Hotel Tonight Vegas CES

Rolling the Dice on Hotel Tonight

As soon as I decided to take a last-minute trip to this year’s CES, where 160,000 consumer electronics manufacturers, reporters, and fans descend upon Las Vegas, I had a hunch that I’d have trouble finding a hotel room. After spending five days scouring Hotels.com, Priceline, Hotwire, and all of the other usual suspects, I had zero luck finding a hotel in my “sweet spot” range of 4- or 5-stars, on or near the strip, and less than $250 per night. (Combining the phrase “zero luck” with a trip to Vegas is bad, I’m guessing.)

Hotel Tonight Vegas CESEach day leading up to the trip, I also checked out Hotel Tonight, searching for hotels in Vegas, but also triangulating my expectations by checking Honolulu and San Francisco, cities where I had a good feeling for the quality and pricing of many hotels.

If you’re not familiar, Hotel Tonight (HT) offers deals for, you guessed it, hotels with a check-in availability of tonight. If I remember correctly, HT began on the premise of giving hotels one final outlet for unused rooms. Or, if you were in need of a last-minute room, or if you liked traveling by the seat of your pants, then HT offered the potential for an amazing deal.

Expectations Set

In the days leading up to CES, the deals on HT looked pretty sweet. Rooms at the Hard Rock were in the $60/nt range, and higher-end hotels, like THEHotel, Vdira, and Aria, were under $200. Some of HT’s deals were only for a single night, while others allowed up to four nights. And, some offered multiple nights with varying prices each night.

Being in need of four nights during one of the biggest events in Vegas, and knowing that many hotels were either totally sold out or charging top-end rates, I decided to roll the dice and give HT a chance. What’s the worst that could happen? Given that Vegas has somewhere around 150,000 hotel rooms, I figured that, if I didn’t have any luck with HT, I’d be able to get something off, off Strip for a reasonable price, even on the same day.

One thing caused me some worry, however: HT deals go live at noon local time, and I’d be in the air until a bit after 2:45 PM Vegas time. Not good, especially if anyone else was considering the same plan. Also, I’m assuming that most hotels only offered up a limited number of rooms at HT’s discount price, so the “good” deals would be snapped up before I had access.

The Reveal

On the day before my departure, Vegas deals on HT didn’t look so great. Prices were higher and options were slim. I considered a few online deals from other travel sites, like the Luxor for $170/nt, but the sense of adventure (yeah, this is adventure for me) pushed me to take the risk and see what happens.

CES Hotel Tonight VegasUpon landing for my connection at SFO, I immediately whipped out my phone and opened HT. Both Bally’s and Rio had deals at $41 for one night only, but both are categorized by HT as just “solid.”

Scrolling further, there were a few off-Strip deals for $47 to $120, and then the “Bonus Luxe Hotel” of Encore at Wynn for only $699, which was $100 cheaper than I’d been seeing it online the previous week (but still about 3x my price ceiling).

HT also listed Palms Place as a “Luxe Impulse Deal” (whatever that is) at only $95 for one night, or $167/nt for two nights. It was off-Strip, but after seeing the word “luxe,” and knowing that it was near a restaurant I wanted to try, I dug deeper. It had a 95% “thumbs up” rating and Wifi was free – something for which the cheaper hotels charged up to and additional $25/night. Although every hotel seemed to charge a $20-30 “resort fee,” which sometimes included WiFi.

Checking the Competition

As a quick check, I looked at the rate for Palms Place on Kayak, Trip Advisor, and Priceline. I should note that Priceline directly competes with HT by offering “Tonight-Only Deals,” but like HT, the deals are only available via their smartphone app. No other service appears to offer a similar tonight-only deal. And, unlike HT, which offers multiple hotels, Priceline appears to offer only a single “tonight-only” deal.

