Travel Tech Veteran Reynolds Prepping New Hotel Shopping Tool

A frequent critic of what he calls the corporate travel industry's lack of innovation, travel technology consultant Steve Reynolds is putting his own skin in the game by developing an automated hotel shopping tool now being tested for corporate travel.

Called TripBam, the tool monitors and automatically books (or re-books) rates at suggested hotels based on traveler-selected criteria.

It asks users to input either a current reservation or a general idea of the desired location, type of hotel and rate, then automatically searches for better rates among a cluster of comparable hotels. The tool generates offers from a handful of nearby hotels in the same tier and a list of several other hotels, against which travelers can check rates. Travelers can develop their watch list as they see fit__including just a few hotels or up to several dozen__and also provide information, including ratings thresholds and desired room types.

Pegasus Solutions serves as TripBam's hotel content provider, offering access to about 90,000 individual hotels, Reynolds said.

After an initial check, TripBam on a daily basis continues to monitor rates in the cluster.

The tool also accesses some consortia rates and soon will be able to notify property managers of hotels in the cluster that might want to make offers to beat the booked rate, Reynolds said. The property manager will not see the hotel at which the traveler initially booked but will know the rate the traveler would pay. TripBam can facilitate bookings for any counteroffers the manager makes, he explained.

"We can't guarantee the traveler will accept that hotel, but we'll get it in front of that traveler and give that hotel a fair shot of getting that traveler to move," Reynolds said.

Whenever a hotel offers a rate that meets the traveler's criteria, TripBam books it automatically and notifies the traveler via email. The traveler has the option to approve the booking or simply ignore it, in which case it will be canceled. Searching continues until the cancellation deadline on the original booking or earlier, if the traveler so chooses, Reynolds said.

In beta tests, the tool found savings about 80 percent of the time, and the savings were about $100 per hotel search, he claimed.

Among the early testers were a few small and midsize corporations, according to Reynolds. Over time, Reynolds plans to better assess how to target large corporations, but for now, smaller companies without huge hotel programs are more ideal customers, he said.

"It's a whole different world, because they want to bias toward their preferred whether it saves money or not," he said. "It's more about share shift in that world, and if it saves $10, it might not be worth it."

WellPoint manager of strategic sourcing for travel Cindy Heston has been among the corporate travel buyers testing TripBam. She said she would introduce to her travel program as a "very structured option," first using it only to compare rates at the same property where travelers have booked. As she builds up data from that first phase, she might begin to use larger clusters__perhaps limited to other preferred hotels__or use the data from TripBam to determine whether she needs to make changes to her hotel program.

WellPoint's agency, Travelocity Business, offers a somewhat similar program to monitor savings, and Heston said TripBam "melds very well with the program we have in place." WellPoint travelers will not be interacting directly with TripBam, however.

"We're using the agency as more of a mediator, getting the records over to TripBam, and they can do the search behind the scenes," Heston said. "From our perspective, it's very clean, and we definitely want to keep it between TripBam and the agency."

Reynolds said his testing showed the tool, used over a period of several bookings, provided savings even if the user limited it to the booked property. "You find less opportunity and percentage of savings, but it is meaningful," he said.

Reynolds plans a "soft launch" this month followed by a broader launch in May.

He also is making the tool available to travel agencies on a white-label basis. Dallas-based Travel Solutions by Campbell intends to be an early adopter, having been impressed with its initial tests, said partner and CEO Bill Campbell. The agency's savings rates jibed with what Reynolds reported.

"We were blown away," Campbell said. "We didn't find any issues with [the beta product.] It was very sound, all of the data appeared very accurate and usage was perfect."

Campbell, whose agency largely targets companies with small and midsize travel programs in the region, said he would work with Reynolds to make TripBam a more corporate product, rather than a consumer offering, and to integrate it within Campbell's own travel solution.

"It will be a completely hands-off process," Campbell said. "The traveler will book through the corporate online solution, they can be navigated through policy, and the hotel they purchased will go into the corporate version of TripBam."

TripBam also captures rate information for analysis and reporting, and Reynolds said some corporations have expressed interest in receiving that data to validate their programs' value.

TripBam currently has five employees and is backed by several "angel investors," Reynolds said. At the same time, Reynolds plans to continue consulting through The R Group, which he founded, though that could lessen as TripBam grows, he said.

"As of now, there's no reason why I need to fold up The R Group until TripBam really takes off," Reynolds said. "I like consulting; it keeps me in the know and adds value in a lot of ways, so I'm going to continue to do it as long as I can."