In case you’ve missed it, hotel chains and online travel agencies (OTAs) such as Expedia and Travelocity have been warring over whose customers should get the lowest rates. As the battle between the two sides rages on, a new player has joined the fray: The Guestbook. In a nutshell, the company is a loyalty program that rewards members with up to 5 percent cash back for booking directly at more than 450 independent and boutique brand hotels in cities around the world. We recently caught up with founder and CEO James Gancos to learn more about the company and what’s driving its model.

Why this model, why now?

James Gancos (JG): I’m a former hotelier [with Starwood], and for years I saw the way online booking sites were getting between guests and hotels. It was creating an inferior experience for customers. In recent years we’ve had consolidation of all the big online travel brands into two companies, and that kind of duopoly can be scary for hotels. OTAs say you can’t find better deals than the ones they offer. We’re out to undo that myth. We set out to create a program from which hotels and the guests can benefit. We launched the program publicly in November 2015. It’s a program we feel lets everyone win. 

Talk about those “winnings.” How do you determine them?

JG: The base benefit is 5 percent cash back. To reap rewards, guests sign up for free and book rooms on our website. They also can book directly with member hotels through the hotels’ websites—if they go this route, they simply submit to us their reservation confirmation or final bill. Guests get their cash back after they complete a stay. If they want to claim these benefits instantly, they get them in the form of PayPal, Visa eGift cards, bitcoin, or gift cards to major retailers. In May, we launched another option: credits for future bookings. We call it TripCash, and basically it’s 10 percent toward your next booking through our site. I like to consider it a double-premium.

For which charges do guests get the cash back?

JG: Loyalty Rewards are earned on charges that appear on your final hotel bill. In most cases this includes charges for things such as hotel-operated restaurants and spas, but excludes taxes and fees. Again, you get cash back for these charges so long as you book directly with the hotel (or us) and enroll in the program at least one day prior to your check-in date.

When independent and boutique brands have similar programs of their own, how does The Guestbook work with those?

JG: Our program sits on top of any benefits hotels already give to direct-booking guests. Free breakfast. Early check-in. Room upgrade. Free Wi-Fi. Whatever the perk might be, our program gives you 5 percent cash or 10 percent TripCash on top. 

So how much do your most frequent customers earn?

JG: We’ve had a few customers who have earned more than $1,000 in cash back since December. 

And how many hotels are in the network?

JG: Since we launched publicly, The Guestbook has added more than 150 hotels. Most recently, we added Treasure Island Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and Elegancia Hotels in Paris.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at