November 11, 2014
In the Army National Guard, John K. Hart rappelled out of helicopters, which took almost as much nerve as starting his own online hotel booking service. This Veteran’s Day, we’d like highlight the profile of this entrepreneur and the company that he is leading to revolutionize the way consumers find hotel rooms online.
Entering a very crowded market that includes Priceline, Hotels.com, Expedia, Kayak, and myriad others, Hart’s new StayFaster web platform service aims to wrest market share from all of these by improving the service experience of booking travel online. StayFaster is the latest product that his company, Imagine If, Inc., has released in this vertical. The current method of finding and booking hotels online is, according to Hart, “horrendous.”
“Only on the Internet are customers called ‘users,’” Hart says; “In the hospitality industry where I spent much of my career, we call them ‘guests.’” Hart was not only IT director for Marriott, but much of Imagine If’s funding has come from former colleagues at the hospitality giant. The company recently closed a $3M seed round from strategic investors and hotel insiders including Chris Zoladz, the Former President of Information Protection & Privacy at Marriott International, Inc.; and Carl Wilson, the Former CIO at Marriott International.
Even at this early stage, the nascent company already has drawn raves for its app version of the booking service, called StayAtHand, recently listed by U.S. News and World Report as the #1 Travel App That Will Save You Money. Launching the website version of a service after the app already is in market may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but it’s in keeping with the company’s laser focus on frequent travelers who are on-the-go.
StayFaster offers customers rapid search, honors all existing reward programs, features one-click booking and cancellation, provides a confirmation number – from the actual hotel taking the booking – allows customers to pay after they stay, and supports its customers with a 24/7 customer-service team. Just one aspect of being able to, well, stay faster, is represented on the app’s home page, where travelers can tap a circle that says, “Stay Here Tonight,” an impossibility with Hotels.com which requires 24 hours advance notice.
Travelers can rank the order of their criteria in selecting a hotel, and then see their choices represented in a list or on a map. On the map, if price is the main differentiator, return results on the map-view centers on the least expensive option in correlation to your primary destination when in town.
Ease-of-use is important, but Hart says it’s the company’s “customer first” values that will make the biggest difference to its clients. The app pledges to always honor and respect its guests, and inject transparency into the search for a great hotel: “Transparency is a natural outgrowth of our values. We don’t favor some hotel inventory over others. We don’t bias our search results based on any relationships including but not limited to partnerships or paid promotions. We don’t ask for any more information from you than what is absolutely necessary to provide you with customized search results. We don’t sell your information. We don’t buy your information for that matter. We believe guests make better, faster decisions when they have access to their own Big Data on hotels through an intuitive mobile design, powerful functionality and effective information displays.” In a cheeky display of attitude it finishes, “Why don’t others do this? Good question. Ask them.”
Hart says his and his co-founder Andy Stewart’s values were both forged in the military, and are a critical part of the new company’s business ethos. Both are Army veterans, and are networked with a growing number of veteran entrepreneurs and investors in the DC area. Among those values Hart says give veterans the ability to succeed in business are:
- Teamwork – including always owning up to your own mistakes; never engaging in back-stabbing or sabotage but rather “subordinating your own interests to drive superior performance;”
- Always being aware of the competition, and informed on what they’re up to;
- The willingness to seize the opportunity – knowing what to do in a volatile situation, where change is the constant a.k.a., “not being afraid to be decisive in the face of ambiguity.”
As Hart puts it, courage “isn’t the absence of fear, but the willingness to act even in the face of it.” Entrepreneurship, like stepping out of a helicopter clipped to a rope, is “equal parts excitement and terror…. It’s your experience, and reliance on the expertise of your team that tells you everything is going to be fine.”
As for why the group sports an impressive list of loyalty partners at launch – including Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton, Best Western, Starwood, Fairmont, Omni Hotels & Resorts, Joy of Life Club, LaQuinta, Loews, and Wyndham – one reason could be its assertion that “brands matter” to frequent travelers. They’ve designed their system to help bolster the relationship between the hotel and its own repeat customers, and provide hoteliers with business intelligence about the criteria their customers use for choosing them on the road.
They also claim to reduce the cost hotels pay to acquire a reservation by 90 percent compared with other online travel agencies, meaning that StayFaster will have to parlay its price transparency into its own consumer loyalty and the requisite volume necessary to delight its investors as much as its “guests.” Hart says attracting a following will arise naturally from solving a problem of which the consumer may not be aware: that discount codes from loyalty programs don’t always guarantee the lowest possible rate for the consumer. StayFaster’s rate validation capabilities give consumers the assurance that their rate really is the lowest available, he asserts.
Imagine If is the first veteran-owned company to be selected by another new venture, VeteranCrowd, a Richmond, Virginia-based equity crowd-funding portal that aims to match qualified investors with veteran-run businesses. As those ventures grow, VeteranCrowd also looks to provide management, consulting, outsourced business development, contract negotiation and M&A services as needed.
The initial investment deal listed that will be listed on VeteranCrowd’s platform will be for a $1M convertible debt, the proceeds of which will be used by Imagine If to grow their customer base.
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