Online travel agencies take a huge slice of room rates, so cut out the middle man and lure guests to your website with tempting promotions and brilliant photography
Online travel agencies (OTAs) are a vital element of most hotels' advertising approach, providing access to a wide audience and helping to sell rooms off-peak and at the last minute. But OTAs demand a sizeable commission on any booking, so many hoteliers also want to encourage guests to book directly through their own website.
If this is to be achieved, a professional-looking website with a simple bookings engine is a must. "The OTAs have big marketing spend, their websites are very responsive and they use all the retail tricks like pushing last-minute availability and creating a sense of urgency in the purchase," says Eamonn Doyle, vice-president of sales at Avvio. "If a hotel website is static and only uses thumbnail images, it will struggle to compete."
MAKE IT EASY
There should also be a clear call to action, such as a 'book now' button, on every page of your website, advises Josef Lapka, director of business operations at hotel technology provider HotelREZ. He also recommends flagging up the security certificate to make it clear that the website is secure for online booking.
He also recommends sending out an email to customers two days before they are due to arrive, saying that the staff are looking forward to them staying at the hotel and asking if they would like to purchase any extras, such as a spa treatment or wine and flowers in the room. "The margins on room rates are so tough that these extras make a big difference," Lapka says.
Sally Burton, sales and marketing manager at the Old Hall hotel in Buxton, says having an online booking system that provides the flexibility to offer packages - for example, a room with roses, dinner and tickets to a local attraction - also helps boost direct sales.
Hotels can also send an automated e-mail after a guest has left, offering a discount on a return visit with a promotion code to enter online, along with a request that guests leave a review on Tripadvisor.
HoteREZ also provides technology that allows operators to search across social media and review sites to see what guests have been saying about them.
Sites such as TripAdvisor provide an important stepping stone on a guest's journey to booking a room. When a guest searches through an OTA, they will be presented with a list of properties in a similar price range, and one way to narrow their selection is to read online reviews. According to Catt McLeod, a commercial director at Supranational Hotels, there is an opportunity here to engage with guests if they can see that you are attentive to online reviews.
"Hoteliers should respond to reviews, whether they are negative or positive, and acknowledge comments on Facebook or Twitter as a way of continuing a conversation with a guest after their stay," she says.
McCleod also recommends that a hotel's Twitter page follows brands that are aligned with its image. For example, people likely to seek out an upmarket country hotel may also warm to brands such as Barbour or John Lewis, and may find out about a property via this route.
She also suggests hoteliers send out special offers to followers on Twitter as an incentive to keep following. As it is a closed group, it is also unlikely to contravene any rate parity agreement with OTAs, which generally refer to rates advertised to an open audience.
Creating a blog is another way of driving visitors to your website, says Jorge Rodriguez, e-marketing manager at the Strand Palace hotel in London, which has launched a blog to inform guests of the best attractions to visit in the capital. Not only will the blog mention the hotel and its location to boost the property's rankings in search engines, it's also another reason for guests to visit the website.
Rodriguez says any online booking system must be hassle-free and recommends that websites have no more than six steps to book, or there is a danger that people will leave the site.
Hoteliers looking to drive custom through the mobile channel must make things as easy as possible for smartphone users. Doyle at Avvio says one approach is to do away with the standard booking process, as putting credit card details into a phone can put guests off. "One idea is to send out a last-minute allocation to guests who have signed up to a hotel's mobile service, asking them if they want a room at a reduced rate. All they have to do is click 'yes'.
"There is a risk they might not turn up, but if they do, you have sold a few more rooms than you would have."
Lapka says where the mobile device comes into its own is when guests are making their way to the property.
"Make sure the confirmation email you send out allows the user to press '1' to call the hotel and ensure the email connects to Apple or Google maps," he says. "If they get lost and can't find your number, their experience has already got off on the wrong foot."
