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The Future of Travel Booking, An Interview with Hotel Tonight CEO Sam Shank

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A disproportionate amount of life – business especially – seems to live in the last minute.  Plans change, you find yourself in Boston for the weekend, and you need a place to stay.  You need to be assured you’ll get a good night’s sleep and be stationed in a central part of the city, all without paying out the posterior (not too much to ask).  In the past three to five years, the solution to this problem would likely have been Travelocity, hotels.com, Priceline, or something of the likes.

Today, there’s a new player looking to disrupt this field – Hotel Tonight – a mobile app offering up to 70% discounts on day-of bookings.

This is a space that Hotel Tonight’s CEO and co-founder Sam Shank has been pursuing since graduating from the Kellogg School of Management in 2004.  First was TravelPost, a hotel review and research site, which has accumulated more than a quarter million user-generated reviews to-date.  And then in 2008, Shank founded DealBase, a (profitable) web-based hotel deals search engine.  Today, Shank dedicates his days to Hotel Tonight due to a firm belief in mobile being “the game changer” for travel.

I caught up with Shank at the Hotel Tonight San Francisco headquarters to learn more about his inspiration behind Hotel Tonight, the future of travel, what people should consider before pursuing an MBA, and what drives him as an entrepreneur. Watch the video interview.

Transcript

Tech Cocktail:  Can you tell us about the inspiration behind Hotel Tonight?

Sam Shank:  I was working at my previous company, DealBase.com, which is a hotel deals aggregator website.  After getting that to profitability I started thinking about how do we do travel deals and hotel deals on a mobile device.  I was enamored with my iPhone and wanted to build something really kick ass for the iPhone and saw there was an opportunity to do something completely different than anyone else had done before – even very different from DealBase, on a mobile app.  That’s where we came up with the simplicity, the high level merchandising, the speed of booking, the quality of deals that is Hotel Tonight.

Tech Cocktail:  Why only mobile?  Why not also a website?

Shank:  When you’re a startup you have to really focus in on a couple of things and do really well at those.  I’d much rather kick ass on those couple of things.  Given the choice of building a website or a mobile app – we knew we had to pick one.  Given the choice of building a website, I’d rather focus on the area that didn’t have as much competition and it was also growing at about 100-150% per year, versus websites which are growing in the single digits.

Tech Cocktail:  Where is the future of travel booking headed?

Shank:  I’m super biased on this because of Hotel Tonight – I think mobile is the game changer for travel.  It’s the first big evolution in travel since online travel was invented 15 years ago.  What’s going to happen is that things are going to become a lot more spontaneous.  There’s going to be a lot more personalization through your social graph, through your previous purchases, through your location.  It’s going to be more of a concierge like experience.  It’s almost like we go back to that same level of service we had before the Internet with travel agents.

Tech Cocktail:  You started an entrepreneur club while at the Kellogg School of Management.  Can you speak to what role creating this organization has played in the spectrum of your career?  Also, what advice would you like to offer to those considering pursuing an MBA?

Shank:  I went to Kellogg and wanted to get an MBA for very specific reasons, I had very specific goals.  One is that I wanted to come out with a company – I did that with TravelPost, my first company.  The other is that I wanted to get a lot of skills that were missing in my background because I was an English major.  I wanted to accomplish those very specific things, and along the way I also wanted to network with as many good entrepreneurs as possible.

There was a missing component at Northwestern in the club scene.  There was an entrepreneurial club at Kellogg, but there wasn’t one that sort of expanded across all of Northwestern that tied together some of the science schools, biotech, etc.  So that’s the company that I worked to found.  It introduced me to some great entrepreneurs.

Ultimately I went more of the Internet route and came back to the Bay Area with a company that I started.  My advice would be to only get an MBA if you’re very specific about what you want to get out of it.  It’s a very expensive proposition.  Not only in terms of tuition but also in terms of your lifetime.

Tech Cocktail:  What drives you as an entrepreneur?

Shank:  A number of things really get me up in the morning and make me really excited about Hotel Tonight.  One is the quality of the product.  Building something new, something that has never been done before, something really innovative on a platform like the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices.

The other is the feedback that we get from customers.  That feedback loop, through the app stores, our customer support.  People just really love what we’re doing.  We’ve changed not only their night, but their week.

The last is the opportunity to work with such a great team here and to watch the culture evolve and continue to bring on great team members.  That’s the most rewarding part about it.

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About the Author

When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.

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