TripAdvisor-owned Airfarewatchdog has unveiled a curated hotels recommendation service.
Still in beta-testing the free service invites travelers to type in their destination and travel dates to receive an edited list of the top 20 hotels to consider. The hotels are ranked by a combination of criteria described as "great prices, locations, and TripAdvisor ratings."
By limiting its suggestions to only 20 top hotels, the product potentially encroaches on the turf of other profitable industry players in the travel recommendation game.
Names that come to mind include Travelzoo (with its famous e-mail lists, such as its Top 20 travel and entertainment deals), HotelTonight (which on any given day limits its hotel listings to perhaps 70 choices in a major global city), and edited boutique listings services like Mr & Mrs Smith Hotels.
The product also cuts in a different direction from parent company's TripAdvisor's "more is more" approach. An edited list is the opposite tactic from providing a nearly unlimited number of reviews, forum answers, and metasearch results to any query.
Will the new dog hunt?
As implied above, the hotel search service is a brand extension of Airfarewatchdog, a website founded by well regarded journalistGeorge Hobica and acquired by TripAdvisor's editorial division Smarter Travel Media in 2008.
Up until now, Airfarewatchdog has lived up to its name. Its handful of staff experts hunt for unusually low airfares, and a user can sign up to receive alerts for deals relevant to airports or routes he or she is interested in.
So far, the new spinoff product, curated hotels, is not being marketed by any distinct name, such as HotelWatchdog. (That said, HotelWatchdog.com is owned by Smarter Travel Media and is currently unused.) For now, the service is simply being labeled Airfarewatchdog's hotel search.
A trial balloon for TripAdvisor itself ...?
TripAdvisor is often at pains to say it doesn't interfere in the day-to-day management of its menagerie of little acquisitions.
But it's hard to believe that if this product proves there's a deep market for curated hotel recommendations that TripAdvisor wouldn't consider a way of adapting the product to its core offerings under its own brand name.
There's a precedent for the company to cherry-pick functionality from its quizzical collection of editorial operations and use them in its signature products.
In February, TripAdvisor relaunched its Flights metasearch tool, allowing users look up the details of on-board amenities (such as whether there is wifi, power ports, or seatback TVs) and pour through “thousands” of user-generated photos of seats and cabins.
This was a direct incorporation of the main service of SeatGuru, a site it picked up in 2007. Presumably the content of GateGuru, a site about the amenities at major airports that TripAdvisor acquired last year, will eventually be integrated as well.
...or a sideshow?
TripAdvisor has a reputation of not interfering with the recommendations made by any of the editorial sites under the Smarter Travel Media roof, such as the Smarter Travel guides. On the other hand, except for a few links off of its homepage, there's almost no cross-promotion or heavy investment in these editorial enterprises.
Another of its purchases, editorial cruise review site CruiseCritic, doesn't even mention that it is owned by TripAdvisor on either its homepage or its About Us page. But sources have told us that it has not felt the giant company's interference in operations.
Running hot and cold on editorial
The context is this: TripAdvisor, as a corporation, has always had a bi-polar streak when it comes to editorial content. For the bulk of its business, TripAdvisor favors user-generated and commercially influenced content above everything else.
But from time to time, it hands a megaphone to individual experts, bankrolling internet platforms that help share those experts' opinions -- as if it thought that independent editorial judgment had monetary value.
Fickle or feckless?
From its very start, TripAdvisor has run hot and then cold and then hot again toward editorial operations.
TripAdvisor's marquee site launched with a healthy dose of syndicated reviews of hotels from guidebooks and other travel editorial brands.
But over time, those reviews vanished, and user-generated ratings became all -- along with the opportunity for brands to pay for top-three positions in hotel metasearch results.
In April, TripAdvisor hired Conde Nast Traveler (US)'s revered consumer editor Wendy Perrin and installed her as an editor on its blog and a spokesperson for TV appearances. She doesn't review hotels but she dispenses expert advice of the kind that made her the most respected consumer editor in US magazines.
But no one knows how committed TripAdvisor will be. If you search the TripAdvisor homepage, you won't find a link to the blog.
And back in 2009, it hired the former editor of Budget Travel magazine to be an editor as well, but then lost interest after about a year.
In other examples: TripAdvisor acquired JetSetter, a flash deals sales site that had a strong editorial component -- with dozens of contributors, many of them professional journalists, being paid to draft custom itineriaries on request for fees of about $300 a pop. That editorial operation didn't survive the transition to TripAdvisor.
Three months ago, JetSetter said it was making a new editorial effort by launching video interviews on site at boutique properties. According to the company, staffers would
"interview guests, lobby squatters and walk-throughs (who we identify as having great style) about their travel rituals and travel philosophy, hotel amenity favorites, destination dreams and travel style choices."
But only one video has appeared in those three months.
Another example of TripAdvisor's skepticism about the business value of editorial offerings is hotel review site Oyster, which it fetched out of the bargain bin last autumn and has mostly used for re-purposing of Oyster's professional hotel photos on the main TripAdvisor site.
In light of all that, the key question for the "HotelWatchdog" product is if its top 20 lists of curated hotels are ultimately driven by algorithms or by humans. The more editorial supervision is involved, the more likely TripAdvisor will not adapt the model for its own use in a major way.
Promise and peril
One metaphor for describing TripAdvisor's editorial approach is this: Think of the company as a solar system -- with the main hotel reviews platform generating the most energy at its center -- and with some of the editorial operations as dwarf planets orbiting in the far distance.
The dwarf planets reflect varied amounts of light depending on how often their orbits bring them close to the center. From time to time, some are downgraded to nameless chunks of debris.
Considering that history, some industry observers may be curious about the eventual orbit that will be taken by Airfarewatchdog's hotel search, a.k.a. HotelWatchdog.
Given the consistent, profitable success claimed by Airfarewatchdog, given that hotel referrals deliver much higher commissions than flights do, and the given parent company's success in hotel recommendations, this product might be a shining star -- or even the start of something bigger.