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Balancing the bookings: online booking tools and your business

11 February 2016 by
Balancing the bookings: online booking tools and your business

Consumer expectations of online booking tools are higher than ever. Not only do solutions need to be mobile-friendly and easy to use, they must also increasingly be personalised to a guest's preferences and integrated with the rest of

the business. Elly Earls reports

Customers still want options

Research carried out by Zonal Retail Data Systems and CGA Peach has found that diners are getting more used to booking restaurants on their mobiles, with 60% of consumers saying they used a smartphone to make a booking when out and about.

"Having the capacity to take online reservations is a must for operators," stresses Olivia Fitzgerald, managing director of online booking system provider liveRES, part of Zonal Retail Data Systems. "And given that most people are booking tables outside traditional office hours, it's really important that operators make sure that their facility is easy to use on a mobile device."

That said, many still want the option to pick up the phone, even if this is in combination with the online experience. "Booking channels often work in combination," Fitzgerald notes. "For example, a PA organising a party may search online for a venue, but then want to call to discuss the details of the booking."

Demographics also come into the picture. "The millennials are not going to phone, they're always going to book online, but the older generations are likely to combine the online experience with calling as well," says Luis de Souza, chief executive of technology provider NFS Technology Group.

Zonal's research bears this out, finding that 42% of 18-34 year olds and 36% of 35-54 year olds book tables online but this falls to just 22% for the 55-plus group.

Restaurant reservation systems

The trend is undoubtedly towards online booking, however, meaning that it's crucial for restaurateurs to meet the expectations today's consumers have of the online booking experience. For de Souza, one of the absolute musts is to ensure that customer reviews, comments and feedback are combined with the booking process. "An increasing number of people are booking using services available [like TripAdvisor or OpenTable] because they can check the reviews and then book directly from there," he says.

In this scenario, it's key that operators try to capture their clients' data post-booking. "The most important thing for the operator is to engage the customer, irrespective of where they have come from, and give them a reason to visit again and book directly," de Souza says.

When investing in a reservation system, operators should also avoid cover charges and hidden costs, making sure that the interface can be white labelled so it reflects and is consistent with their brand, and choose a solution that's responsive, offers real-time availability and is integrated with their business's other systems, according to Fitzgerald.

"An online reservation system should not sit in a silo but be integrated with your EPoS and table management systems, in order to optimise the guest experience every step of their journey," she says. "Investing in an integrated system is also essential in delivering up-to-the minute, live availability and maximising table usage."

User-friendliness is another must, and diners also want to see alternatives if their first choice is not available. "The better systems will give different time slots to suit the convenience of the consumer," de Souza remarks. "It's about the dining experience and the more information that you can provide the guest in terms of where they will be located in the restaurant, the easier you're making it to be successful in getting that reservation."

Finally, loyalty programmes that are not only personalised to different guests (Zonal/CGA Peach research shows that 70% of consumers want to get offers tailored to their habits and preferences), but also integrated with EPoS systems, can be a boon for operators, both driving revenue and gaining insight into customers' behaviour. "The challenge is to make it operationally easy for your front-of-house team to handle the loyalty scheme, track the benefits accurately, and keep the admin costs down," Fitzgerald says.

Growth predicted

When it comes to hotels, the trend for online booking, particularly via mobiles, is on a similarly rapid upwards trajectory. The latest data from global hotel solutions provider HRS has suggested that by 2017, 50% of the company's annual turnover will come from smartphones, tablets or other digital devices. In fact, 2014 saw mobile bookings increasing by almost one quarter (24%) from the second half of the year compared to the first.

"There will always be a small share who prefer to book directly over the phone or might need to if their enquiry is complicated," says Jon West, managing director for HRS in the UK and Ireland. "[But] online and mobile bookings have rapidly grown over the last couple of years and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future."

The musts for modern guests

Just like restaurant operators, the hoteliers of 2016 need to ensure their online booking systems meet the requirements of today's tech-savvy travellers. And with third-party portals like Booking.com and meta-search channels now such an important part of the hotel distribution mix, ensuring seamless connectivity with these partners is essential.

"The typical relationship between a hotelier and an intermediary does not incorporate real-time information, making it difficult to provide details of current inventory or to adapt prices quickly," says Peter Agel, global segment leader for hospitality at Oracle. "Hotels need a better relationship with intermediaries: one which enables them to share information with their partners instantly, and which also enables them to have a more direct relationship with their guests so they can make insightful decisions about pricing, customer engagement, inventory management, and the customer experience."

