|By Tasha Kates, The Daily Progress,
Charlottesville, Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
April 10, 2009 - It seemed too good to be true -- the world's largest helicopter modified into an 18-room luxury hotel to take passengers on tours around the United States and Europe.
In a way, it was. The "hotelicopter" was a viral marketing campaign that gained Internet fame as an April Fool's Day prank, but the concept has landed in Charlottesville. VibeAgent, a hotel search agent started by two 2005 graduates of the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, has renamed itself "hotelicopter."
"We were thinking about how to rebrand, and we thought we would do something fun with it," said Adam Healey, the company's CEO and co-founder. "We had no idea that it was going to take off like it did."
Healey said the company's fake hotelicopter site received more than 1.5 million page views over the last week. Sites such as CNet and widely read gadget blogs buzzed with news of the hotelicopter, questioning its existence.
The prank's popularity wasn't the reason why the local company decided to change its name. Trip Davis, the company's lead investor and member of its board of directors, said it is common for startups to reach a fork in a road.
"[Healey and co-founder Charles Seilheimer] ended up with three businesses -- a hotel search site, a hotel review site and a social networking business," Davis said. "I think they realized that focusing on the hotel search business is the way to go."
Online travel is a $100 billion market rife with opportunities, Healey said.
"Beer plus camaraderie plus brainstorming" helped the company come up with hotelicopter, Healey said. The site, which promises to "elevate your search," had been in the works for several months. This week, the new hotelicopter sign went up at the company's office on the Downtown Mall.
Ian Skurnik, an associate professor of business administration at Darden, said smaller companies have the luxury of changing their name before they become more famous.
"You want to stand out a bit without being so bizarre that you drive people away or don't have them take you seriously," Skurnik said. "A lot of names that sound odd initially stop sounding odd after they become more familiar. For example, you can now say [Hulu.com] and it sounds semi-normal and people know what you're talking about."
Skurnik said the hotelicopter name would work well with a younger audience, the age group that the company has been targeting. The hotel site just replaced its user interface with Facebook Connect, allowing users of the social networking site to log in with the same information. Healey said the site also features reviews from TripAdvisor, a site the hotelicopter founders once considered a competitor.
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