Priceline Tonight OnlyPriceline’s tonight-only deal was for the Hard Rock Hotel at $132/nt, a property that, surprisingly, wasn’t listed on HT, either because they already sold their HT allotment for the day (remember that I was a few hours past the noon listing time), or they didn’t list that day. The price seemed to be an OK deal, but not even close to what I’d been seeing on HT for Hard Rock prior to my trip. (It’s also interesting to note on the screenshot to the right that Priceline clearly offers the Hard Rock at $161 as their non-deal price. But, if you look at the “tonight-only” listing, they show the non-deal price as $162. Sure, it’s only a buck difference, but percentage it let’s them slightly inflate their perceived savings by 0.5%. Ironic considering Priceline “blasted” HT over inflated savings claims…)

For Palms Place specifically, the cost was $167/nt on HT (for 2 nights). Trip Advisor’s app, which lists prices from several services, showed an astronomical $504/nt (for 2 nights). And Kayak, which is usually my go-to travel planning service, along with Hipmonk, listed Palms Place at $403/nt. HT was going to save me over $230/nt! Even if you don’t use HT, it’s surprising how widely the prices ranged for the same hotel across different websites. Regardless of how far out you’re planning, it obviously pays to shop around.

Doubling-down on Hotel Tonight

Since the Palms Place per-night average doubled to $198/nt if I stayed 3 nights, I decided to take this little experiment further and double-down on HT. So I grabbed Palms Place for two nights at $167/nt average, then used HT again midweek to see if I could upgrade to something nicer, cheaper, or on the strip.

As an aside, Palms Place was pretty nice, and definitely worth the price. It’s a residence property, with only some rooms offered as hotel rooms, and seemed virtually empty. I hardly ever saw anyone else, and even the adjoining Palms hotel and casino seemed deserted. And, the on-site N9NE Steakhouse was amazing! The only downside was the $12 taxi ride to and from the strip, since there’s nothing worthwhile within walking distance of the Palms properties.

By mid-week, I was ready to try something new and had been checking HT frequently to see which way prices were trending. Every service showed very high prices on Wednesday and Thursday nights, since that was smack in the middle of CES. But, I was hoping that there would be some last-minute cancellations or adjustments that would open up some deals on HT.

The Hard Rock Hotel seems to be a frequent HT property, and I’d heard a lot about it and was curious to try it. At noon on Wednesday, HT showed the Hard Rock at $90/nt, so my gamble paid off!

HT lists the Hard Rock as “hip,” and it is pretty neat to see all of the rock memorabila around the hotel. The place seemed a bit more crowded than the Palms, but was relatively quiet–except for the loud plumbing (I could hear every flush and shower from adjoining rooms) and the fact that it’s located on the airport’s flight path. I’m definitely older than the Hard Rock’s target demographic, so am probably a bit more critical than their typical guest, but they could stand to slap some paint on the walls and hit the carpeting with a vacuum more frequently.

Upon checking out of a HT-booked hotel, the app asks you for a thumbs up or down rating. Given the state of the hotel vs. my expectations, I gave it a thumbs down. However, at $90/nt, it was definitely a good deal…I just wouldn’t stay there again.

A Tiny Glitch

There’s always something, right?

At Palms Place, HT charged me the advertised room rate, plus taxes. When I checked out of the hotel, Palms Place only charged me the resort fee. At the Hard Rock, however, I was not only billed for a higher room rate at checkout, but the hotel listed my HT credit as only $116 instead of the actual $202. I didn’t bicker with the hotel staff, since they didn’t know anything, and HT asks users to call them before calling the hotel.

Now, not to get off on a tangent, but these are the types of occasions when customer-focused culture really comes into play. For example, when I’ve had issues with my Google Nexus One phone or Nexus 7 tablet, the customer service reps at Google were nice, knowledgeable and believed me when I said, “Yeah, I’ve already rebooted it and cleared the cache.” The Google reps then take the quick and customer-centric route of saying, “Just send it back and we’ll send you a new one.”

On the contrary, when I’ve had to deal with customer service at AT&T or Time-Warner, it’s been they typical slow, backwards, company-centric nightmare that we’ve all come to expect from most corporations.

With HT, I called their support line on a Saturday and was greeted by a friendly rep who took my info, said that she would take care of the issue, and promised to call me back when it was resolved. Even more, the rep asked me about my “thumbs down” rating on Hard Rock and mentioned that they try to always follow up on poor ratings, either via phone or email. That’s pretty good service, and makes me think that HT has really integrated customer service into their organizations as part of their culture. They don’t seem to be outsourced reps or just blindly following a script; they are knowledgeable  efficient, and seem genuinely concerned about the customer’s happiness. How refreshing!

As promised, an HT rep called me a few days later, said that everything was squared away, and that I’d be seeing adjustments on my credit card statement within a few days. Done.

