Mobile App Hitlist Aims to Be a Travel Agent with Social Connections

Why choose a trip destination alone when friends can help?

That is the central pitch behind the Hitlist app developed by TripCommon in New York. This recent entry in digital travel booking helps users consult friends while figuring out where they want to go on vacation. Getting the input of people who have already been to potential destinations can sway trip choices, says CEO and founder Gillian Morris.

The app lets users list places they are thinking about visiting; Hitlist then searches for airfare deals to those destinations and sends alerts as tickets become available. Things get more social though if users link the app to their Facebook accounts. That lets Hitlist search and point out which friends have either lived in or visited the places on the users’ short lists. The users then might reach out to those friends for their take on the destination. “We find that social context makes a huge difference,” Morris says.

The experiences of friends, she says, is the same kind of insider knowledge people used to get from travel agents. “What we’re trying to move towards is being a travel agent but just with AI [making the connections] instead of an actual person,” Morris says. (There is some human-generated content though, in the form of friends’ Facebook comments and photos from their prior trips.)

Much like other types of apps and platforms in the digital travel market, she says, Hitlist automates the search process for finding deals on flights and nixes the need for ticket markups associated with using a travel agent. Morris compared the airfare deals her app finds to getting suggestions from the Google Now digital personal assistant. “It’s a push versus pull model,” she says.

There was a bit of push, pull, and pivoting in the development of the app. Hitlist, which debuted last November, is the successor to a search engine TripCommon had developed for finding flights, Morris says. The team reused some core technology, she says, in terms of airport classifications but otherwise the software behind Hitlist was rebuilt from the ground up compared with TripCommon. “We’re a mobile app with a completely different use-case and user interaction model,” Morris says.

Though the travel market has plenty of websites for searching for flights, Morris believes the industry still faces more evolution ahead. The ability to book flights and hotel stays online helped cut out the middleman, she says, but this also left people with a fragmented experience. The jigsaw puzzle of booking online, Morris believes, can make some people hesitate to take spontaneous trips. “There are people who, in theory, have the time, money, and inclination to travel but then they get stuck in the search process,” she says. “We think there is a huge market of incremental travel we could tap into.”

At least two high profile backers of the app seem to agree. Morris says Jeff Clarke, chairman of Orbitz, and John Owen, one of the founders of JetBlue Airways, are investors in her startup. However, Hitlist is largely bootstrapped at the moment.

Hitlist is exploring different ways to generate revenue. The startup gets a cut from airlines when users book travel plans via the app, but Morris says those fees are tiny. “You have to have Kayak-style volume for that to be a main driver of revenue,” she says.

Morris says that Hitlist sees a higher conversion rate among its users compared with some third-party booking sites. So the startup is now trying to negotiate a proprietary inventory of affiliate deals for larger fees with airlines, she says.

TripCommon was founded in 2012 in Istanbul, where Morris was living at the time. The startup soon relocated to San Francisco, but months later, Morris was invited to be the entrepreneur-in-residence at Techstars Boston. The switch to the East Coast innovation territory was apparently a welcome change for her. “I found San Francisco a bizarre place as an early stage founder,” she says. “I found Silicon Valley much more focused on pedigree and connections than I expected.”

The high concentration of startups in San Francisco combined with some cliquish attitudes made it difficult break into that scene, she said. “If you didn’t go to Stanford, if you didn’t work at Google or Facebook, if you didn’t have a long history there, it was really hard to get to the real decision makers,” Morris says.

She found the entrepreneurial environments in Boston and New York to be more open. “Top tier VCs would be coming through in a way that would never have happened at a standard co-working space in San Francisco,” she says.

TripCommon quickly became a hybrid New York-Boston startup, she says. Last June the team brought on another co-founder, chief technology officer Luka Kladaric, which prompted the shift towards Hitlist. “We realized this was a much, much bigger idea,” Morris says.

Part of that idea, she says, includes gathering data and providing predictive analyses of people’s vacation preferences. “There’s never been an accurate picture of the demand curve in the travel industry,” Morris says. The market, she claims, often gets a false snapshot of consumer demand by relying on complex mathematical models and historical records. Morris believes Hitlist can paint a clearer view of demand through the lists of places the app’s users say they want to visit. Hitlist, she says, could measure how many people from New York, for example, are actively thinking about trips to Nantucket. She believes such information could be valuable to airlines and other travel companies as they plan routes and sell tickets.

It may be tough going to bring more changes to the travel-technology scene, which Morris called surprisingly insular, with just a few people at the top making the decisions. But the ambitions of the Hitlist team are on the rise. Morris says the company, which has five full-timers on board, is searching for a business development lead. Though the app has only been out for about five months, she says the startup is already working on a revamping the backend and developing new features. Morris seems determined to stir up changes in travel. “There are a lot of avenues for real disruption in this industry,” she says.

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