It is a sign of the times that even people who would never be mistaken for technology geeks understand what a booking engine is. They may not know exactly how it works, but just about everybody has used a booking engine to buy an airline ticket, reserve a hotel room or hold a table at a fine-dining restaurant.
What a lot of New Orleans-area people may not know is that when they log on to some of the country’s most popular travel and tourism websites to book a vacation or overnight stay, they may use technology designed and built by a local company.
Thirteen years ago, the founders of the New Orleans-based iSeatz thought they had developed a technology that diners would find useful and restaurants would love. “Our original goal was to facilitate online restaurant reservations for consumers, very similar to what Open Table does today,” says iSeatz founder and New Orleans native Kenneth Purcell.
Purcell believed both restaurants and diners would embrace the idea of booking reservations online, and as iSeatz built its booking technology, he also worked the ranks of financiers. Over time he raised some $7 million in venture capital to grow the business to a size that could deliver the volume of bookings needed to return profits.
On the way to that point, it dawned on Purcell that the technology his team had developed could also work for other kinds of businesses that take reservations.
“Sending a restaurant a notification that a customer has booked a two-person table for dinner tomorrow at 8:30 is very similar to facilitating the sale of a theater ticket online, or a steamboat ride ticket, or even something like airport parking and hotel shuttle transportation,” he says.
By the time the company was in its fifth year of operation – a benchmark age which many businesses don’t survive to celebrate – iSeatz was expanding its portfolio of suppliers and broadening the technology’s application to serve major travel-reservation companies.
“We partnered with companies like Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline and helped them build and launch the types of services they still offer today,” Purcell says.
The strategizing it took to put iSeatz on the field with the big players also brought Purcell and his team to a crucial realization. Back when they launched iSeatz as a restaurant-reservation service, their main objective was to handle all the bookings through their own website, which meant that in order to be successful they had to draw large numbers of users to their site. Doing that required spending a lot of money on advertising and a lot of time staying abreast of consumers’ rapidly changing online behavior.
When the iSeatz team began to realize that they had become distracted from their most important asset – the booking engine – they shifted gears.
Noting that big travel companies such as Orbitz already had massive, heavily promoted websites that were attracting millions of users, they thought: Why not stop competing for website traffic and instead offer to customize the iSeatz technology for major travel firms so their customers could have one-stop access to add-ons such as rental cars?
The wisdom of “cross-selling relevant, related products” was obvious, Purcell says, and the big travel companies got it.
“We began working extensively with the four largest online travel agencies and spent years helping them design and build the technology platforms that support this,” he says.
In the midst of that effort came New Orleans’ most historic challenge. Just as it did to many other companies, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left the iSeatz team in a quandary. Purcell had ridden out the storm in a friend’s condo on St. Charles Avenue, but he soon realized that, for the time being at least, his company could not remain in place.
Purcell moved iSeatz to New York, where he continued to evaluate how the company could best deploy its technology for other users. It was after the move to Manhattan that an important opportunity arose, and Purcell jumped on it.
“We partnered with Delta Airlines in late 2006 and launched a platform the next year to build a customized hotel and rental car booking engine for Delta.com,” he says.
iSeatz brought its existing partners into the action too, tapping Priceline’s hotel-reservation inventory to beef up Delta’s offerings.
Delta was impressed by the results, and the company’s success helped iSeatz get a foot in the door at Northwest Airlines, KLM and Air France. All of that business came to iSeatz because the company regrouped and homed in on its core product.
“We focused on being a technology company that had a unique booking engine and [customization] process that Travelocity, Expedia and some of our competitors did not offer,” Purcell says.
iSeatz now completes hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bookings annually for more than a dozen of the country’s largest travel-related businesses. Now employing 90 full-time workers, the company has twice placed among Inc. magazine’s list of the nation’s 500 fastest-growing businesses.
The company also returned home. Purcell moved iSeatz back to New Orleans in 2007 and now operates from a Magazine Street entrepreneurial hub known as the IP Building. Purcell likes to recall that it all started with iSeatz making dinner reservations.
“Our ‘ah-ha’ moment was when we realized that we could either charge restaurants $2 a person per dinner booking, or we could start selling hotel rooms and make 15 percent on every reservation,” he says.
Purcell says he’s delighted to be running a technology company from downtown New Orleans, and he’s looking to expand the uses for the iSeatz technology in coming years. “I would love to see iSeatz pursue new markets outside the travel industry,” he says. A possible new client target: big-box retailers.
Lowdown on iSeatz
Kenneth Purcell, founder and chief executive officer
Allen Darnell, chief operating officer
Michael Mauer, senior vice president, distribution and safety
Charles Jensen, vice president, travel accounts
iSeatz is a software developer that customizes its products for use by major travel and tourism businesses. Launched as an online restaurant reservation service, the company now designs products primarily for the travel market and is nearing the launch of a new travel platform for American Express The company expects to handle more than $1 billion in gross bookings next year.
“The best decision I’ve made, besides proposing to my wife, was coming back to New Orleans after going to New York after Hurricane Katrina. The energy and buy-in I’ve gotten from people I’ve recruited to work here has been fantastic.”
Delta Air Lines
iSeatz, 643 Magazine St., (877) 317-7763, iSeatz.com