Business & Economy Georgia Impact

Hotel stay gifting service wins Summer Design Sprint

Society of Entrepreneurship President Christina Kurian speaks to first-year students at Dawg Camp Innovate in Studio 225. Participation in student entrepreneurship programs like the Summer Design Sprint and Dawg Camp thrived this summer. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

Students use design thinking to address local problems created by the pandemic

A student startup that wants to be a hub for gift-givers to buy local and regional hotel stays won the $2,000 top prize at the University of Georgia’s 2020 Summer Design Sprint virtual pitch competition.

Created by Terry College of Business marketing majors Abigail Snyder and Thomas McMullen, GiftAStay’s idea is to partner with hotels to bring customers back to an industry wrecked by the pandemic. Gifting rooms to local hotels, which GiftAStay’s research shows are following strict cleaning protocols, gives people a safe first step after months sheltering at home.

We’re imagining a post-COVID future where people view staying at a hotel like going to the nail salon — a place to treat yourself and others.”

“Our solution helps restore the simple pleasure of travel in an accessible and generous way, rebuilding our community by putting heads in beds in local and regional hotels,” Snyder said. “We’re imagining a post-COVID future where people view staying at a hotel like going to the nail salon — a place to treat yourself and others.”

Solving timely problems

The Summer Design Sprint, hosted by the UGA’s Entrepreneurship Program and the Innovation District initiative, began in mid-July with dozens of students and culminated with five teams pitching their projects to a panel of judges on Aug. 18. Teams, coached by a multidisciplinary group of faculty, used design thinking to solve a timely problem: how to revitalize the local community post-COVID-19.

Snyder and McMullen discovered through research that their plan is a boon to typical gift-givers, such as real estate agents, as well as family members seeking to offer their loved ones a needed break.

“We had one interesting interview where a woman with four kids was telling us how her husband gave her a hotel room for a night as a getaway,” Snyder said. “When she got to the hotel she felt so relieved to have a bed to herself to sleep in and decompress, she put it on her Instagram story and had 17 of her mom friends respond, saying ‘Oh my gosh, I wish I had something like this.’”

“What I appreciated about GiftAStay was the presentation on key insights,” said judge Jan Sikorsky, who serves as vice president of innovation at WorldStrides, the nation’s largest accredited educational travel provider. “It was fabulous because it showed me that not only did you listen, you came up with a solution and stayed true to design thinking.”

Sikorsky was joined by judges Downing Barber, founder and CEO of burrito restaurant chain Barberitos; Michael McCathren, senior principal of enterprise innovation at Chick-fil-A; Erin Barger, project manager at Envision Athens; and Anne Alexis Bennett Alexander, founder and CEO of The Eco Incubator.

The finalists

Dine-INfo, a project bridging the restaurant communication gap in the age of COVID-19 created by marketing majors Elijah Morris and Maia Gibson, won the audience vote for best pitch and $500 for its effort.

The other teams reaching the Summer Design Sprint finals were:

  • Beyond, a digital platform enabling small businesses to elevate their online presence and market themselves, created by Franklin College of Arts and Sciences sophomores Priyanka Parikh and Elise Karinshak and School of Public and International Affairs student Sophie Murtey.
  •, a platform designed to connect families to tutors for pod-learning, created by juniors Abby Davis (finance and marketing) and Jessica Tardy (economics and psychology).
  • Siriou Satins, created by management information systems senior Siri Nanduri, whose startup idea is to design curtain enclosures to partition tables in restaurants.

“With the limited amount of time that you had to produce and develop these ideas, you all offered unique pitches and great ways to combat some major COVID concerns,” said Bennett Alexander. “Let this competition be a part of what you take home about being an entrepreneur.”

The 2020 Summer Design Sprint was run with the help of community sponsors — the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, Envision Athens, Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Department, and Northeast Georgia Business Alliance — and prize money from two corporate sponsors, Chick-fil-A in Athens and Barberitos.