If the future of travel search is something like Hopper, and if Google has something like this in mind for its ITA Software acquisition, then opponents of the deal may have more to worry about than they realize.
I just saw an alpha version of the Montreal-based startup, Hopper, which bills itself as a “full-text search engine for travel” and is another travel business formed by former Expedia brainiacs.
Co-founded by Frederic Lalonde and Joost Ouwerkerk, both of whom worked at one point in the online travel agency’sÂ hotel group, Hopper has been in stealth mode since 2007, and is ready to come out into the light a bit.
The company views itself as a B2B alternative to Google-ITA Software.
But first, a big disclaimer about this post: Hopper CEO Lalonde is alsoÂ chairman of Tnooz.
Hopper takes natural language queries and returns organic results plus what it says are the best flight options in less than a second.
The speed is definitely part of the “wow” factor here (and more on that later).
So, for example, you start a search for “cities in spain” and retrieve the following organic results along with flights and fares from Seattle to Madrid, Granada, Barcelona and Bilbao for two weeks from late March to mid-April. Â Here’s what the results page looks like:
Notice, in the above example there was no need to insert travel dates or airport codes and, for now at least, the results were returned in a fraction of the time it would take to execute a flight search on Expedia or Kayak. As a next step, you can insert departure and return dates and compare flights from multiple airports.
If you refine your search to “cities in Spain with the best beaches,” then Hopper retrieves organic results ranking the best beaches and produces a different set of matching flights. Here’s an image of the page:
The Hopper search engine doesn’t just rank destination cities, but also ranks golf courses (or other pursuits) as in this query for “golf in costa del sol.”
And, the search engine also searches multiple airports, shown on a Google Map, to find the best flights within a reasonable distance of the destination as in this search result for Estepona, one of the top golf courses that came up in the previous “golf in costa del sol” search. Here’s a screen shot:
For now, the Hopper alpha is loaded up with Spain data only and flight information from Seattle to airports in Spain.
A very small sample of the world, indeed.
As a travel planning tool, Hopper can search topics such as “running of the bulls” or “picasso” and return destination information and flights.
The main advances appear to be in Hopper’s ability to sort natural language queries and produce travel-relevant results paired with flight information, and with seeming precedent-setting speed.
Hopper claims it will be able to do this not just with flights, but also for hotels and cars etc.
Google, of course, is not a travel-specific search engine (or doesn’t have one yet, at least) so perhaps the comparison is unfair, but here’s what you get today from a “cities in Spain” search using Google.
The top result is for the lost city of Atlantis, hardly a tourism destination unless you are a very proficient scuba diver.
Lalonde, who sold Newtrade Technologies to Expedia in 2002 and then went to work on hotel supplier strategy for the OTA, feels Hopper can be a Google-ITA alternative and plans to market it as a solution to online travel agencies and other travel businesses.
Lalonde is currently on a shopping spree, buying hundreds — if not thousands — of computers to scale up the enterprise, and feels confident that Hopper can maintain its sub-one-second response times — a feat that remains to be seen as the database grows.Â Hopper uses Big Data technology to crunch mammoth data sets with haste.
In defense of the sub-second queries, Lalonde points out that the “cities in Spain” query met that timeframe and produced more than 53,000 results.
Lalonde is convinced that Google must have a broadly similar solution in mind once — or if — it gets to integrate ITA Software.
Perhaps Andrew Silverman, senior product manager at Google, previewed some of Google’s vision in a Tnooz guest post in November 2010.
“Todayâ€™s travel websites work okay if youâ€™re looking for a flight from city A to city B on a specific date, but not if youâ€™re searching for ‘fly to an island location at a time when itâ€™s usually good weather for less than $500.’Â We donâ€™t know what these new tools will look like yet â€” and canâ€™t, until we can close this acquisition and begin working with ITA. Â But some critics apparently think consumers should be satisfied with the status quo.”
Lalonde believes that Google isn’t trying to buy ITA to introduce incremental changes to flight-search results, but may have a new search paradigm in development.
Whether Google does it or tiny Hopper takes a whack at it, this kind of new travel search will be a big challenge for OTAs, metasearch and other travel businesses.
Hopper, too, would need “real integration” of its airfare data — and not just an API — to meet its goals and Lalonde says he’s working on that.
For now, Hopper gets its flight results from Expedia.
Lalonde says Hopper, which consists of a small team based in Montreal, is currently in closed alpha testing. The homepage is soliciting Facebook “likes” and Twitter follows for an invite.
The company, which is staffed by more than a handful of ex-Expedia geeks, has raised some $2 million in funding from Brightspark Ventures.