A start-up called Topguest is aiming to take the wild assortment of location-based "check-in" services out there and turn them into something a little more familiar: hotel and travel reward points. The company, which launched Thursday amid the craziness of Internet Week New York, is currently in a "preview" version that consists of a partnership with the trendy Andre Balazs-helmed Standard Hotels chain.
Here's how it works. Topguest users sign up and then connect any number of location-based social media services--Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, Brightkite, Yelp, and Google Latitude for now. Most of it is handled through application program interfaces (APIs), but for a few of them Topguest can only parse check-ins if they're pushed to Twitter. Then, Topguest flags check-ins at Standard-affiliated locations--the hotels in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, or any of the restaurants, bars, shops, or spas located within--and tabulates them on its homepage so that members can see how close they are to earning a reward.
Right now, there are two rewards in place: check in to all four Standard hotels in the course of a week (which involves being in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami) and earn a complimentary week's stay at any one of them), or check in to Standard establishments ten times and receive a 25 percent reservation discount.
Topguest's founding team may be familiar to those who went to last fall's TechCrunch50 event, where they pitched a product called Udorse. Udorse's premise of embedding brand endorsements in shared photos on social-media sites (for example, tagging an American Apparel t-shirt) earned some praise from the judges ("I really loved it," Google executive Marissa Mayer said) but the product didn't take off. Topguest now consists of the Udorse team, as well as its investment backing from the Founders Fund and a handful of angel investors.
The Standard partnership was a fortuitous one for them: the downtown Standard New York, where Topguest held a packed rooftop launch party on Thursday night, has been hoping to brand itself as the city's destination of choice for the tech-entrepreneur crowd, and was the official Internet Week New York housing partner.
But over the course of the summer, Topguest says it will exit the "preview" version and add additional partners in the travel and hospitality industry. Location-based loyalty points are a hot marketing toy right now, and a hotel or restaurant chain (or anyone) could conceivably build their own app by tapping directly into the API of a service like Foursquare, or by advertising directly through that service like Starbucks' rewards for Foursquare "mayors." Topguest, meanwhile, wants to play the part of middleman to collect check-ins and broker the deals.
The big question for partners is likely how legitimate a Foursquare check-in really is and how easy it appears to be for cheaters to weasel their way into it.
Topguest CEO Geoff Lewis told CNET via e-mail that most location-based services (perhaps with this very problem in mind) have built a "verification layer" to prevent fraudulent check-ins, but that a few still are relatively easy to punk. "We have our own anti-fraud heuristics on top of the services themselves, including elements like rate limiting and flagging of suspicious check-in patterns," Lewis added.