There was a time when Hotel Tonight ($PRIVATE:HOTELTONIGHT) was considered by some to be the future of hotel booking. It had a certain cool factor: a sense of last-minute spontaneous travel, surprisingly low rates, and the simplicity of booking one night at a time.

When Hotel Tonight launched in 2011, Airbnb ($PRIVATE:AIRBNB) was also gaining popularity among young travelers, offering an alternative to hostels and a fun way to see the world. In that same year, Ashton Kutcher made a major investment in Airbnb and became a brand advisor. Airbnb then won the "app" award at the hipster-friendly South by Southwest conference.

The two apps seemed to coexist harmoniously for a while, until Hotel Tonight expanded its reach, becoming a more mainstream booking app. Meanwhile, Airbnb got serious about its legal issues, adding insurance for hosts and millions of international hubs.

And just like that, Hotel Tonight became just another booking app while Airbnb's unique proposition flourished. Both companies began as millennial travel darlings. Today, aside from the fact that they're both planning IPOs, they're very different companies, especially when it comes to where they fit in the public's conscience.

Comparing Facebook followers for the two brands' Facebook pages reveals a telling story. Airbnb has nearly 15 million followers on the social network while Hotel Tonight has yet to break 400,000. This is a critical difference: messaging to Facebook users has been proven to be a powerful tool for travel brands.

When tracking chatter about the brands on Facebook, Airbnb once again dominates. On a typical day, Airbnb sees hundreds of thousands of mentions on Facebook while Hotel Tonight never breaks 10,000.

Hotel Tonight social data closeup

Hotel Tonight, despite its overall weak performance when it comes to Facebook likes, did see a sharp jump in followers this summer. This came on the heels of a cheeky campaign by the brand that's reflected through Facebook chatter in the "Talking About" graph below.

In August, Hotel Tonight launched an ad campaign called, "Let's Have a Threeday" that insinuated more sordid things than simply booking a hotel room. It starred Rachel Feinstein of Trainwreck and it garnered Hotel Tonight some temporary attention and, as you can see, a nice chatter spike on August 13.

Airbnb social data closeup

Airbnb's Facebook follower graph reveals a steep and aggressive growth pattern, moving from 1.98 million followers in July, 2015 to a massive 15 million this week. Few brands can claim a similar growth pattern.

Facebook chatter for Airbnb has been on a steady, if slight uptick since we began tracking the data in 2015. The brand's largest spike of mentions on Facebook came in March, 2017 after it closed a huge $1 billion investment round of funding.

It's all about what's new

Travelers, especially young ones, aren't just looking for the best deals: they're looking for new ways to experience the world.

AIrbnb's proposition is revolutionary in that it gives travelers the opportunity to live as a local in far away places. Now that Airbnb has much of its infrastructure and legal issues sorted (for now), it appears to be an unstoppable travel train with massive inertia.

Hotel Tonight, on the other hand, has become little more than another player in a crowded booking marketplace. It continues to pull in revenue, but one has to wonder if its future will look more like a race to mediocrity.

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