside 10 other part-time team members who create content for the site (including contributing editors to Travel + Leisure and Wall Street Journal).
Read on for the Tnooz Q &A with co-founder Tushar Roy.
Describe what your start-up does, what problem it solves (differently to what is already out there) and for whom?
Coo offers a streamlined collection of the best hotels around the world and allows members to book hotels on our platform while earning 4% to 7% cash back on room bookings.
Members in addition to booking hotels can create a personalized city guide with recommendations from friends and like minded travelers using our interactive interface. We have taken the inconvenience, stress out of planning a vacation and made it fun, social and rewarding.
In late 2012, I was intrigued by the popularity of social commerce platforms and saw a void in the luxury travel market for a social trip planning platform. Not to mention I was always getting asked by friends where to stay, eat or how to save on a room booking.
So I meet with key hoteliers at the ILTM Cannes 2012 and pitched my idea of creating the first social trip planning platform for the luxury travel market where you can build an entire trip on one platform...eliminating the need to visit any other sites. It was an instant hit with the major hotel brands and in January 2013 my team and I started to build the first ever social trip planning platform for the luxury travel market - Coo Boutique.
Why should people or companies use your startup?
We solve two major problems
Other than going viral and receiving mountains of positive PR, what is the strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?
- Save you time as there is no need to visit numerous sites to plan a trip
- Save you $. When you book a Coo hotel, on over 95% of the hotels you earn 4% to 7% cash back. So there is no need to shop around.
The site is socially wired up encouraging and rewarding members to be social.
Our strategy on customer acquisition is:
- Social media (Facebook advertising)
- SEO to gain organic traffic
- PPC to generate room bookings.
- Blogger outreach - bloggers/contributors earn special titles and perks on Coo. Their profiles on Coo feature their Twitter, FB and website info on our site...e.g. http://www.cooboutique.com/passport/inviato-travel:
This encourages bloggers to share Coo to their networks.
How did your initial idea evolve? Were there changes/any pivots along the way? What other options have you considered for the business if the original vision fails?
Our focus has always been on offering only the best hotels and catering to a high-end demographic. With the new platform the focus hasn’t changed. What changed were our approach and the design – where now we are more social media driven, encouraging members to sign-up with Facebook, and share places they love.
We continue to grow each day and being a self funded company we are pleased with our traction. Once the seed funding kicks in we will be able to grow at a faster pace. If we are unable to raise the seed capital we will still continue to grow through partnerships.
Where do you see yourselves in 3 years time, what specific challenges do you hope to have overcome (please refrain from using biggest, best or most awesome in your answer)?
We all hope for a major buy out from another travel company or publication. I see a company that is profitable, offering exceptional service and value to our members and continuing the path of growth to create jobs.
In addition a Coo Foundation which helps support education in third world countries.
The biggest challenge is generating seed capital – as mentioned I have bootstrapped and build Coo with no outside investment. With the seed capital I will be able to grow this business.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
The luxury travel market has pretty much been static. Most hotel brands want to jump into social media however don’t have the expertise or the platform. This is where Coo comes in to drive awareness for hotels and connect the best hotels with discerning travelers globally.
A quick search across the boutique hotel meta search sites yields surprisingly little inventory differentiation. One of the clearest paths to success in this space will be developing exclusive partnerships that ensure only the best boutique hotels on the service. The team is aware of this issue and aims to double the number of hotel offerings to approximately 1000 hotels in 2013.
Beyond the inventory issue, Cooboutique benefits from a descriptive, if a tad cutesy, name that is not as confusing as some of its competitors.
Competing with the established players - especially those with cash flow derived from their existing business. The ability for these brands to spend on PPC, in addition to engaging content development, is going to be a competitive advantage against any upstart.
Building a dedicated, passionate community that makes Cooboutique the first stop when searching for hotels will be essential - not an easy feat for any brand, but especially important for a company that relies on converting traffic to sales for its livelihood.
The company's other way to income involves selling Enhanced Listings to hotels - this is a stretch, as there are already an excess of booking channels. Why would a hotel pay for an Enhanced Listing rather, or in addition to, a commission? For a dedicated community that truly engages and uses the site to book hotels.
This community must be the key focus for the Cooboutique team.