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Travel site Hopper, with backing from Atlas Venture, aims to take vacation planning back to the '70s

Posted by Scott Kirsner  July 29, 2011 09:52 AM

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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 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." She'd hand you some 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.

The arrival of Web sites like Expedia, Priceline, and TripAdvisor have put a lot of power into your hands when it comes to vacation-planning (and put a lot of travel agents out of business.) But they've also made the process more time-consuming, and you're never quite sure that you're seeing all of the best options of things to do, places to stay, and 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 say, "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.) The start-up is in the process of closing a funding round in the neighborhood of $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," says 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 says the start-up is building its own index of travel-related information on the Web, from tour operators, restaurant review blogs, and magazines, for instance. "We're building the largest database of structured travel data," Lalonde says, noting that they've already indexed about 100 million Web pages related to various destinations.

Hopper's demo shows how the site will work with information about Spain, and Lalonde says that an international version of the site will launch "within weeks," followed by a U.S. version.

Lalonde notes that between Kayak (Concord), ITA Software (Cambridge), Goby (Boston), and TripAdvisor (Newton), the Boston area has a strong cluster of travel-related companies. He says 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've been working on Hopper since 2007.

Here's an interview with Lalonde from earlier this year, from the Web site NextMontreal, and a recent news release announcing that travel industry analyst Philip Wolf has joined Hopper's board.

hopper.jpg

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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