Oyster’s Eytan Seidman Interviewed by Eric Enge

Picture of Eytan Seidman

Eytan Seidman

As vice president of product at Oyster Hotel Reviews, Eytan leads product management, planning, design, and usability of the Oyster.com site.

Prior to Oyster Hotel Reviews, Eytan was a principal program manager lead on Microsoft’s Live Search team (now Bing.com), a position he held for four and a half years. This team was responsible for the vision, planning, and specifications that power the web search software for Live Search. This includes all aspects of Live’s core ranking and relevance measurement. Earlier in his career at Microsoft, Eytan worked as a program manager on the Microsoft CRM team, driving the program management of functionality related to the core user experience and integration with back-office applications.

Eytan received degrees in computer science and history from the University of Pennsylvania.

Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: Why did you pursue the idea of a high end hotel review site?

Eytan Seidman: The idea was pretty straightforward really. It came out of a personal experience, like many ideas do. Co-founder Elie and I were staying in a hotel in Alaska that we found online, and it turned out to be nothing like we had imagined based on what we read and saw online. It was 2007, and we could not figure out why it was so different. As we dug deeper, we found a gaping hole in the lack of any high quality content in the hotel space.

We then decided to hire journalists trained to look critically and objectively at hotels, sleep in their beds, swim in their pools, experience the spa, experience the entire hotel, take 500 to 1,000 photos of the hotel and write a very detailed, very structured, 2,000-word review. We basically just send people out to hotels undercover, and we pay their full cost. We typically narrow the pictures down to 200 to 500, but sometimes we keep more.

All of our pages are very well structured. The second piece to our success is having great search on our site, and then also getting indexed by the engines. The search doesn’t even require people to specify the location of a hotel, they can literally just search “spa,” and see hotels with spas all across the world on an interactive map.

We are trying to introduce something very new, and we think it will continue to scale upwards. We’ve introduced what we think is a new way of searching for and finding hotels, and we think people might be interested in it.

Eric Enge: One of the problems with traditional travel review sites is that visitors don’t know what’s motivating the reviewer who provided the content. If they love the place, they are going to take a lot of pictures of beautiful scenic views, and none around the garbage cans or behind the kitchen.

Eytan Seidman: That’s correct, yes. The other approach out there for sites likes ours is to use user reviews. We definitely think of user reviews as a compliment to what we do, but the problem lies in exactly what you mentioned earlier. Looking at a user review, the real challenge is trying to figure out if the “user” is in fact a real, unbiased customer, and those biases can come in many different forms.

For example, if someone who only stays at $1,000-a-night hotels found a four-star hotel to be a total dump, it can simply be because that person is used to staying in very, very high-end hotels.

Eric Enge: One possible solution I’ve heard suggested for this problem is to find other reviews by the same person to try and uncover and biases or tendencies.

Eytan Seidman: That’s right, yes. Another thing to note about hotels is that most people don’t go to them super frequently. Therefore, in most user-review sites, there are probably about fifty different reviewers who have each been to one or two hotels. We have a handful of reviewers who have each been to 50 or 100 hotels, and they benefit from having been to a lot of hotels and having that perspective. So it isn’t impossible to maintain a successful site using only user reviews, but there is the challenge of trying to figure out the viewer’s perspective.

Eric Enge: How many roaming reporters do you have at this point?

Eytan Seidman: We have roughly 11 or 12 reporters.

Eric Enge: How long do they typically stay at a hotel?

Eytan Seidman: They typically stay at least one night, and very often two nights.

Eric Enge: What sort of things do they typically check for?

Eytan Seidman: It’s a very, very structured approach. They literally go through it with a checklist. In terms of the room, they check for cleanliness, size and service, and they try to do all the things that regular guests would do. For example, we have them call down to the office and ask for some additional towels, and then note how long it takes to get the towels. It’s basically a whole set of tests around every single feature of the hotel. Whether it’s a pool, a golf course or tennis courts, our reporters will experience and evaluate every feature that the hotel offers.

They are also looking to get a sense of whether or not it is good for families by talking to guests and looking at all the features that are offered for families. They will even check if the room has a crib, or if the room is big enough to put a crib in. Going beyond family demographics, they will evaluate the hotel for honeymooners or for those looking for a party scene.

The overall feel of the hotel, its ambience and its feel, are evaluated as well. Location too is very important, of course, if the hotel is in a remote area or an urban area. Finally, our reporters will evaluate the hotel’s food. If the hotel has a restaurant or restaurants, they will visit all those places. If the hotel is all-inclusive, they sample the food so future guests will know all its best options. Our reporters will also take note of what restaurants and food options are available in the area surrounding the hotel.

Eric Enge: One of the important things I think you mentioned earlier is looking at it from multiple perspectives. Obviously your professional reviewer isn’t a honeymoon, business and family traveler all at the same time, but at least they can try to take the perspective of those audiences. This is something that a user-generated review on another website would never do.

Eytan Seidman: Correct.

Eric Enge: You mentioned earlier how the data on all your pages is structured so people know what kind of information they are going to find and how to find it. Can you expand a little bit on that?

Eytan Seidman: Looking at a page review, a user will see links to descriptions and evaluations of the scene, service, location, beach, rooms, features, family options, pets, cleanliness and food, among others. So a pet owner could click the pet section and see if pets are allowed, if there is a charge, if pets are allowed to be in the room alone and other things like that.