PACKAGES WITH LOCAL LANDMARKS AT THE OLD HALL HOTEL
Nestled in the Peak District, the 38-room Old Hall hotel in Buxton is one of the
oldest hotels in the country - Mary Queen of Scots stayed there in 1573.
According to sales and marketing manager Sally Burton (pictured), the property upgraded to a new version of Guestline's Online Booking Manager (OBM) in 2012 and, over the past year, has seen a 39% increase in room nights booked online with an average increase in room rate of £12.
"The system offers more flexibility than previous versions of the software - for example, if there is no availability for a particular night, online users are automatically shown availability for shoulder nights and the following week," she says.
"It also enables us to offer packages - say, a Valentine's night with dinner and roses and wine in the room."
One popular add-on with guests is tickets to nearby Chatsworth House, so Burton has focused on this when optimising the website for search engines.
She says: "We are a small hotel, so we can't compete with the OTAs on all words, but we mention Chatsworth a lot on our website and rank quite highly in the natural search rankings for 'hotel near Chatsworth House'."
Burton accepts that a certain percentage of online bookers will come via the OTAs, but says she tries to ensure they book direct on their return visit.
"Anyone who stays gets e-mailed a return discount offer with a promotion code that they can enter online at our website," she says.
SIX WAYS TO DRIVE DIRECT BOOKING VIA YOUR WEBSITE
- Make sure your website has professional design and photography and reassure visitors that it is secure.
- Have a clear call to action - ensure there is a 'Book Now' button on every page.
- Send out an email a few days ahead of a guest's stay, asking them if they would like to make any additional purchases.
- Engage with reviewers on TripAdvisor and similar sites - invite guests to submit their reviews.
- Create a blog - it's another way of giving visitors a reason to visit your site.
- Make online booking hassle-free - no more than six steps - or visitors may go elsewhere.
HEAR FIRST-HAND AT THE CATERER DIGITAL SUMMIT
WHEN 12 MAY 2014
WHERE GRANGE ST PAUL'S HOTEL, LONDON
Caterer and Hotelkeeper is holding a Digital Summit to provide practical, cutting-edge advice to take back to your business.
Our one-day conference will explore how the latest technology has the capacity to streamline operations and increase revenues throughout the hospitality industry.
The summit will showcase the latest digital technology developments and delegates will hear what the future has in store for mobile ordering and payments - and how to take advantage of the technology to speed up service and increase spend.
Our expert speakers will also address revenue management and the latest best practice in working with online travel agents to ensure your marketing message gets out, and as much revenue as possible comes in.
Book your place at www.catererdigitalsummit.com
LIVING VENTURES BUILDS UP A DATABASE FOR THE LATEST RESTAURANT DEALS
Driving customers to book online can also benefit restaurants, according to Samantha Grocott, managing director at online dining booking engine provider LiveRES.
She says it can help them fill tables outside peak hours, tackle staff fraud and enable diners to book at a time that suits them.
"We encourage restaurants running a promotion to drive all bookings via their website, whether it be a mailer, a radio advert or e-mail. Typically, a promotion will be targeted at dining outside peaks hours and that can be managed through the booking system.
"With online booking, a manager can see which channel the booking has come from - it's a much easier way of controlling availability than vouchers, which can be open to staff fraud."
One operator using the LiveRES system is the Living Ventures group, which has a number of restaurant brands including Gusto, the Alchemist and Blackhouse. According to commercial director Jeremy Roberts, the group has been offering online bookings for almost a decade.
"We encourage online booking as much as possible because it enables us to give customers a good service and they can book at their leisure," he says.
"It's user friendly and it enables us to use promotions to fill off-peak and shoulder periods. It also gives diners certainty because they receive an e-mail to confirm their booking."
Roberts says that through encouraging diners to book online the company has built up a strong database of customers who are willing to receive updates on the latest deals.
"They agree to receive a promotion online by ticking the box and LiveRes manages it for us without us having to worry. It keeps feeding itself and doesn't require us to manage the process."