Skift Take

A legion of brand advocates and a focus on product and mobile alone won't be enough to take Hipmunk over the top. It is a dilemma it shares with many startups. How do you compete against the likes of Priceline/Kayak with that $61 billion market cap?

Editor’s Note: Skift is publishing a series of interviews with online travel CEOs talking about the Future of Travel Booking, and the evolving habits and device preferences of travel consumers. Check out all the interviews as they come out here.

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Travel metasearch site Hipmunk burst on the scene in 2010 with a product that took some of the agony out of flight and later hotel search.

Hipmunk co-founder and CEO Adam Goldstein believes that the most successful companies in travel have done a good job in both product and marketing, “and a great job in one.”

As with its Agony index that drew initial attention, Hipmunk’s emphasis to date has been on the product side of the equation. For example, with Hipmunk Anywhere, which debuted in March 2014, users who are signed into Hipmunk’s desktop or mobile apps can find their recent searches on each device regardless if they initiated them on the desktop or mobile Web, Android or iOS apps, or tablets. The company has also implemented direct booking within Hipmunk in a way that differs from how most of its competitors are handling it.

Skift discussed the future of travel booking and related issues with Goldstein. An edited version of the interview follows:

Skift: In the travel booking game, does quality win or do marketing dollars win?

Goldstein: Well, I think both can win. It’s a big industry. You can see a lot of companies out there that win on marketing dollars and you can see a lot of companies that win on quality. And you can see companies that win at both.

I think even if you just look at the supplier side of things there is a huge disparity in the amount of bookings that happen direct to supplier for the different airlines and different hotel chains. Sometimes it is because the websites and the apps are especially good and other times it is because they focus a lot of their marketing effort on driving direct transactions.

We view the product as the core of what makes Hipmunk better and different, but ultimately we, just like every other travel service, need to make sure that people know we exist. We can do that either by spending money or by letting our users be our advocates or by investing in other new channels that come along like mobile and other things like that.

So the two are both important. The most successful companies in travel have done a good job in both, and a great job in one.

Skift: What have you learned from your multi-platform device strategy and what are the next steps for this project?

Adam Goldstein: We corroborated our instinct because people really appreciate the work that we do for them on this. The fact that people don’t have to rerun their searches or anything like that saves them a lot of time, and a lot of effort. They appreciate that. And it has achieved the goal that we had hoped: It is so seamless that after a bit people don’t even realize that it is happening. It just becomes second nature.

If you look at other companies that have made moves in this area since we launched you will see it is becoming a trend, and not just in travel, but across the board. Apple is introducing this seamless cross-platform continuation feature set into its new operating systems. And, I think you will see other companies in other categories do the same thing.

When we release the first version of Himpunk Anywhere, it was better than anything else out there, but still didn’t completely take into account all of the different facets of booking on different devices. There’s a lot more that we can do to remember people’s preferences to proactively suggest things that might make sense depending on where they are, or how long they have been searching, or how many devices they’ve used in the past. We will be rolling out improvements to that over time.

But, overall what this has done is reinforce to us the importance of viewing our entire product roadmap from a multiplatform strategy rather than just having independent roadmaps on different platforms.

Skift: As a metasearch site you offer the Book on Hipmunk option without leaving your apps or site through online travel agency partners such as Getaroom. What has that meant for travel booking and owning the customer over the long term?

Goldstein: Our approach to Book on Hipmunk or assisted booking, whatever you want to call it, has been a little bit different than other companies. The idea we have on Book on Hipmunk is that it should give you the benefit of metasearch with the convenience of an online travel agency.

When you find a hotel on HIpmunk we give you the option of booking it off-site or booking it on-site. If you choose to book it on-site we will often give you multiple different choices for how to book it on-site. You can book on Hipmunk powered by OTA X, you can book on Hipmunk powered by OTA Y, and we’ll show you the prices and the cancellation policies — all the different things you might care about — for those different partners.

The reason we like this is the conversion rates are much higher when people don’t have to leave. And this is particularly true on mobile phones. Being able to stay inside the app and having the credit card information stored is really valuable and something that customers prefer. It is valuable to our partners, though, because we are giving them brand exposure and brand awareness at the same time that people are staying on our site. So unlike the traditional sort of white label, where the booking is happening on whatever site it is and you the customer don’t even realize that it is being powered by OTA X, on Hipmunk you know right away which OTA is powering the booking.

And that gives you the ability to pick which OTA you prefer. And so higher conversions plus brand-building opportunities for the OTAs plus the ability we get to share the relationship with the customer mean that everyone in that situation benefits. Versus sending everything off-site or keeping everything on-site.

Skift: Hipmunk still offers pop-up ads with browsers opening in individual windows for sites such as Expedia,, If it’s all about the user experience in booking, why continue with such ads?

Goldstein: The bad user experience comes from people having pop-ups that they didn’t ask for. And that’s the difference between Hipmunk and other sites that offer this. When you go to the homepage of most of our competitors you get those check-boxes there and you have to go out of your way to uncheck them if you don’t want to get the pop-ups. It forces you to click if you don’t want the pop-ups.

On Hipmunk, you only click if you do want the pop-ups. And you and I might think, I don’t use pop-ups. Who in their right mind would do this? But, the fact of the matter is, there are a lot of people out there who really want to run searches on five different sites. And, I think it’s wrong from a customer perspective to force everyone to see pop-ups from five different sites. Most people don’t want them. But, for whatever percentage of people, whether it is 5% or 10% or 20%, whatever it is who do want to see them, I think it is a bad user experience not to let them see them. So that’s why we offer those.

Skift: How do maps play into the future of travel booking? I know Hipmunk has done some calendar intergrations to show how close potential hotel stays are to meetings’ locations.

Goldstein: We think maps are important. They aren’t the only things that are relevant. Location is something that people care a lot about and especially on devices. Being able to proactively suggest things near to where you are is obviously something that saves users a lot of frustration, a lot of time. We were not the first to do that and we are not going to be the last.

I think in the future what you’ll see is that maps are going to carry a lot more information. The historical view of maps, or the way they’ve been integrated into product, is showing where the roads are, and where the parks are, and the bodies of water are. Things like that. That is somewhat useful.

But points of interest and more customization around what is relevant to you on that map, those I think are the directions I think you’ll see things head overall. And we’ve been doing that, as well, in terms of pulling in your calendar, letting you pinpoint specific points of interest on the map, whether they are tourist attractions or offices or whatever, and find hotels that happen to be near those.

Maps are a canvas and most companies have just done the basics, putting up the canvas.There’s a lot more to be done in making it more useful.

Skift: You just had your big funding round, a $20 million Series C round in May. Do you have any update on how things are going and what’s next for Hipmunk?

Goldstein: We are hiring extremely aggressively. We have never had more job openings. And we are extremely picky when it comes to the people that we hire. So it’s going to take us awhile to hire all of the people that we want for all the open positions. But, we’re hiring at a faster pace than we have ever hired before.

We are going to continue to improve on the multi-platform, and multi-device experience. Not just making the individual platforms better, but also making them work better together so people never have any reason to leave the Hipmunk ecosystem whatever they are booking.

Down the road we are going to be expanding into different verticals in travel such as cars and other things. We don’t have a specific timeline for that but you can expect to see those eventually.

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Tags: ceo interviews, fotb, hipmunk, marketing, mobile

Photo credit: Hipmunk co-founder and CEO Adam Goldstein. Hipmunk

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