Last week saw the soft launch of Hopper, the long-awaited consumer trip planning engine that claims to be powered by the "world's largest structured database of travel information".
Since last summer, the site has put wannabe users on a waiting list, allowing only a handful to become beta testers. But as of now, the bouncer's gone.
Anyone can create an account, road-test tools, and book flights.
Founded in 2007 and based in Boston and Montreal, the company has 23 full-time employees and has received more than $22 million in funding from backers such as Brightspark, Atlas Venture, and OMERS Ventures. It claims to have breakthrough semantic search technology.
A partial reveal
This is not a "launch" for Hopper, the company is at pains to point out. It's just that the general public can now open up free accounts.
The startup notes it is still in "alpha" mode. For instance, it says it has something special on the flight product side yet to debut.
Out of the gate, the inspiration engine primarily invites users to search by destination name. Photo-heavy summaries -- up to 10,000, so far -- have been aggregated from disparate sources: mostly from travel blogs and Wikipedia.
On each destination page, which can get as granular as the name of a pub in a small British city, Hopper has a simple flight search module, which suggests a calendar for the cheapest dates to fly from a user's preferred airport. A couple of airfares are listed, along with estimated multi-modal travel times, point-to-point.
The simplicity of showing only a few fares apparently aims to be an antidote to the typical overwhelm of most sites' search results.
As for monetization, the initial focus is on flight metasearch. No lodging or tours or activities are touted or offered for booking -- at least, as of today -- even though inspiring options for "places and activities" are presented.
If a user wants to book plane tickets, they're prompted to pick dates and a preferred airline. Hopper then passes the user off to the relevant results page within a clearly labeled website booking site, such as a supplier (KLM.com or another airline) or an online travel agency (which in Tnooz's tests was always Travelocity, which is now powered by Expedia for domestic US itineraries). [UPDATE Jan. 14: Still waiting to hear from Sabre Inc about when the Expedia takeover precisely happens.]
Several additional products are being considered by Hopper.
One possible product is to enable users to set up live price-tracking feeds so that they can see a price drop or trend in demand for routes they tell the site they're interested in, such as ski destinations or beaches in Europe. But nothing specific has been revealed.
Content marketing effort
To gee up some brand recognition, Hopper also launched its research blog, a content marketing effort, a week ago. (It's on Twitter at @hopperresearch.)
The blog is written by Hopper's chief data scientist Patrick Surry and director of research, Alex Mozdzanowska. Their full-time jobs are to analyze the data that's drawn from feeds from the top three global distribution systems (GDSs) - Amadeus, Sabre and Travelport.
One of their part-time tasks is the blog. Editors at news publication have traditionally eaten up data-driven studies about travel because they are often desperate to create "news" out of an otherwise evergreen topic.
A case in point: Hopper Research was quoted by the Associated Press in an article that was syndicated in more than 50 publications, for its factoids on how recent cold snap in North America (nicknamed the Polar Vortex) affected travel.
My ultimate vision is to make the travel section of news publications look more like the sports section. Let's make the articles and videos more quantitative. Right now, the travel section is all anecdotal stories, but it could be driven by charts and infographics.
What we're trying to do is establish our credentials as a source of data-driven travel content. We're not writing content on the blog that's directly aimed at consumers, but we'd like that content to become visible to consumers through media sources.
The team says it is also looking to hire a visual designer who knows how to communicate numbers and data in creative ways.
Surry tells Tnooz:
"One goal is to tap into Big Data to let consumers get rid of the feeling that they were a chump when buying a ticket. Our data will help a person gauge if a deal was reasonable compared with what other travelers were finding online at the same time.
It's kind of ironic how at any given time, a million people are searching for tickets, but every person feels isolated. Hopper's data can help get rid of that feeling."
Digging into the data
It's still early days for the blog. A recent post looked at the roughly 10 million queries done on GDSs per day, Hopper Research found that the most popular US destination of 2013 was Las Vegas. So far, so Gladwellian (i.e., applying a gloss of scientistic paint to prove a fact that's already widely accepted).
Yet as time goes on, travel industry nerds may become interested in Hopper Research's take on surprising data patterns.
Analysis of a "fat finger" fare sale
Exhibit A: Surry and Mozdzanowska recently studied what effect a recent Delta 'fat finger' blooper fare had on search queries across the major GDSs.
During a two-hour period on December 26, they saw about 83,000 flight searches that included a Delta Air Lines round-trip fare between New York and LA below $50.
Because we're can retroactively look back at the GDS data feed streams of search behavior from GDSs, we could do searches showing just how many people responded to the news of a fare for less than $50 that's ordinarily much more.
When you drill into the data, you see the viral explosion of when fares get out on a route like JFK to LAX. It starts off that behavior in search is what you expect, but all of a sudden Delta starts winning, and in half-an-hour you see a huge explosion where the volume has gone up -- a social media viral effect -- which causes a huge spike until they fix the mistake. Even for a few more hours afterward after the fare disappeared, there's above average search interest.
"No website is offering context and comfort so price-conscious leisure travelers can feel that, given their criteria that goes beyond price, they obtained a reasonable deal. We're thinking about publishing reports on how to book travel to the upcoming Winter Olympics. We might create Billboard-style rankings of the popularity of various destinations according to certain metrics.
"We expect a lot of the data we'll be pulling will be to help frame decisions so that travelers know what's reasonable. We're not aiming to write for consumers directly, but hoping the media will help us get the word out. But we're very data driven at Hopper, so if doesn't work after six months we'll try something else."
The blog is a content marketing effort that is reminiscent of the one conducted by real estate price-tracking site Zillow and by online dating site OK Cupid (whose popular blog OKTrends that used to pull whimsical factoids out of company data in a branding effort) and by the social-media sharing company Buffer with its blog.
NB: Disclosure: Hopper CEO Fred Lalonde is also chairman of Tnooz.