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Innovation Economy

Website hopes to add retro to travel planning

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / August 8, 2011

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Excerpts from the Innovation Economy blog.

If you’re old enough to remember the pre-Internet approach to planning a vacation, it went something like this: You made an appointment to visit your travel agent, and you told him or her what you wanted to do.

“We’re interested in a beach vacation in Mexico. What are the best deals?’’ Or maybe, “We want to visit vineyards in Napa and Sonoma in February.’’

The agent would hand you brochures, maybe tap on a green-screen computer for a bit to look at airfares, and advise you on the best destinations and places to stay.

Websites such as Expedia, Priceline, and TripAdvisor have put a lot of power into your hands (and put a lot of travel agents out of business). But they have also made the process more time-consuming, and you’re never quite sure that you’re seeing all of the best things to do, places to stay, or ways to get there.

A Montreal start-up called Hopper is working on that problem, with a vision of becoming the Google of travel. Beyond just searching for the cheapest flight or hotel room, Hopper wants to let you write, for example, “scuba diving in the Caribbean,’’ and find a ranking of the best islands for doing that, based on the Web’s consensus opinion. There’s also a way to book flights.

It’s closing a funding round of about $8 million, led by Cambridge-based Atlas Venture, and has been hunting for office space - and software development talent - in Cambridge. (The company will continue to operate in Montreal, as well.) Hopper earlier raised $2 million from Canada’s Brightspark Ventures.

“Travel sites are mainly good at informational stuff, like giving you airfares or hotel prices when you give them specific airport codes or cities you want to visit,’’ said Hopper founder Frederic Lalonde, a former vice president at Expedia. “We’re interested in adding inspirational stuff, like the best restaurants to try for a particular kind of food, the best places to golf in the Mediterranean, or to see the running of the bulls.’’

Lalonde said the start-up is building its own index of travel-related information.

Hopper’s demo shows how the site will work with information about Spain, and he said an international version of the site will be launched within weeks, followed by a US version.

Lalonde noted that between Kayak (Concord), ITA Software (Cambridge), Goby (Boston), and TripAdvisor (Newton), the Boston area has a strong cluster of travel-related companies. He said that at least one of Hopper’s three founders will move to Cambridge from Montreal. (The others founders are Joost Ouwerkerk and Sebastien Rainville.) They have been working on Hopper since 2007.

Investing in expansion Scott Maxwell grew up in Silicon Valley, but he is practically operating a shadow economic development agency in Massachusetts. As founder of OpenView Venture Partners, a Boston venture capital firm (and before that, as head of the Boston office of Insight Venture Partners), he has persuaded more than a half-dozen companies from around the world to set up shop here.

OpenView targets software and Internet companies that have created a product or service and begun generating revenue. “We look for companies that have around $5 million in revenue when we invest,’’ Maxwell said, “so it’s really expansion investing, giving them the resources they need for growth.’’

OpenView will invest in start-ups anywhere in the world, Maxwell added, “but the company needs to have a North American strategy.’’ Often, that entails setting up a headquarters in the United States and hiring a chief executive here.

While a partner at Insight, a New York City firm, Maxwell brought three companies - Astaro, Imceda Software, and Acronis - to Burlington from Germany, Australia, and Russia, respectively.

Intronis, a cloud-based backup service that started in New Jersey, is now operating from OpenView’s Fort Point Channel office in Boston, and Zmags, an online merchandising company founded in Denmark, is headquartered in the same neighborhood. Two other companies, Exinda and Open-e, have established headquarters in Boston since raising money from OpenView.

Most of the companies are relatively small; all told, they account for perhaps 250 jobs in the state, according to OpenView.

“Boston is just the best place to set these companies up,’’ Maxwell said.“It’s really difficult to grow a company in Silicon Valley,’’ he continued. “There’s too much competition for hiring, the costs are high, and people in Massachusetts work a lot harder. For business-to-business companies, the labor pool is incredible here, and there are plenty of salespeople. And I say all that as a California native.’’

For the full Innovation Economy blog, updated daily, visit www.boston.com/innovation.