Room Key, the hotel site founded by the chain gang of Choice, Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental, Wyndham, and Marriott, added three new brands to its lineup as it tweaks its novel quest to stand out in a crowded field.

The recent addition of La Quinta (midscale U.S., Canada and Mexico), Millennium Hotels & Resorts (midscale to upscale in 19 countries) and The Leading Hotels of the World (independent luxury) brings the roster of properties to around “40,000 to 50,000 direct-connects,” Room Key CEO John Davis tells Skift.

After debuting in beta nine months ago, Room Key claims 14 million monthly unique visitors, but most of these visitors would be surprised to learn they even stopped by.

“Oh, I visited your house last night? How was it? I don’t remember Was I really there?”

The disconnect is that the focus of Room Key’s attempt to woo visitors to its site is serving up pop-under ads that appear for some users when they visit one of the founding chains’ websites, do a hotel search, but don’t book a room.

So a potential hotel booker taking Marriot.com through its paces, but leaving the site empty-handed without a room may — or may not — notice a full-page ad with the Marriott logo on top showing nine properties from other brands, with the lure to “book direct” on RoomKey.com.

Whether you actually notice the ad on your computer — let alone actually navigate to Room Key — it is counted as a Room Key visit. Hence Room Key is serving up lots of ads to get to that 14 million number.

Davis won’t provide statistics on how many of these 14 million monthly unique visitors actually ever get to the Room Key site itself, but says Room Key has delivered on about 80% of its hoped-for metrics.

“We are very pleased with the exit traffic, but we are not there yet,” says Davis, noting the marketing campaign is low-cost since it is all done in-house.

“No one has any experience with this to start with,” Davis says, referring to this particular kind of pop-under campaign, and adding that Room Key isn’t profitable yet.

Testing the most effective ads

Davis says Room Key is testing 10 different ads, including one that shows the logos of all six founding brands together at the top, and this one seems to be engendering consumer trust.

So some of the world’s largest hotel chains are perfecting a way to take guests who might have otherwise navigated away from their branded websites and on to an online travel agency, and then redirect them back to Room Key.

But, what’s in it for travelers?

Should travelers care?

Room Key pledges that site visitors who click or tap on a property with a hotel logo and a “book direct” button will get the lowest rates, won’t have to deal with booking fees, will be able to earn loyalty points, and usually will have the flexibility of reserving a room without having to pay up front.

But, here’s one of Room Key’s, well, key problems. Once travelers finally navigate to Room Key, in order to get the aforementioned benefits they will have to select a “book direct” button and navigate away to one of the hotel websites, whether it is Marriott.com or LaQuinta.com, to do some more searching and complete their bookings. This is a strange journey indeed for a user who arrived at Room Key just a few clicks ago via a pop under add from a hotel website.

Do hotel websites always have the lowest rates? Definitely not.

The customer experience

Consumers will confront widely varying user experiences and rate guarantees on the hotel websites.

Another complication for Room Key — and its site users — in these early days is that most of the site’s hotels, around 70,000 of them, aren’t done in a “book direct” manner with its promised advantages, but are offered through a white label partnership with the Travelocity Partner Network, meaning guest usually are required to prepay for the room, including footing the costs of those dreaded booking fees.

These complications create not only a challenge for people looking for a great hotel stay, but for Room Key as a business.

Davis concedes that “we only get paid on consumer stays.”

That means when Room Key hands off a potential guest to a participating hotel’s website, Room Key eventually gets paid if travelers complete a booking, and only after they complete their stays.

Room Key also faces the headache of running a business where the partners are major hotel chains, each with their own priorities, agendas and egos.

As the founders of Orbitz, which was initially owned by major airlines, might advise Room Key, getting a bunch of big-name companies to agree on anything can be like skating in sand.

Many of those hotel-chain egos were slated to convene today in a Room Key board meeting to consider next steps.