Bottom Line

So what do I think of Hotel Tonight? In a word, it’s awesome! I got two fantastic deals, saving probably $600 or more over four nights (or, getting much nicer hotels for the price).

Given this experience, I’ll definitely use Hotel Tonight again and again, but I’ll be sure to set my expectations by doing some HT recon before I travel. If you’re thinking of trying Hotel Tonight, here’s what I’d recommend:

  • For the city to which you’re traveling, check Hotel Tonight right now, and check it daily for a few days. Get a good look at the hotels they work with, see if several appear again and again, and see if you’re comfortable staying at most of those that are frequently listed.
  • Check several other services to gauge the book-ahead prices. Start narrowing down your list of potential hotels to three or four listed on HT, and keep comparing prices.
  • On the day of your stay, get on HT right at noon (destination time) and book quickly. Be prepared to take your second or third choice. And, check Priceline’s “Tonight-only deal,” just to be sure you’re getting the best deal.
  • Upon checkout, make sure you aren’t charged for the room or the taxes, but only the extras.

Good luck!

 

Additional screenshots…

Kayak Hotels  Trip Advisor Hotels  Hotel Tonight 3

Pricing a Cloud-based Application

I recently had the opportunity to consult with a local startup around their plans for pricing their cloud-based home health monitoring application.  They have an amazing product and great early traction with beta customers, and are now at the point of thinking about pricing as they sell direct and through partners, adding two dimensions to their pricing equation.  Adding another dimension is their incorporation of add-on services, and how to pass along those fees while also adding a markup – for both themselves and their partners.

70's Kmart Pricing by Roadsidepictures (via Flickr CC)

As is usually the case, once they started thinking about their pricing strategy and all of the associated touchpoints, the problem quickly expanded beyond “what do we charge the customer?” to “wow, there’s a lot we didn’t consider!”

Who’s Important? The Customer!

There are a few ways to go about pricing for a cloud-based app, but generally it’s about getting down to the perceived value and making the pricing model match your customers’ or partners’ mindset.  If you try to price based on your needs or benefit, you might end up confusing the customers.  If they match, that’s rare but fantastic.  Always remember that your customers will evaluate your pricing based upon their perspective, not yours.

It’s also important to understand what your customers are using for their perceived model when evaluating your pricing.  If you’re selling cars, they expect to see a sticker price and to pay much less than the number they see.  If you’re selling mobile apps, they expect it to either be free or close to 99 cents, and they further expect updates to occur frequently.  Why?  Because that’s how mobile apps are generally offered, and that has become the accepted “model.”

Consider the typical legacy pricing model of days gone by, where you paid a large, up-front fee for the software and any required hardware, then paid additional fees based on number of locations or users.  There may even have been recurring fees for add-on services.  This model was mostly in favor of the seller, but became the de facto pricing model for both consumer and enterprise software applications.

Enter “the cloud,” where hardware fees disappear and the service becomes more akin to a utility than a product, and where the SaaS trailblazers, like Salesforce.com, set the stage for per-user and ala carte functionality-based subscription pricing.  For better or worse, this is now the standard model for pricing cloud-based applications, either enterprise or consumer.  It’s not a product, it’s a service.  And, it’s not an outright purchase, it’s a recurring utility where I pay for what I use and can turn it off when I no longer need it. Furthermore, especially on the consumer side, people are becoming more and more comfortable with subscription pricing for apps like cloud-based backup, photo storage services, VoIP, and others.

Bottom Line

The greatest area where the cloud has turned software pricing on its head is transparency.  SkypeSalesforce.com, GoToMeeting, Mozy and other sites tell you up front exactly what their services cost.  There’s no dickering, no slimy negotiations with tacky sales reps, and no queasy feeling after you commit that you’ve somehow paid more than the next person. If there’s anything to take away, it’s that your pricing should be front and center on your website!  Tell everyone what they get, why it’s amazing, and how much it will cost.  Add a few tiers to make it easier to understand.

So what’s the bottom line here?  I’m not sure.  I know that I want software and apps to be priced based on my perception of value, and that I’m willing to pay a fair price. I naively assume that most people think the same way.  I’m willing to pay a subscription for something that I use on a regular basis, but I’m also willing to accept less usability for a lower price (or better yet, free).  In the end, I just want a good product at a fair price.  Is that too much to ask? 😉

What do you think?

