Offering a peaceful oasis in the middle of a frenzied world is a hotelier's prime service objective, but the style, security and comfort that envelops guests as they walk through the door belies what hotels go through to meet their prime business objective: putting butts in beds.
That is especially true in New York City's Times Square, where throngs of hotels vie for the consumers rushing past their doors daily. Hotel operators like Jason Mancuso, general manager of Room Mate Grace, may not appear to be gnashing teeth over the challenge, but the pressure is there.
"We're a new hotel, and there's a lot of competition," he says. "So, anything we can do to fill empty rooms, even just for that night, is a benefit."
Mancuso, whose hotel is one of the first U.S. outposts of Madrid-based Room Mate Hotels, was looking for an edge--and found it--when information on a new iPhone app called HotelTonight crossed the desk of the hotel's revenue manager.
HotelTonight, founded by serial entrepreneur Sam Shank of travel discount site DealBase.com fame, rolled out the app in January. The company developed HotelTonight after looking at ways to apply DealBase.com's sensibilities to the mobile world. "What people wanted most was last-minute hotel booking," Shank says.
HotelTonight is available exclusively as a mobile app and, for now, only on Apple devices (including the iPad and iPod Touch). It lets users book discounted, same-night reservations at one of three different hotels, classified by the categories basic, hip and elegant. New deals are posted every day at noon.
"It's great for pushing short-term reservations at the last minute," Mancuso says. "We have definitely seen a difference from it. People are using the app."
One of those people is Sarjoun Skaff, co-founder and CTO of Bossa Nova Robotics, a startup spun out of Carnegie Mellon University. "We were attending a trade fair in New York, and a colleague flew in unexpectedly at the end of the day," Skaff says. "There was no space in our hotel, and it was too late to use conventional hotel booking sites."
Skaff had downloaded the HotelTonight app but hadn't used it yet, so he decided to try it out. "The experience was flawless," he says. "I was in the app and out in under two minutes, having searched, found and booked a good room at a great price. Navigating the app was intuitive, and the booking process was efficient."
As part of the booking process, a user can place a room on hold, giving them 10 minutes to complete the checkout or consider other options. Skaff says the last-minute booking saved money, too, getting his colleague a room for $65 that normally would go for more than $150.
For now, being limited to the Apple crowd gives HotelTonight a sort of underground appeal, though Mancuso says he would love to see it go mass-market. Shank says HotelTonight is headed in that direction.
"We developed for Apple first because it had the best developer tools," he says, "but near-term, we want to be on all mobile devices."
Dan O'Shea is a Chicago-based writer who has been covering telecom, mobile and other high-tech topics for nearly 20 years.