Member Feature: Sean Whalin From HopSkip

Member Feature: Sean Whalin From HopSkip

Member Feature
November 17, 2022

Sean Whalin (center), CEO of HopSkip with Co-founders Greg Leizerowicz (left) and Luke Whalin (right).

Every month we feature some of our Everything Marketplaces community members to help highlight their story, marketplace journey, and share more about what's ahead.

In this member feature we highlight Sean Whalin, who's the Co-founder & CEO of HopSkip. HopSkip is a SaaS enabled marketplace that streamlines how business conferences, events, and meetings are booked at hotels. HopSkip has quickly scaled to over $30M+ in GMV in the past 12 months.

So what’s your background briefly and what led to the idea for starting HopSkip?

Prior to starting HopSkip I was a management consultant. In that role, I had the opportunity to work with companies across a wide range of industries, all faced with different challenges. I was traveling on a weekly basis to be on-site with our clients and I spent over 1,000+ nights in different hotels all around the world.

The firm I was working for also held an annual event that was hosted at different hotels every year. In my first year of consulting, our in-house event planner was on maternity leave, and I was "voluntold" by my director to find and present options for where we could host the event.

While tasked with this, I quickly learned that for events of this size you can not simply book online. I had to find hotels that fit the criteria of the meeting, collect proposals and quotes from those hotels, review each proposal, and also calculate projected spending for each hotel. This was all assuming that they had availability. I then had to summarize all the collected hotel quotes so that I could present each hotel option to my senior leadership team. I pushed through this painful process and came out of it with my mind blown. I quickly became obsessed with learning more about this problem that others also faced and the industry as whole also did.  Since I had the benefit of living in hotels and this painful experience of having to plan our corporate event, I feel like I had unique insights into the problem.

Fast forward a few years and I was working at Comcast, which is where I started to learn more about the software industry. I couldn’t shake the itch to stop digging deeper into this opportunity, so I continued to have conversations with planners and hotels. During my time at Comcast, it was clear to me that this problem could be solved with software. I continued to watch little innovation happening across the competitive landscape and I knew that with the right team, I was the right person to solve this problem. It was at time time that I used my network at Comcast to find and recruit my technical Co-founder Greg (HopSkip CTO), who has been building software for over 25 years and my other Co-founder, Luke (also my brother), who has a technology sales background. Together, we all founded HopSkip in May of 2019.

What were some of the first steps you took to start HopSkip? What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced?

The first few steps were figuring out, 1.) if this was truly a real problem, 2.) how big it actually is, and 3.) what other solutions are out there trying to solve the problem. This was done through hundreds (if not thousands) of conversations and market research.

Once we took these first steps to narrow in on the problem, we built and launched our MVP. This was in October of 2019, right before the industry came to a screeching halt for around 18 months due to the pandemic (great timing, I know). Once government and regulatory bodies announced that groups were restricted from meetings, our bookings dropped to zero. All of the users we spent the previous year learning from and introducing HopSkip to didn’t need to use our platform. It was at this time that we decided to go all-in on supporting our existing users in any way we could. For example, we extended payments and consistently produced free webinars hosted by industry attorneys for planners and hotels to receive guidance on approaching event cancellations, how to handle this in contracts, and also provided them access to other resources. This helped us build relationships, trust, and credibility across the industry. It also allowed us to stay close to our ideal customer profiles during that time, which enabled us to continue to learn and build when our industry was at a standstill.

What's the problem that you’re solving for and how has building HopSkip as a marketplace proven to be a great solution?

To give you a better idea of the problem, over 85% of business conferences, meetings, and events occur at hotels. Some (a large amount) of hotels also rely on business meetings for 40%-80%+ of their gross revenue.

Then comes the actual problem with the process, which is that booking a business event at a hotel is an incredibly complex and time-consuming process for the event planner. It typically involves dozens of individuals across multiple organizations, primarily done offline with word documents, spreadsheets, and emails. This all takes months to go from planning to a completed booking.

With this in mind, built HopSkip, a which is a B2B SaaS enabled marketplace that transforms how business conferences, meetings, and events are booked at hotels. With HopSkip, planners can connect and source 100,000+ hotels and reduce the time spent booking their events from months to days. At the same time, we’re generating high-converting, six to seven-figure bookings for our hotel and destination marketing organization users (DMOs). This is all being done while also increasing transparency and collaboration throughout the booking process.

So far we’ve generated $30M+ in bookings (GMV) to date and are quickly scaling this number. Since the recent launch of our paid subscription tiers, we have some amazing companies we’re proud to call customers across meeting and event planners, destination marketing companies (DMOs), and hotels.

How have you approached solving for the cold start problem that we all face as marketplaces?

In short, by having our demand acquire our supply side for us. To share more though, our initial focus was on building out the supply side. We were fortunate enough to be accepted into a technical accelerator that allowed us to build the base layer of our hotel database, receiving hotel names, photos, and addresses of all of the major hotels across the globe.

We then cut that list down to just the United States. From there, we manually collected hotel-specific data points that are important for our demand side to have visibility into, like guest rooms, total meeting space sq. ft. offered, sq. ft. of largest meeting room offered, etc. It was a super painful process, but it led to us offering 40,000 hotels for the first few planners to search and request quotes from.

When we launched, we offered HopSkip for free to professional meeting planners. We were fortunate enough to find a group of early adopters who started requesting hotel quotes on the platform. Hotels are incentivized to create free HopSkip accounts to review and respond to the planner requests because they want to win the booking. Once the hotel creates their HopSkip account, they are set up to receive future opportunities and can edit and own their hotel profile listing.

This GTM approach has led us to overcome the cold start problem, while also acting as a product distribution channel, which is one of our strategic advantages.

What's been the biggest learning so far?

So many learnings! While de-risking the business and talking to thousands of people, we learned just how complex the process is on both sides.

Planners also wear so many hats. They're constantly juggling various responsibilities, tasks, and have multiple stakeholders to satisfy throughout the booking process. For example, planners are asked to be financial wizards and contract experts while also creating amazing event experiences for their clients or stakeholders that “wow” their attendees. Not only this, but also having to show an ROI for the spend.

Hotels also have complex revenue and margin considerations while trying to build the optimal mix of business and leisure guests (for bookings) to optimize their bottom line. Hotels often receive meeting and event requests that lack key information needed to create an informed and competitive proposal when bidding on a planner’s event. This lowers the probability of their proposal converting to a booking, since it can be very difficult for both parties to sync up with each other to iron out the details. This usually leads to business demand being unmet and the revenue potential not realized.

How big does HopSkip get and what’s needed to get there?

We see HopSkip as a $10B + company in the future. HopSkip will become a financial toolbox for meeting and event professionals, while empowering planners and hotels to optimize their earnings. We’ll also have the most complete dataset for business meetings, event venues, and the richest booking analytics. This will enable companies to build products on top of our API.

For us to get there, we’ll need a world-class team, committed investors, and customers who trust us as their meeting and events booking solution.

What’s exciting and ahead for HopSkip that you can share with us?

We have lots of exciting things ahead! We’ll be scaling our supply side by introducing convention centers, which will enable planners to book larger and even city-wide conventions. As we continue to grow our international customer base, we'll be expanding our hotel listings further into Canada, Mexico, and Europe.

We will also be releasing lots of new features in the shorter term for reviewing, collaborating, and executing event contracts. We're also rolling out embedded financial tools to serve both sides of the marketplace, which allow for things like facilitating event deposit payments, lending, and even event insurance.

Connect with Sean in the Everything Marketplaces community.