As you may or may not agree, most of the brand-new websites are copycat imitations of older “hits” (like a “hit movie” or a “hit show”). An entrepreneur invents a way to stay in a well-priced apartment (AirBnB) and 37 others rush to offer (they think) the very same thing. An innovator collects the walking tours available in major capital cities, and 10 others immediately attempt to offer the very same tours. Usually, the imitators fall by the wayside.
But I don’t think that’s going to happen to two highly-successful, recently-launched travel websites that a great many people are starting to access--with such high degrees of success that they eagerly pass the word to relatives and friends.
The first--HotelTonight.com--has become so popular that it’s beginning to receive investments from several private equity firms, and is rumored to be planning a multi-million-dollar I.P.O. Less than three years old, and already covering over 100 major cities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico (and many more in 9 European nations), Hotel Tonight is for impulse travelers who arrive in a particular place without an advance hotel reservation. Because hotels are willing to dramatically reduce the price of rooms that they know with certainty are going to be empty for that night, the last-minute bargains made available to Hotel Tonight are beyond compare.
They are rock-bottom, even at high quality hotels. For the traveler willing to take a chance--able to request a room for occupancy just a few hours away--is able to score the best possible rates for accommodations. Hotels, quite obviously, are willing to cut the rate by 60% and 70% if they know with certainty that the room will otherwise be empty. (It costs only pennies to place a body in a hotel bed--a change of linens, a bar of soap, a towel--rather than permit that room to go unoccupied.)
And thus, according to Hotel Tonight, on a recent night, HotelTonight.com placed a traveler in an exquisite $409 midtown-Manhattan hotel room for only $199. A visitor to San Francisco snared a top quality, $399 room for $139, while a tourist in Chicago bunked down in a luxurious, $329 room for only $149.
The idea, the tactic, the reasoning, is simplicity itself, so obvious that it’s surprising that eager techies didn’t offer the plan earlier. Using their mobile devices (smartphones, ipads and other tablets, laptops), the tourist-gambler simply goes into HotelTonight.com at 2 p.m., looking for a room for that night. The worst that can happen to him or her is that an unsuccessful seeker will have to pay normal rates if that city’s hotels are well occupied for that night and thus unwilling to “deal”.
HotelTonight.com is now an acknowledged “hit”. Not yet as well-known but bound for stardom (to my mind) is EatWith.com. That’s right, “EatWith.com”, a website originated in Israel that then spread to Spain, was later picked up for use in dozens of other European locations, and is now expanding rapidly to cities all over the United States.
EatWith.com, just slightly more than a year old, is based on the fact that a great many people are excellent cooks, but do not work in restaurants--they are school teachers, accountants, bookkeepers, white collar workers, paralegals, nurses, you name it, who pride themselves on their cooking skills, or are able to duplicate the remarkable dishes that their mothers used to serve them. And, in most cases, they are also eager to earn the extra income from serving meals in their homes or apartments to other residents of, or tourist visitors to, their city.
So they list themselves on EatWith.com as willing to have guests for dinner at some times of the evening on certain days of the week, specifying both the minimum (usually two) and maximum (usually eight) guests they are able to accommodate at their kitchen or dining room tables, and supplying travel instructions to their apartment or home. And they set a price for an entire three-course meal with wine--say, $35 per person in most cases, $50 in a few, $25 in another few. People respond by phoning for a reservation, and then show up to enjoy a sumptuous home-cooked meal instead of a restaurant meal.
Currently, in the town where I live (New York), I can find more than a half-dozen home-dining opportunities in my neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and a great many more in other parts of the city--and especially in Brooklyn, a special hot spot for home dining. The idea for EatWith.com first occurred to its creator, Shemer Schwartz of Tel Aviv, Israel, when he was invited in 2010 by a friend to have dinner with a family on the island of Crete. That evening had such a deep impact that he analyzed the prospects for the next two years before formally launching the site, emphasizing home-cooked meals in that capital of cuisine, Barcelona, Spain.
The site quickly became, in his words, “a global community of enthusiastic guests and passionate hosts”, spreading to 13 European nations and then hopping the Atlantic to the United States (New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson, Santa Fe, Seattle, Indianapolis and Jersey City), and then to Central and South America and Japan. By the time you read this, it probably will have attracted hosts in 30 or 40 more U.S. cities, so rapid is its growth. EatWith.com posts photos on its site of typical meals in the dining rooms of its hosts, and even points out that one such host is a former Michelin-starred chef, who prefers to cook at home for groups of no more than eight at a time.
Pull up the EatWith.com site, and you may understand my prediction that it will prove an international sensation. I plan to eat at one of its home-based restaurants this coming weekend.