All those sections are well defined and appear for every hotel, so as people navigate though our site, they are always going to see the same sections and options. We hyperlinked our site pretty aggressively to other content as well, including photos and other hotel websites, because it is the best way to provide the most information to our users. In that way, our site models the Wikipedia type model to some extent.

Eric Enge: How many hotels have you reviewed so far?

Eytan Seidman: We have reviewed about 400. We have 340 reviews on our site right now, and we are going to be adding about 70 or 80 in next week or two.

Eric Enge: Do you have information for hotels in New York City now?

Eytan Seidman: New York is live, yes, which we did about two weeks ago.

Eric Enge: And Las Vegas is next?

Eytan Seidman: Las Vegas is next, yes. We’ll add about 80 hotels from Las Vegas.

Eric Enge: I imagine your plan is based primarily on where the most demand is?

Eytan Seidman: Yes, that’s right. We look at where there is going to be a lot of demand and high-involvement decisions. Obviously, Las Vegas, New York, Miami and the Caribbean are all very high-demand leisure destinations.

Eric Enge: What is your goal in terms of numbers going forward?

Eytan Seidman: Our main goal is to just keep growing our base. We are already seeing good traction, and there are many, many hotels in the world. We’ve only started to scratch the surface. In Las Vegas they have everything from midrange hotels to very high-end hotels, but our goal is to keep increasing our coverage and increasing the number of destinations we cover.

Eric Enge: So I imagine the number of professional reviewers you have will scale up too?

Eytan Seidman: Correct.

Eric Enge: Do you have a plan for revisiting hotels you have already covered?

Eytan Seidman: Yes, it is built into our model. We will revisit hotels periodically, but obviously the big thing that will require a revisit is any major renovations. There are already hotels that we’ve stayed at right after a major renovation, and we’ll go revisit those hotels in the future.

Eric Enge: Of course new ownership could warrant a revisit as well?

Eytan Seidman: New ownership would also, yes. There are a number of things that we look to flag that could result in our revisiting them.

Eric Enge: What is you revenue model?

Eytan Seidman: We don’t make any money today. There are no ads on our site today, but the hotel industry is a very, very large one, and a key revenue model over time will definitely be through advertising. There are a lot of people who would want to advertise against our content. Going on a trip or a vacation, the hotel is probably one of the largest, most important and most complex purchases anyone can make. Hotels are not really a commodity, if you will, so there are a lot of advertisers that want to advertise against that.

For example, Jet Blue may want to advertise to people who are looking for hotels in the Caribbean because they fly to those destinations, and tourism bureaus may want to advertise to attract people to their respective destinations.

Eric Enge: How was all of this funded, and how are you going to keep funding it going forward?

Eytan Seidman: We are funded by Bain Capital Ventures. We raised about $6.4 million from Bain, and we also raised some money from another smaller fund called Accelerator Ventures. In time, we will produce revenue, and that revenue will fund the company.

Eric Enge: I saw in an interview you did that it will take $40 million to break even. Is that still your projection?

Eytan Seidman: Yes. As you pointed out, on the human side we are going to need more and more reviewers, so that probably will continue to require more and more capital. I believe that the reward at the end of a tunnel in terms of what we can produce is quite large, however.

Eric Enge: This is going to be very interesting to watch from a search perspective, as it goes back to directory model of doing things while targeting a very specific niche.

Eytan Seidman: That’s right, yes. At the end of the day, people want to find great content and they want their search engines to surface the very best content. I think that’s been true from day-one. Any motivated person who wants to stay at a hotel in Aruba will want to find out about Aruba and will search for it on Google, Bing and Yahoo looking for the best information they can find.

Likewise, Google, Bing and Yahoo are going to want to find that the best stuff and deliver it to their users as well. That has always been a truism, and I think it will be true for a long time to come, so our goal is to be right in the thick of that. For people who are looking for very, very deep content on hotels, we hope to provide what they are looking for.

Eric Enge: Who do view as your competition?

Eytan Seidman: Interestingly, there is no site that takes our exact approach. One of the reasons we find it so interesting is that we hire professional reporters to go and review hotels, similar to the approach CNET or Consumer Reports. These companies take products and run them through a series of rigorous tests.

The hotel Albion is a good example. On the Albion page we have 98 photos, but on many hotel pages we have even more in that. How often do you see 98 or 100 high-quality photos on hotel sites today? Most of the sites out there are using the same content that users see elsewhere on the Internet.

Eric Enge: They lack any uniqueness.

Eytan Seidman: Yes, exactly.

Eric Enge: So uniqueness will certainly play a role in the world of search too.

Eytan Seidman: Yes, it definitely should. The searching capability of our site is something that we believe will draw people in. It is quite new and it should be fast from everywhere, as the goal is to bring super high-quality search technology to the travel space. Combine that with really extensive, in-depth content and very good software, and we hope we can become a leader in the field.

Eric Enge: I see there are several categories where I can narrow down my search based on price range, hotel rating, location and even if pets are allowed.

Eytan Seidman: Exactly, that’s right. Every single amenity is hand-collected by our reporters and verified by our staff here. When we say that the hotel allows pets, we’ve actually gone to great lengths to verify that and ensure it’s accurate and up-to-date. We are not just getting a data dump from some unreliable source and pushing it on to consumer. We are actually verifying all the information in every step of our process.

Eric Enge: Thanks Eytan!

Eytan Seidman: Thank you Eric!

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