By Geoff Kohl, chief travel editor for Where®
Behind the scenes of your sunny vacation at the beach is the dark-arts world of technology. It's a group of fresh, young minds, and they gather a few times a year around the world for drinks, to hear from peers, to brainstorm and whiteboard and to seek out millions of dollars of new funding. Outside the JW Marriott in Downtown LA where the minds gathered in mid-November for the PhoCusWright conference, you would have found a lot of valet-parked luxury automobiles (even a Bugatti Veyron was spotted this year), some driven by the venture capital players who've come to take a look inside the brains of these entrepreneurs, with the hopes of maybe learning where the next Priceline or TripAdvisor is going to come from.
Inside the hotel's conference center, the founders and CEOs of these tech firms (it's mostly start-ups) stand on stage for 7 minutes to pitch their ideas to the roughly 1,600 people in attendance.
"It's like 'American Idol' meets 'Shark Tank,'" explains PhoCusWright managing director Tony D'Astolfo.
The start-ups come from Silicon Valley, from Bangalore, from Copenhagen; they come all the way around the world to take a crack at solving the big problems in travel. In those 7 minutes, ideas are thrown out like spaghetti at the walls of your kitchen. Some stick. Some are shot down politely by a panel of critics.
Here's what could stick--it's our look at three of the best new travel companies and features that are making lives easier for travelers like you and me:
The pitch: Options Away allows you to lock in your flight reservation for days or even weeks, giving you the time to decide if that's really the flight you need to make. Options Away charges you a fee to lock in the cost of your flight, and your fee (while fairly miniscule) increases if you want a longer lock. "A lot of our customers will hold the reservation on their mobile phones and then complete the transaction at their desk," explains Robert Brown, founder and CEO. It doesn't tie up the actual flight inventory, says Brown, so the travel companies will like this idea as much as you will.
Our take: Who doesn't like options? Expect this to become a normal part of the booking sites like Expedia, Hipmunk (already there, actually), Booking.com and others. It's a technology that probably won't limit itself to flights, either.
The pitch: WorldMate has been around for a while (it has an app that puts all of your trip info in one easy-to-access format on your mobile phone; it's a competitor to the very popular TripIt app). But the cool thing that it's doing according to WorldMate's Ian Berman is it now offers hotel price alerts and hotel counter offers to travelers in the hopes of saving you some money. You book a hotel, send the data into your WorldMate app, and then WorldMate finds the price at the same hotel has dropped, so you can go from paying $210 to $158. Not only does it find that price drop, but it helps you rebook at that lower price and helps you cancel the prior reservation. What's more, it's also now offering counter offers. So you've booked for the Marriott, but it shows you the Hilton across the street for $50 less and helps you book the better rate and cancel the former reservation in as few as eight clicks on your phone.
Our take: Who doesn't like to save money? Sure, you can expect the hotel industry to fight this tool, but at some point, it seems inevitable that the WorldMate approach will win. We already do this as travelers; we scan for better prices and cancel and rebook if the deal is good enough to make us switch. WorldMate is just smartly automating an onerous process.
The pitch: Sharon Haran's take on travel insurance is that the current model has run its course. You're traveling, having a great time and then your son breaks his leg (boys do that) while overseas. You go to a hospital; you pay whatever it asks, and then about 45 days later, you get reimbursed some of that cost from your travel-insurance provider. Haran's company turns it around. You get a credit card from the travel-insurance provider that's preloaded with the right amount of credit to pay for the cost of the mishap (lost luggage or emergency surgery) so you're not paying from your checkbook. Best of all, as a clearing house of this travel-insurance data, it knows exactly what things cost, so it can pay out the appropriate amount and make sure you're not getting ripped off overseas.
Our take: It makes total sense, and it's why Haran's company won the top award at PhocusWright 2014 and is rumored to be very near to locking in a massive funding round to make this thing very, very real.
Get there: www.passportcard.com
Geek out some more: Find our guide to 9 of the best new travel start-ups and tech ideas.
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