|By Tasha Kates, The Daily Progress,
Charlottesville, Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sep. 9, 2007 - It used to be that friends of the well-traveled Adam Healey and Charles Seilheimer would call them directly to ask for recommendations on where to spend the night anywhere in the world.
"After the sixth or seventh e-mail about where to stay in Prague, it sparked an idea in both of us," Healey said.
The University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business Administration '05 graduates used that idea to write a business plan for what is now VibeAgent, a comprehensive online hotel review site that marries social networking, hotel reviews and meta-searches to help travelers find hotels to fit their personality and budget.
The plan has gone from paper to reality. VibeAgent is online in a beta capacity, starting its fourth month of testing before the site goes live on Oct. 9. About 2,000 people have received invitations for the site so far, testing its search capabilities while looking for accommodations that suit them.
The company has already attracted an angel investor. Trip Davis, CEO of travel technology company TRX, joined the board in July. Healey did not disclose the investment amount.
VibeAgent has a staff of seven. Healey and Seilheimer won last year's UVa Business Plan Competition, giving them access to office space and internal resources. Now they are looking for space in Charlottesville for their Darden Business Incubator company.
"We found a wealth of technology talent in Charlottesville, but there aren't a lot of Web companies," Healey said. "We're hoping to put Charlottesville and Web 2.0 on the map."
VibeAgent supports the Web 2.0 concept of user collaboration by letting users create personal profiles and add friends to their travel network. Users can search for hotels by ambience or activities and read others' hotel reviews or add their own.
After hitting the search button, the site tells users to "kick back for a sec" while it compiles recommendations and room prices from sources ranging from the hotel itself to Priceline.com. The user is transferred to the agent's checkout if they want to book a room. VibeAgent receives a commission from the agent; the user does not pay the referral cost.
The site's design is somewhat minimalist. But less is actually more work, Seilheimer said.
"It takes work and extra effort to make a site really elegant and clean," Seilheimer said. "It's easier to throw things on the site."
While Healey said that there is no other Web site providing the same services as VibeAgent, he said the company's closest competitor is TripAdvisor.com. The hotel review and travel guidebook site is considered the largest collection of global travel information on the Web.
"We've been called TripAdvisor 2.0 by TechCrunch and several other industry insiders," Healey said.
VibeAgent has received support from Matthias Hild, an assistant professor of business administration at Darden who designed algorithms for the site. He has even used it.
"I don't like to travel, no," Hild said. "I'm a true academic. I like boredom. I just used the site a couple of days ago for a hotel for a business trip. This really gives you an overview of different providers."
VibeAgent still has some growing to do. Healey said the company is going to build a team of 20 in the next couple of years. VibeAgent already has been approached by venture capitalists and will be going into the market for A-round funding in October.
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