Local search engine company Hotelicopter bought by big hotel groups

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Foreshadowing? Hotelicopter’s April Fool’s Day spoof TV ad campaign was a huge success, likewise the company, which was recently purchased by new hotel search engine Room Key. (Courtesy Hotelicopter)

A hotel room search engine founded and operating in downtown Charlottesville is now the technology division for a new online booking service owned by six large U.S. hotel chains.
Choice Hotels, Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental, Marriott, and Wyndham teamed up last year to start Room Key, the new search engine, and recently acquired Hotelicopter from founders Adam Healey and Charles Seilheimer and their investors.

The pair, who met while at the Darden School, had both traveled in Europe and been frustrated when looking for hotels in unfamiliar cities.

Their company, originally founded as VibeAgent in 2006, was designed to combine the peer networking functions of Facebook, the user reviews of TripAdvisor, and the rate search capability of Kayak.com. As Facebook took off and user-generated reviews became more ubiquitous, they decided to narrow the company’s focus to search technology.

A name change to Hotelicopter in 2009 was highlighted by an April Fool’s Day spoof TV ad campaign (search it on YouTube) touting the existence of a boutique hotel stuffed inside what looks like a bright orange version of the Presidential helicopter Marine One. In the video, well-lit shots of platform beds and stainless bathroom fixtures promised a new way to “elevate your stay.”

“It went completely viral,” said Healey. “They thought it was real.”

Healey has managed to keep his 15-person team together and the group will stay in Charlottesville, both pre-conditions of Hotelicopter’s deal with Dallas-based Room Key. As for his investors, most were “happy,” Healey said.

Asked why the big hotels wanted in on the search business, and why they were willing to partner on the venture, Healy explained that hotels were paying up to 30 percent of the room charge to third parties like Expedia and Hotels.com. By owning their own search and reservation site, they can control costs. Consumers can always book directly on a specific hotel site, of course, but most prefer the depth of inventory they find when searching across multiple brands.

Healey does not think that rates paid by consumers will go up in the new arrangement. A reporter’s search for rooms in Charlottesville for the final weekend in March came up with everything from a $56 room at the Econo Lodge on 29 North near the Aberdeen Barn to a $199 room at the Hilton Garden Inn on Pantops. Downtown rooms at the Omni or Hampton Inn were not shown, as those brands are not part of the Room Key collective.

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