Next Great Place launches, enters into the travel sale site melee

travel sale site - next great placeWe’ll admit, we’re getting a little sick of seeing flash sale travel sites enter the market – there’s another one every day, each with a slightly different concept. It seems like we have to do an awful lot of checking each time we want to book a vacation – can we get $100 off on one site, a free upgrade there, and oh, referral bonuses here?

Which is why we were initially drawn to take a look at Next Great Place, launching to for limited public beta today. Functioning sort of like a cross between E-Harmony and Match.com for travel, the travel sale site bills itself as an “online travel planning company” and pairs qualified travelers with pre-screened resorts (in Cabo San Lucas and Vail/Beaver Creek to start).

Founders Tom Fillipini (co-founder of Exclusive Resorts) and Erik Mitisek have extensive travel industry experience and know the ins and outs of the travel market, but they found it increasingly difficult to plan travel for themselves and their families and find qualified luxury lodgings without the use of a travel agent who may or may not be motivated more by commissions than by providing the best possible experience for the traveler.

Unlike other sale sites, where travelers themselves browse and choose their preferred resort, Next Great Place puts the planning into the hands of dedicated (and salary, not commission-based) employees who then vet the proposals through pre-selected suppliers. After generating a “vacation request,” travelers will have customized proposals waiting in their inbox within 48 hours.

Travelers then have 48 hours to purchase the trip and lock into the preferred pricing. While the site is certainly limited in terms of locations and properties available at the current moment (there are about 10 resorts and only two locations on board), we’re intrigued by the model. The competition for business gives suppliers the incentive to engage in price competition and transparency, and also allows travelers to “lock in” on preferred pricing for times when occupancy may be low.

In our brief trial, we found the sample process of selecting a resort to be easy – simply check the box on preferred amenities (spa, golf, babysitters, ect.) and the resort comparisons come back with a simple click. The entire process took under five minutes!

We’re happy to report that the site is free … for now (register at www.nextgreatplace.com and you’ll be approved within a day or so), but they’re considering adding a yearly subscription fee of around $1,000. Book once, and you’ll receive that in credit towards your stay. We understand the need for a business model, but we’re not sure that travelers who have so many free resources on their hands will want to pay that high of a price for the service that can essentially be replicated for free on a number of other platforms. The site promises to add up to 100 destinations in the next five years, which would certainly be an enticing prospect.

The resorts are pre-vetted by Next Great Place, and, with names like Capella Pedregal and Esperanza currently on board, we’re sure that the business is committed to partnering with resorts of the highest caliber.

Unlike other villa rental sites, Next Great Place guarantees a response and pricing within 48 hours – so there’s little uncertainty and waiting.

We’ll certainly be watching to see if this model is replicated by other sites and to see if Next Great Place continues to grow.

Daily Pampering: Master Chef classic in Beaver Creek

beaver creek

Beaver Creek is more than just fancy slopes and skiing. This January, celebrity chefs will convene in Beaver Creek for the 13th Annual Beaver Creek Master Chef Challenge, and you can have up-close-and-personal seats with some of your favorite chefs (for a fee, of course).

Bon Appétit is sponsoring the a yummy three-day epicurean affair, which takes plans Jan. 27-29. The event includes an awe-inspiring Master Chef Challenge, intimate cooking classes, an après-ski cocktail seminar and a Grand Tasting at the luxurious Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch.

In the kitchen:
John Besh – Chef: August, Besh Steak, Luke, La Provence, American Sector, and Domenica (New Orleans)
Joey Campanaro – Chef/Owner, The Little Owl (New York); Chef, Kenmare (New York), Owner, Market Table (New York), Village Bele (Philadelphia)
Stephanie Izard – Executive Chef/ Partner, Girl & The Goat (Chicago)
François Payard – Pastry Chef, FPB (New York, Las Vegas, Japan and Korea), Payard, François Chocolate Bar
Jacques Van Staden – Chef, London Club (Las Vegas); Vice President of Food & Beverage Operations, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Cruises
Jose Garces – Executive Chef, Mercat a la Planxa (Chicago); Owner/ Executive Partner, Garces Restaurant Group (collection of restaurants in Philadelphia)
Marco Canora – Co-Owner/Chef, Hearth and Terroir (New York); Finalist on”Next Iron Chef”
The price? Master Chef Classic lodging event packages are available starting at $522 per person, which includes two nights of lodging, two days of lift tickets and one ticket each for the Master Chef Challenge and the Grand Tasting. This package is available Jan. 27-31, 2011.

Event-only ticket packages are also available including a Master Chef Package for $475, which provides one ticket to the Master Chef Dinner, Master Chef Challenge, Grand Tasting, one Seminar (choice of Chophouse/Wine Seminar or Osprey/Cocktail Seminar) and one Cooking Class (Marco/Splendido or Joey/Park Hyatt).