Why Consumers Should Embrace Location-based Services

Privacy.  It seems as if it’s the media’s only focus every time a location-based or social app or service is mentioned.  With RFID tags, GPS apps, Foursquare, Facebook’s Places, and now iTunes’ Ping, everyone thinks that sharing a bit of info about your likes, dislikes or whereabouts is going to lead to the downfall of civilization.  While everyone must be careful with their personal info, how much detail they share (such as city vs. eight-decimal GPS precision), and how often they share it, there are so many more benefits than drawbacks to these services.  Plus, the risk that the company owning or using the data will do anything that’s harmful and directed at an individual really isn’t even an option.

In 2000, while at business school (and long before Facebook and Twitter and Foursquare), I took a ‘marketing data analytics’ course that focused on clickstream analysis.  Even then, privacy was beginning to become an issue and our instructor summed it up in such a way that I’ve always referred back to his quote:

In the good old days, you went in to your neighborhood market, the owner knew you and what you purchased.  If a product that you liked was back in stock, and the owner mentioned it, you’d be grateful.  If the owner said that, since you liked plums and apricots, you’d also probably like pluots, you’d respond with a big ‘thank you.’

But, if a computer or corporation does the same things, people think it’s creepy.

I may be naïve, but consumers shouldn’t worry about ‘big brother’ drilling down to find out that John Doe purchases too much beer or eats too many donuts. Being a B2B marketer with 50,000+ contacts in my company’s marketing database, I can assure you that the last thing I do is focus on marketing to individuals – it’s all about the numbers and aiming at segments.

For B2C, my 50,000 contact names are nothing.  Facebook has 500 million names – and growing. Marketing a marketing analytics solution for the past two-plus years, we’ve analyzed the behavior, purchasing, and response patterns of millions or individuals – and we’ve never seen a single name.  At best, we have a many-digit number, spread across multiple fields, that has no personally-identifiable information (PII).  Even our customers themselves have a daunting task of tying a name to an activity.  Having worked in tech for over a decade, the privacy fear-mongers obviously have no clue as to the cleanliness, integration, and access challenges companies have with their own data.  In the vast majority of corporate analyses, the data is aggregated or sampled such that connecting information back to a single person is impossible.

Again, consumers must be diligent to protect their privacy through each app’s settings (something that should be much easier than it is today).  But, I can think of dozens of reasons why consumers should embrace these services – from a discount as you walk by a store to interactive dressing rooms at retailers that use RFID tags to suggest complimentary products (and help reduce theft).

Bottom Line:  I look forward to the day that I opt-in to offers from the local coffee shop and am hit with a “free apple fritter with purchase of your double non-fat latte” offer on a Saturday morning.  That’s a privacy risk I’m willing to take! 😉

Stickybits: Almost a Killer Marketing Tool

I’ve been playing around with Stickybits, a new app-based solution that connects a barcode scanning app for your phone with the ability to generate unique barcodes and attach “bits” (comments, URLs, etc.) that appear when the barcode is scanned. As a marketer, I immediately started thinking of ways to utilize this to expand my company’s presence, awareness, and ability to put content into the hands of our prospects.  I also thought that – as Stickybits promotes on their website – this would be a fantastic addition to a business card.  But once I really drilled down into applying Stickybits as a marketer, things started to unravel.

Stickybit # 6925359849840, better known as "Jason Rushin's resume."

Stickybits was a big hit at this year’s SXSW and has gotten wide coverage from CNET, ReadWriteWeb and others, but the general vibe seems to be, “What will people do with this?”  And therein lies the crux of Stickybits’ challenge:  there are some great ideas beginning to surface, but the execution is still a few versions from solid.

Marketing with Stickybits

For B2B marketing, I immediately thought that this would be a great solution for trade shows and events, where fewer and fewer attendees actually want to add another set of vendor collateral to their already schwag-heavy logo’d backpack.  More often than not, I’m hearing booth visitors ask, “Can you just email me something?”

Now, if we had a big Stickybits barcode that they could just scan and have it pop-up a YouTube video of a product demonstration or PDF collateral or link to our website, that would rock.  But since the barcodes only work with the Stickybits app, the scenario would likely play out like this:

  1. Convince a stranger to add this new Stickybits app to their phone – an app that your company didn’t create and that is essentially bloatware as far as the stranger is concerned.
  2. Wait while they downloaded and installed it, hoping that the connection in the event hall was strong enough for a speedy download.
  3. Explain to them how to use the app, and essentially become a salesperson for Stickybits for a few minutes.
  4. Finally, walk them through getting a snapshot of the barcode quickly, and then explain how they can access your marketing materials within Stickybits.

