By Darrell Hartman
February 10, 2020
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For a recent business trip to New York, Maya Poulton booked a room at the Public. A 35-year-old travel entrepreneur and self-described “hotel nerd,” she likes the 367-room hotel for its hip Lower East Side location, free yoga classes, and the abundance of outlets and natural light in its second-floor lobby.

Hotels brands like Public are catering more than ever to well-traveled millennials like Poulton. The problem, she argues, is that choosing and reserving them online remains a broken system. She and co-founder Joey Kotkins aim to fix it with a new platform, Safara, which lets subscribers choose from thousands of hand-picked hotels and reclaim up to 15% of the room fee for future travel. It’s a boutique online travel agency whose revenue comes from subscription fees, not from commissions. Poulton says her larger aim is to bring more transparency and utility to a booking system that has done plenty in recent years to enrich the likes of Expedia and Google — but too little to connect globetrotting 30-somethings with hotels they’ll actually love.

Courtesy of Safara

The timing is good. Millennials are expected to book roughly half of this year’s business flights, according to Boston Consulting Group. Meanwhile, a 2018 AARP study found that they are twice as likely as Baby Boomers to extend work trips into vacations, a phenomenon that has the unfortunate name of “bleisure” travel. Safara also launches in the midst of a major leadership shuffle at Expedia Group, one of two online travel agent behemoths currently ruling the marketplace. (Booking Holdings, owner of Kayak and Priceline, is the other.)

Safara, which went live in early January, has operated in beta mode for a few months now, with several hundred users from the U.S. and UK providing early feedback and user data.

It’s an elite group, members of which average $615 per hotel booking and 17 trips a year. They hail from New York, London, Los Angeles, and Seattle, and gravitate towards smaller chains like Ace and Nobu — as well as standalone boutique properties like the Pulitzer, in Amsterdam, which occupies a handful of imaginatively restored canal houses. Safara’s $195 annual subscription fee has typically paid for itself by the third booking, Poulton claims.

Let’s say you are a business traveler who is free to book independent of your corporate travel agency (or a gig-economy freelancer who doesn’t have one). With a Safara membership, you can use $75 in Safara points to secure a Kelly Wearstler–designed room at the Proper, a San Francisco hotel that might have otherwise put you over a company per-diem. If you need to stay with your team at the Marker, a more affordable option with an Old-Hollywood-meets-Beaux-Arts vibe, you can spend $25 in points to secure an upgrade to an executive suite.

Perks like these are the stuff of existing rewards programs — including those that more conventional business travelers may be flexing next door at the Westin or the Hilton, or even at the stately St. Regis, with its fancier location next to SFMOMA. As the David squaring off against these Goliaths, Safara is betting on the appeal of non-slipperiness: no minimum stays, blackout dates, or other fine print. “We like to say that Safara is black and white and the other loyalty programs are all gray area,” Poulton says. It prioritizes points above flashy perks. A free bottle of Prosecco at check-in? “If you’re into wellness, you probably don’t want that anyway.”

Other things Safara’s target audience doesn’t want, according to Poulton: Anxiety-inducing countdown clocks, misleading online galleries that lead with photos of “blinged-out master suites,” and Google searches that return Holiday Inns, Sofitels, and InterContinentals as the top results. “It’s either a race to the bottom — who’s got the lowest price? — or a race to the top: who’s got the biggest ad budget?,” Poulton says. “Neither of those are conducive to great user experience, and neither caters at all to frequent travelers.”

“Hotels will always be relevant” in the Airbnb era, she adds, and not just for business travel. “They really invest in hospitality — their managers go to school for it — and this allows them to make individual guests feel unique.” The legacy business model of commissions-based online bookings does the opposite, she says, and engenders little brand loyalty.

“Hotels are a passion of ours, but focusing here as opposed to, say, on airlines is also strategic,” Poulton says. “It’s where the customer is currently getting screwed the most.”