The VIP package is $575 and includes the Master Chef Package offerings plus early admittance to the Grand Tasting for exclusive access to the Chefs. The Just a Taste Package for $165 includes tickets for the Master Chef Challenge and the Grand Tasting.

Colorado ski resorts prepare for ski season, introduce social networking to slopes

Skiers and snowboarders who have been eagerly waiting for the Colorado ski season to begin, had their patience rewarded last week when Keystone Resort opened to the public for the first time this year. They’ll soon be joined by Breckenridge, which fires up the lifts tomorrow, followed by Vail and Heavenly, who kick off the season on the 19th, with Beaver Creek finally joining in on the fun on the 24th of the month.

It may still be early November, but the snow has already been flying on the mountains, with several of the resorts receiving in excess of 7″-8″ of snow in the past few days alone. That means that skiers can already expect a good base of powder when the gates open over the next few weeks, and considering these resorts average 300+ inches of snow per year, you can bet that the season ahead will be a good one.

Fantastic lodges and beautiful powder aren’t the only thing these resorts have up their sleeves this year however. They’ve also managed to bring their lift tickets into the 21st century by incorporating an RFID chip right in the passes themselves. That technology opens up a host of new opportunities for visitors in what can only be described as an Epic Mix.

Epic Mix is a unique blend of outdoor fun, social networking, and technology that comes together in an online environment or on a mobile app for the iPhone and Android devices. As you spend the day going up and down the mountain, making great run after great run, the RFID chip is busy keeping track of how far you’ve skied, how many vertical feet you’ve dropped, and so on. It then allows you to share that information online at the Epic Mix website, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. You can even earn special Epic Mix achievements for completing certain goals or attending specific events. Those achievements can be shared with friends and family in the form of badges that can be prominently displayed on your Epic Mix or Facebook page. Examples of some of these achievements are the Snow Turkey, which is awarded for visiting a resort on Thanksgiving Day or the Three’s Company badge for skiing more than 3000 vertical feet in a single season.

As of this writing, the Epic Mix mobile apps are not available yet, but the website promises that they’ll arrive “by Christmas.” Android and iPhone users will find plenty to love in these applications, as they’ll not only allow you to access your Epic Mix account while on the go, they’ll also show you exactly where your friends are on the mountain at any given time, and allow you to message one another to set up when and where to meet. The apps will also give you real time weather and snow reports, traffic updates, and information on the conditions of your favorite run.

For more information on what Epic Mix can do, check out the video below and be prepared to have an even more social experience on the slopes in Colorado this season.

[Photo credit: Breckenridge Lodge]

Missing your pet when you travel? Just borrow one

I love my two cats and I miss them dearly them when I travel for extended periods of time. Though there are more and more options for traveling with a pet, I’m still not about to bring them with me. It’s just too expensive, too much of a hassle, and too much stress on the pet to fly them with me for a two-week jaunt. So they stay home and I snuggle-attack any furry friends I happen to make along my travels.

For dog lovers, there’s another option available. As Peter Greenberg showcases in a video posted on his site, several hotels around the country are now offering special pet “rental” programs. At select Fairmont hotels, guests can borrow a dog for a day to take it out on a walk around town.

At the Fairmont Tremblant in Quebec, Gracie the canine ambassador is available for walks. At the Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston, Catie the former guide-dog fills the role. Other hotels offer similar programs, like the Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch in Beaver Creek. Greenberg also highlights a program run by a shelter near Aspen. The shelter “rents” out dogs up for adoption for play dates. Many local hotels like the St. Regis and The Little Nell even allow the dogs to stay overnight. Of course, as Greenberg points out, the hope is that the temporary owner will then become a permanent one.

So next time you are traveling and missing your pets at home, you may not be out of luck. Just look for a hotel that offers one of these innovative pet-lover-friendly programs.

[via Peter Greenberg]

Document your vacation with RockResorts “Three for Free” promotion

With the slumping economy and decline in hotel occupancy rates, lots of hotels and resorts are offering deals that allow you stay for free after you pay for a certain number of nights. But not many resorts are throwing in a free “adventure cam” to use during your stay.

RockResorts, which operates properties in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and St. Lucia, is offering a “Three for Free” promotion that goes above and beyond the standard package deal. The minimum stay at each resort varies (ranging from 3-6 nights) and dates of validity vary through April depending on which of the 12 resorts you choose, but at each one you’ll receive: one free night’s stay, a $50 gift card or resort credit, and a free Adventure Eye Video Systems action/ helmet camcorder to make a movie off all the fun you have during your stay.

As an added bonus, those who actually use the camera to record themselves out and about on the property can enter their movie into a contest to win free Epic Passes for the 2010-2011 season. The passes allow unlimited skiing at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone in Colorado.

To take advantage of the promotion, rooms must be booked by January 31.

[via La Times]