Let’s assume that you could get past these initial steps, maybe make it fun for people to download the app and not take more than a few minutes of their precious time.  This is where Stickybits really falls down from a usage perspective:  the “bits,” as they refer to the notes attached to a barcode, don’t really pop anything up.  The app just lists the links as text, requiring the user to scroll through and click on the link they want to see.  While this isn’t that big of a deal, it is another step and does dramatically limit the “awesome” factor of the experience.  The bits are formatted much like comments to a blog, so there’s not really any formatting or categorization.  And currently, anyone can attach new bits to the barcode, which totally limits, if not outright eliminates, its usage for corporate marketing.  (Imagine a competitor scanning your barcode then adding their collateral as well…or something worse.  Yes, as the barcode owner, you can delete bits, but you need to do it proactively.)  The final drawback in this scenario is that your links appear on your prospect’s phone, with no obvious way to forward them to an email address for viewing on a bigger screen, passing on to colleagues, or printing.

Stickybits allows you to download a jpg of your barcodes for printing or pasting elsewhere, or you can purchase these pre-printed vinyl stickers directly from Amazon.com(Credit: Amazon.com)

A major hurdle here is the need for the Stickybits app specifically, not just any barcode scanning app.  On my Android phone, I now have four barcode scanning apps, including Stickybits.  Yes, that’s probably a bit excessive but I’m assuming that a good number of people already have at least one, and it would be nice to facilitate that whole process by eliminating the need to download another app just for this one-time scan.  But then again, that’s how Stickybits will become pervasive.

Huge Potential

Despite these drawbacks, the potential here is enormous. Adding a barcode to collateral that drives prospects to a microsite, a special promotion, or a related video would be useful.  A barcode on your event schwag would turn your stress ball into an instant, persistent data sheet.  Barcodes on event badges would be a great idea too, letting attendees scan each other for business card information and whatever else each attendee wanted to attach to their badge.

In addition to corporate marketing, it would be great for a museum to add additional content to each exhibited item, or for a tourism bureau to add backgrounds, photos, and maps to a point-of-interest (wouldn’t it be great to know the details behind a historic building as you snapped the Stickybit attached to the cornerstone plaque?).  It would also be neat as the basis for a self-guided tour, where each barcode gives you info on your current location as well as directions to your next stop on the tour.  Think of the cool tie-ins with augmented reality apps showing what’s around you or what used to be there (say you’re standing at San Francisco’s city hall and you could see photos from the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake).  There could even be links to relevant maps, audio, video, and upcoming events.

My Two Cents on Stickybits

The challenge that I had, and that I’m sure a lot of visitors to stickybits.com have is, “What do I do with it?”  Yes, there are some initial ideas, like the business card or the greeting card, but the execution does not yet live up to the promise.  Reading their forums, it looks like a lot of my concerns are shared by others, and that Stickybits is taking note and promising to address some of them.

In the meantime, I’ll be using the few barcodes that I’ve downloaded, and I’ll be keeping an eye on the Stickybits solution as they advance the capabilities.  It truly does have a ton of potential, and I can’t wait for their next few iterations to add things like branding (which they already allow for product UPC codes), more interactive bits with embedded videos and document viewers, and hopefully the ability to scan Stickybits’ barcodes with other scanning apps.

As an aside, Stickybits’ has an opportunity to improve their website navigation and really get people excited much more quickly.  It took me a lot of random clicking to figure out how to get off of their homepage, but once beyond that, the sidebar menu was very intuitive.  I’m assuming that the average prospect will be unsure how or why to use Stickybits initially, and their website doesn’t do much to help ease the process or make it seem obvious.  I would bring the “few examples” above the fold, or better yet, incorporate those into the three steps in the thought bubble.  I would also bring their site navigation out to the homepage.  Yes, I’m sure they purposely limit the links to ones that prompt visitors to download their app – more downloads equal more potential users – but even that’s not intuitive (you have to click on the “Get the app” guy).

Bottom line:  it’s a killer idea that’s just about six months away from being a killer marketing solution.