Expedia takes a page out of Hotel Tonight’s design book with its new app

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Sometimes, you can teach an old dog new tricks. And sometimes that dog is Expedia and the new trick is design.

The travel giant has a brand new tablet app and it’s all about beauty. Perhaps the company took some inspiration from Pinterest and its far younger competitor Hotel Tonight. The app focuses on striking, large scenic visuals — “sensuality” as Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said at a launch event in San Francisco. The home screen of the new tablet app is a map with themed “collections” of cities: Cities that never sleep, romantic getaways, upcoming festivals.

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The home interface of Expedia’s new tablet app.

“Travel is a sensual experience and travel planning is about as industrial an experience as you can get,” Khosrowshahi said. “We wanted to create an experience that befits travel.”

Along with the tablet app – due out this fall — Expedia also showed off its new Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch app. Anyone with the watch can get push notifications around a trip such as reminders to leave for the airport and notification if their flight gate changed.

The old guard of the travel companies – Expedia, Priceline, Orbitz – have been stuck in the late 1990s for some time now. They were slow to go mobile and slow to redesign their clunky websites.

But Expedia is attempting to correct its course. Over the last few years, the company put an army of engineers on the case of rebuilding its technical infrastructure from the ground up, so that it would be easier to experiment with new products. Khosrowshahi told me that the new tablet app was built by a small team in a matter of months – something that would never have been possible on Expedia’s old system.

In the last year, Expedia also quietly rolled out updates to its mobile app. It even added “mobile rates” for rooms available that night – a touch that closely resembles Hotel Tonight.

During the Q&A session, travel writer Chris McGinnis asked Khosrowshahi about its sprightly young startup competitor. “With Hotel Tonight, we’re seeing that people are a lot more spontaneous on their mobile devices. Are you guys doing that kind of stuff?”

“Hotel Tonight is a great new player,” Khosrowshahi said. “When you look at us we have a much broader swath of inventory and were able to get deals. Hotel Tonight can deliver strong deals across a narrow base of inventory. Both pieces of that service can grow.” He confirmed that Expedia is seeing a big rise in last minute mobile bookings.

In terms of monthly unique visitors, Expedia is the largest full-service online travel agency in the world. It does face stiff competition though, with chunks of its business being carved away by Priceline and Orbitz, and smaller chunks at risk of being carved away by the likes of Hotel Tonight and Airbnb. To keep its reigning crown, it needs to keep up with newer entrants technologically.

Khosrowshahi claimed that he’s not too worried about Airbnb’s impact. “We’re definitely keeping an eye on it,” he said. “As far as the effect on the travel business, we don’t see a significant effect at this point.”

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