"The best systems will [also] provide rate management," adds Epos Now chief executive Jacyn Heavens. "It's incredible that when a hotel has got low occupancy and the system drops their rates by 10%, suddenly the bookings come flying in. The big international chains have used technology like this for years and it's great that it's becoming accessible for independent businesses. It's vital that any price changes are automatically updated on all sites."

Personalising the booking experience is another way forward-thinking providers are differentiating their online booking tools. Premium booking engine Avvio, for example, has recently designed its CRM module so that its hotel partners have sophisticated tools to manage different customer types differently and provide personalised booking experiences based on those categorisations.

"For example, if certain customers, like corporate guests, regularly stay at the property, they can be given access to exclusive rates or be allowed to bypass the payment step to facilitate a faster reservation process," explains Avvio chief executive and co-founder Frank Reeves.

"The CRM allows staff to write internal notes on customers, such as whether they require an extra pillow or to offer a complimentary late check-out."

On top of all this, modern guests expect systems to be mobile-friendly and easy to use with a smooth, simple payment process. They also expect quality content including clear descriptions, professional images, user reviews and unique reasons to book direct.

Finally, advises Reeves, when it comes to rewards and loyalty systems, the one-size-fits-all approach is no longer attractive, particularly to millennials. "Hotels need to build a detailed a picture of the customer sets they serve and those they want to attract. In doing so, they can align benefits much closer to the needs of those individuals. This will further enhance customer loyalty, providing the programme adapts to their needs over time," he says, adding that some hotels are even empowering customers to pick their own rewards with an option to adjust these later.

While it's not time for hospitality operators to ignore the phone ringing just yet, consumers' expectations of online booking systems - for both restaurants and hotels - are higher than ever. If operators aren't providing, or looking to invest in, tools that are mobile-friendly, easy-to-use, dynamic, personalised and integrated with both third-party portals and other in-house systems, they aren't keeping up with the times.

Keeping bookings within reach at Bayswell Park hotel

At Bayswell Park hotel in Dunbar, general manager Jamie Carruthers and his team decided to upgrade their booking and EPoS solutions because the property's previous system - using pen and paper - to note bookings and extras from the restaurant, bar, spa and room-service, was causing mix-ups with rooms and, ultimately, lost income.

First, CaterBook PMS, which integrates with the hotel's website, Booking.com, Laterooms.com and Expedia, was implemented to manage online payments and bookings. But Carruthers also wanted an EPoS system that could not only integrate fully with CaterBook, but also streamline and accurately keep track of items purchased from the restaurant, bar, and spa, as well as assigning room service to a room to ensure nothing would be missed.

Enter Epos Now. The system's integration with CaterBook allows staff to take payment straight away, or they can assign charges to a room, so the customer can pay their total bill - including the cost of their room - when they check out. This way, all customer purchases are kept on one bill, ensuring extras are never missed and revenue is maximised. Additionally, as CaterBook and Epos Now are both cloud-based, it means that vital business information can be accessed from anywhere, including occupancy rates, sales and stock reports.

"Epos Now and CaterBook work together seamlessly," Carruthers says. "Everything from customer booking on Hotels.com to settling a final bill on check-out are all taken care of automatically."

Le Bistrot Pierre concentrates on loyalty

As it continues its expansion programme, French-inspired restaurant group Le Bistrot Pierre is extending its partnership with Zonal Retail Data Systems by adding an EPoS-integrated table management and online bookings system from liveRES.

The application manages seating and reservations, and is tightly integrated with EPoS and the customer database, providing key information such as visit history and loyalty as part of the booking and check-in process. The EPoS link means that table usage is shown in real-time, and empty tables are instantly made available for online bookings, waiting lists and walk-ins.

Le Bistrot Pierre's head of marketing Arpita Anstey, says: "Investing in technology is a key part of our growth strategy. Having a table management system will allow us to plan and turn our tables more effectively, so that we can offer customers the very best experience whilst maximising the number of covers we do each day."

Spring 2016 will also see the launch of a brand new consumer app and loyalty programme for Le Bistrot Pierre managed by digital marketing agency, TXD, which is also part of the Zonal family.

"Having a fully integrated solution gives us scope to develop our own branded solutions, rather than relying on partnerships, which means we can stay true to the core values that have seen Le Bistrot Pierre become the success it is," Arpita notes. "As we grow, it's important that

we retain that personal touch that our customers value."

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