IHG Executive to Roomkey CEO: Why Steve Sickel Believes in Our Mission

Steve Sickel, CEO of RoomkeyOur mission at Roomkey is simple⁠—to bring honesty, integrity, and transparency to the hotel booking process. Although that seems straightforward, we’re trying to make a difference in a rather murky and complicated travel industry.

With what sometimes seems like an uphill battle in front of us, the Roomkey team feels that it’s important to share exactly why we’re doing what we’re doing and why we believe in it so strongly. And who better to express that than our CEO, Steve Sickel? So we sat down with him and asked some nitty gritty questions about his experience in the travel industry and about his time at Roomkey: from the very beginning, until now.

Booking Travel Shouldn’t Be Stressful

Booking travel online can be an overwhelming and stressful process to say the least—especially when searching on third-party travel booking sites who sometimes seem to hurt more than help.

“Leisure travel is a very important staple in people’s lives,” says Steve Sickel, Roomkey CEO. “The ‘family vacation’ or the ‘romantic getaway’ are highly valued moments in people’s lives. Vacations are looked forward to all year. I once read that travel is the second most valued incentive—second only to cash. So, it’s an important purchase decision that, unfortunately, is very complex and leads to stress.”

This stress comes from people spending an inordinate amount of time planning travel, stemmed from (of all things) fear. People have the fear of making the wrong decision for something that will impact not just themselves, but the people they care about and the ones who will join them on the trip.

Steve has been in the travel industry for over 25 years and knows a thing or two about booking travel. However, with his experience in the industry, he still says he is learning all the ins and outs of the trade. So, why is booking travel so complicated? If it’s hard for in-the-know people like Steve, think about the infrequent traveler and how they must feel when trying to book a hotel.

“Travelers have a lot to think about,” he says. “With over 70 different hotel brands to consider and each hotel booking site having a different selling point—as well as each site claiming to have the best rates⁠—travelers have more options than they know what to do with.”

“Think of all the different messaging someone sees while booking on an online travel site. There’s advance-purchase versus flexible rates, standard room verses club room, and non-member verses member rates. And then there’s the urgency type marketing messaging like ‘only three rooms left’ or ‘12 people are looking at this room right now,’” says Steve. “The list of things making the hotel booking experience confusing and harder than ever goes on and on.”

Obviously, something has to be done, so we’re paving the way to help provide the best experience for people booking their vacations.

How Roomkey Addresses Travelers’ Needs

When Roomkey was founded by six major hotel companies, it was mostly viewed as simply an industry tool or a utility. In other words, it was something that enabled customers to book directly with hotel companies rather than booking through third-party travel agency sites. And while that was an important objective, it was too industry-focused. In other words, it was a little boring, and we kind of missed the mark.

“In our early days, there was a sentiment that ‘if you build it, they [the customers] will come,’” Steve explained. “So, we built it—a hotel search tool⁠—and customers did come. But around 2015, we turned the corner and began shifting our focus away from thinking about what the industry wanted to thinking about what the customer wants.”

Roomkey began evaluating what those needs were, and started asking questions such as, what do hotel customers in the shopping and buying process need, and how can Roomkey uniquely satisfy those needs? Once we began thinking through this lens, our approach changed dramatically, as did our performance. 

“When we launched our first customer-centric brand positioning work in 2016, we more than doubled our business,” Steve remarked. “This latest rebrand that we launched in April 2019 proves our commitment to constantly evolving with our customers and to continuing the journey of identifying and delivering the unmet needs of travelers.”

Diving Deep into Our Mission Statement

Everyone has a reason to get up in the morning—something that motivates you or brings you closer to an overall end goal. The Roomkey team shares the same passion for making a difference in the travel industry and strives to help connect travelers to genuine experiences with each and every hotel booked through Roomkey.

“Unlike other companies where employees go to work, punch a clock, do their jobs, and go home, the Roomkey team is driven by bigger ideas. We want to put our fingerprints on a movement that makes the world a better place. For our team, it’s more than just about hotel bookings, it’s about changing the industry for the better and impacting an important part of people’s lives—their leisure trips.”

