Thanks to the hotel industry, we're taking a trip down memory lane this week. Set your Wayback Machine for the turn of the century, when the airlines were putting together a new website called Orbitz.



Many travel agents and online travel sellers regarded Orbitz as, well, evil. They asked the federal government to investigate it and put an end to it.

Among other things, it was called a crude attempt by airlines to put the squeeze on independent travel sellers by luring innocent consumers to Orbitz with its promise of "lowest fares" and new technology.

It was a fun time for headline writers, but most of the dire predictions failed to materialize. In the end, the founding airlines probably made more money from selling their stock in Orbitz than from any incremental business the site drew away from other channels. As for the Orbitz of 2012, it's an online travel agency and private-label operator that is half-owned by a GDS company, which is no longer the scary thought it once was.

Shortly after the launch of Orbitz, a group of hotel companies launched a hotel booking site called Travelweb, but like the airlines they eventually lost interest, sold out and moved on.

Which brings us to RoomKey.com, the new website unveiled this week by six big names in lodging: Choice, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, Marriott and Wyndham.

The parallels to Orbitz are obvious and interesting, but the differences are also revealing. One of the distribution industry's greatest initial fears about Orbitz was that the airlines would give it preferential access to desirable seats or desirable fares. Thankfully, that does not seem to be an issue in today's lodging industry.

Orbitz was touted as innovative; it sported new search technology from ITA Software and much-feared direct links with airlines, though it had to rely on a GDS for most transactions.

Room Key is not a transaction site, and its founders are not making claims about new technology. Rather, they seem to be positioning Room Key as a search engine that will deliver consumers to the booking sites of the participating brands.

Interestingly, Room Key arrived just as TravelClick released its analysis of distribution trends for 2011, reporting that 52% of hotel room-nights last year were booked through direct channels, with about half of that coming through the hotels' own websites, a channel that trended upward all year. TravelClick also reported that agency GDSs accounted for 19%, while the online travel agencies such as Expedia and Priceline captured about 11%.

If Room Key is an attempt to win a market-share war against other sales channels, it appears to have entered a battle that the hotels are already winning, though its strategic value to the hotels may change depending on what Google does.

Room Key is still a beta site, and its inventory remains limited to the founding brands, so this is a time for first impressions rather than conclusions. One thought that crossed our minds after looking at the site is that it may be no more sinister or complicated than the founder's rather simple claim that they seek to create an "uncluttered and trustworthy" site where consumers can search for hotels.

There are already a million ways to search for and book hotels, and while there are many "uncluttered and trustworthy" options, online and off, these particular attributes might be just the thing that Web shoppers are increasingly looking for in 2012.
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