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Originally published Tuesday, March 20, 2012 at 8:55 AM

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New website gets hotels to bid for your business

BackBid, a new website, gets hotels to bid for guests — and saves travelers money.

Tribune Media Services

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Well, it only seems to work for the big chains; I just tried to plug in my May... MORE

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A few days before Eric Kimmel flew from Montreal to San Francisco for a recent conference, he checked to see if he could find a better deal on a hotel.

There's a new site for that. It's called BackBid (www.backbid.com), and within hours of his telling it about his confirmed reservation at the St. Regis, where a standard room starts at $579 a night, seven competing hotels had contacted him with lower prices.

One of them, the Omni San Francisco, offered a $120 savings and was closer to his meeting. "It was right where I needed to be," says Kimmel, who had heard about BackBid from a friend. "I called the St. Regis to cancel my original reservation, which was refundable."

Almost since the beginning of the commercial Internet — at least as far back as 1998, when Priceline.com launched — consumers have been bidding on travel. That model frequently benefitted the travel industry, because customers didn't know how much to pay and often overbid for their rooms, rental cars and tickets. But now, BackBid, a Canadian startup, is flipping that idea on its head by asking hotels to bid for your business.

BackBid takes advantage of the hotel industry's generous refund policies, which often allow travelers to cancel rooms without a penalty as long as they give enough advance notice. Guests register with BackBid, adding their reservation and lodging preferences. That information is sent to BackBid's hotel network.

Hotels may then submit bids to encourage travelers to "abandon" their current reservation — that's the company's word, not mine — and book with their property instead. The new reservation is nonrefundable and can't be changed, and your card is charged immediately.

As you might expect, the BackBid concept has its share of cheerleaders and critics.

Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, which owns the St. Regis, would not comment on losing a customer, despite repeated requests. Jason Q. Freed of the industry website HotelNewsNow.com, called BackBid's strategy "a bit scandalous."

"What if every time you bought an item from the grocery store, an article of clothing or a piece of furniture, once you got home you had competing stores offering to sell you the same item for a cheaper price?" he asked.

Hotels are concerned that BackBid will ratchet up competition to an unsustainable level. But others see benefits.

Dennis Schaal, who writes for the travel industry website Tnooz.com, recently used BackBid on a hotel stay in Chicago. He was surprised to discover that one of the hotels bidding on his business was the one at which he already had a reservation. It offered him a $39 per night discount on his room.

Schaal, a longtime observer of online travel startups, likes what BackBid does and believes that travelers will benefit. "Can they make a business out of it?" he asks. "I hope so."

The Travel Troubleshooter column runs online weekly at seattletimes.com/travel.

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