Steve Sickel, Roomkey CEO

Our mission for change is guided by three main words that are included in our mission statement—honesty, transparency, and integrity—and here’s why.

Providing Honest and Transparent Experiences

Honesty and transparency are desperately needed in the current state of the travel industry—more so than you might imagine.

“When I was young and would try to wiggle my way out of getting in trouble with my parents, my mother used to tell me, ‘There are either truths or lies⁠—there’s no such thing as a half-truth,’” Steve says. “I’m struck by how aggressively half-truths are promoted by well-known third-party travel sites. These companies put billions of dollars behind gimmicky marketing messages that, from a legal perspective, are not technically lies but are worded in a way that often deceive customers.”

The most obvious of all is the “best price” messaging you see from third-party travel sites.  Customers logically (and understandably) believe that the word “best” can apply to only one thing. The best athlete on a team is one person and the best student in the class is, again, one person. 

So, how can every third-party travel site have the best rates?  It’s because they’ve manipulated that term to mean one thing to a customer but, in reality, mean something else entirely. Because, in fact, these sites all have access to the same hotel rates; the same prices. So “best” in this case doesn’t mean their rates are better; it means that because they all offer the same rate, they can all claim it’s the best rate. Here’s an example: If everyone sells a hotel room for $120, then everyone can claim it’s the best rate because there is no rate that’s better.  

“This kind of deception really bothers me, and to see so much money put into media to promote these ‘half-truths’ bothers me, both professionally and personally,” Steve says. “I think all corporations have a moral code that needs to be followed, and just because you can get away with something from a legal perspective doesn’t mean you should do it.”

“Customers need a travel site who behaves like a trusted ally. They need a site that will explain the confusing terms and policies to them, a site that will not try to trick or deceive them with gimmicky messaging, and most importantly, a site that puts the customers’ best interests first…

That’s Roomkey. We want to do what’s right.”

Steve Sickel

Bringing Integrity Back to Travel

We put our customers first, and we do it with integrity. As you scroll through our website, you’ll notice several things we have put in the forefront to fit our customers’ best interests. For example, we provide our travelers with an unbiased search experience. 

“Most third-party sites display the hotels to a customer based on how much money the travel site makes from the hotel, not what’s best for the customer,” Steve says. “Roomkey does not and will not do that.”

You’ll notice that we have no sponsored listings on our site. Other travel sites allow hotels to buy higher placement in the search results, also known as sponsored or promoted listings. This allows hotels that aren’t necessarily the best option for the customer to be displayed first. “While Roomkey could make a ton more money by selling sponsored listings like that, we choose not to because it further confuses the customer’s shopping process,” Steve explains.

We also offer a price alert function on our site. We know how important price is for leisure travelers, and we wanted to provide a solution. So, we developed a tool called “Price Alerts,” which allows a customer to ask Roomkey to monitor hotels they’re interested in and notify them if/when that hotel’s price falls below a threshold they set.

“Instead of the customer going online every day to check prices, we do it for them—again, taking the hassle and confusion out of the shopping experience and behaving like a trusted partner,” Steve says. “Other travel sites would rather have a customer buy at higher hotel rates because the travel site makes more money that way.”

Lastly, we try to explain everything using layman’s terms. We have worked hard to remove the confusing industry jargon from our search experience and explain things in a way that the average traveler can understand. For example, we clearly define and compare the different hotel rate policies to ease the burden of understanding for our customers.

The Future of Roomkey

We care deeply about our mission and strive to always be truthful with our customers, bring transparency to an otherwise confusing industry, and choose to do what’s best for the traveler. In Roomkey’s future, we’ll continue to provide just that.

“I believe the appetite for an experience like Roomkey’s is huge. It’s just a matter of getting people to know about us and see that we can provide something useful,” Steve explains. “I see nothing but blue skies ahead for us.”

The more people learn about who we are, what we do, and most importantly, what we don’t do, the more people will trust us with their hotel search. Visit Roomkey.com before you book your next hotel stay and experience it for yourself.