Image: Room 77 website
Courtesy Room 77
Room 77 claims to be the world's first room search engine.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/24/2011 5:46:28 PM ET 2011-02-24T22:46:28

For Scott Morrow, there’s only one thing worse than a boring hotel room.

A boring hotel-room search site.

“Most of the sites out there are fairly generic,” said the senior vice president and general manager for domain-name-developer Oversee.net. “They’re basically built on lists, widgets and other objective tools. It’s a commoditized experience.”

But it doesn’t have to be thanks to new technology and innovative entrepreneurs who realize that one size doesn’t fit all and that focusing on specific segments of the market can make for a better experience.

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“Niche travel is a huge opportunity going forward,” said Morrow, an idea the following four websites have clearly embraced.

The right room
Found a nice hotel but wondering if your room will really fit the bill? Launched Thursday, Room 77 (www.room77.com) claims to be the world’s first room search engine.

“There are hundreds of sites where you can get information about a hotel, but inside the hotel itself, the rooms are largely a black box,” said Kevin Fleiss, the site’s general manager and vice president of product. “Often you don’t know anything about your room until you literally step inside it.”

To resolve that problem, Room 77 ingeniously integrates a hotel’s floor plan with Google Maps to determine the latitude, longitude and altitude of each individual room. Based on the parameters users select (e.g., high or low floor, importance of a view, etc.), room options are stack-ranked, each one accompanied by a computer-generated, but impressively accurate, image of the actual exterior view.

At the Hyatt Regency Waikiki, for example, rooms 1010 and 1410 are both considered Deluxe Ocean View Doubles. On Room 77, however, you quickly discover that the former looks smack into the Waikiki Police Station; the latter, over the top of it. All Deluxe Ocean View Doubles, it seems, are not created equal.

At this point, you can only search within a hotel you’ve pre-selected — for example, there’s no general hotel search feature — and there’s no guarantee you’ll get the exact room you’ve chosen (although the company is working on both ideas). There is, however, an iPhone app, an especially handy tool when a persnickety front desk clerk claims no better rooms are available.

“Instead of going upstairs and deciding your room’s not a good match, you can see it for yourself along with alternatives,” said Fleiss. “It’s all at your fingertips.”

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A room right now
It sounds like a service for one-night hotel hook-ups, but Hotel Tonight is designed for anybody who finds themselves in need of a good deal on a hotel room on short notice. Developed by the folks behind DealBase.com, it offers significant discounts on same-day hotel reservations at three hotels each day in select cities.

The secret sauce is that it’s only available as a free app for the iPhone, iPad and iTouch. (Sorry, there’s no website). “By being mobile-only, it’s limited to people who are booking in the market and at the moment,” said CEO Sam Shank. “It’s like a private sale — only a select group can access them.”

Which is a powerful incentive for hotels to offer discounts on rooms that might go unsold otherwise. During a recent search, deals included the Hotel Adagio in San Francisco for $95 (vs. $189 on the hotel website), Sax Chicago for $99 (vs. $127) and the Hotel Roger Williams in New York for $129 (vs. $207).

The company currently works with 80 hotels in six cities (Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.) and expects to add Miami and Seattle next month. The app has notched more than 200,000 downloads — users get a $25 credit they can use on their first booking — and an Android version is in the works.

Plenty of room
Like the idea of staying in a luxury villa but lack the cash ($100,000-plus) required to join the typical destination club or fractional-share project? Check out Inspirato.com (www.inspirato.com), which opens up the ultra-rich niche to those of more “modest” means.

The company, which launched in January, takes out long-term leases on high-end properties (rather than buying them), then offers members access at nightly rates without the hassle or high cost of club or fractional ownership. Even with an initiation fee of $9,500 and annual dues of $2,500 per year, that six-bedroom chalet at Beaver Creek for $1,000 per night becomes a relative bargain.

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With 40 properties and 150 members so far, the site targets what CEO and founder Brent Handler calls “the everyday affluent,” rather than the stupendously wealthy: “Relative to the other options for high-end vacations, we’re the disruptive force in the industry.”

A ‘friendlier’ room
According to Morrow of Oversee.net, women constitute one of most underrepresented niches in travel, one reason the company launched HotelHostess.com (www.hotelhostess.com) late last year. It’s based on the premise that approximately 70 percent of all travel decisions made in the U.S. are made by women.

Highly social, the site invites users to search by persona or profile and offers five of its own — Bargain Betty, Eco Erin and Luxury Lucy, among them — to help with the process. Using Facebook, Twitter and e-mail, users can connect with the staffers behind the profiles when they’re looking for appropriate hotels, potential destinations or even just inspiration and ideas.

“The idea is to make the process easier and more fun,” said Creative Manager Martha Hernandez. “At the end of the day, we all want to have fun.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail .

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