Kellogg World



The traveler

Sam Shank changes the way people book hotels with leading mobile app

Scott Dorsey ’99

When mobile devices began revolutionizing personal computing, online travel entrepreneur Sam Shank ’04 quickly envisioned a way to make hotel booking faster, cheaper and smarter. In late 2010, Shank and fellow alum Jared Simon ’02 co-founded HotelTonight, a mobile app that lets travelers book last-minute lodging from the convenience of their smartphones.

Named one of the best apps of 2013 by TIME magazine, HotelTonight features same-day deals on unsold hotel inventory, moving the online booking industry into mobile devices targeting younger, more spontaneous trekkers.

“We’ve been seeing a shift in consumer behavior toward last-minute planning using the Internet, whether it’s ordering dinner from GrubHub or booking a hotel on HotelTonight,” Shank says.

Since launching three years ago, the startup has gone from a handful of hotel partners to forging relationships with some 10,000 hoteliers. Additionally, the mobile-first company has more than doubled its presence around the globe and now operates in 17 countries. In September, HotelTonight secured $45 million in Series D financing led by hedge fund Coatue Management, bringing its total venture funding to about $80 million.

With more than 9 million downloads, the app is shaping mobile travel and changing how travelers plan — or don’t plan.

"With our app, we’ve made booking travel far more efficient, exciting and even ‘magical.’"

“With our app, we’ve made booking travel far more efficient, exciting and even ‘magical,’” says Shank, who serves as HotelTonight’s CEO and received the 2013 Stevie Award for Executive of the Year (Hospitality and Leisure). “In 10 seconds with HotelTonight, you can book a room at a quality hotel at a great price at the very last minute.”

The on-demand, immediate gratification nature of HotelTonight appeals not only to younger travelers who embrace spontaneity in all aspects of their lives, but also frequent business travelers. They’re drawn, Shank says, by HotelTonight’s deeply discounted hotel offerings — as much as 70 percent off — at destinations that range from the “cool” luxurious to the “vibey” no-frills.

The travel bug bit Shank hard at Kellogg, as he took trips to China, Australia and Costa Rica. During his last three months at Northwestern, Shank created his first travel startup: a hotel review site called In 2006, TravelPost was acquired by SideStep, which soon became a part of Kayak. While building his second venture,, a travel deals search engine, Shank spun off HotelTonight — beating out traditional travel sites that were slow to enter the mobile app market.

Moving forward, geographic expansion, more personalized services and technological features like Google Wallet are key elements of the startup’s continued growth. An avid HotelTonight user himself, Shank can’t stop pinching himself over the company’s success. He says, “Being able to create a product that makes people’s lives better by saving them money and time is definitely a good feeling.”