Boost Direct Bookings And Keep OTAs Happy With These Three Expert Tips

Hotel operators are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to dealing with online travel agencies (OTAs) like Orbitz, Travelocity and Hotwire. These websites may provide a large source of revenue for hotels, but at the same time, they can cannibalize business that probably would have booked through the hotel in the first place, which saves the hotel from having to pay large OTA commissions.

The plot thickens when you consider that most OTA agreements require rate parity. These rules forbid hotels from advertising rates for less than what’s on the deals site, which makes it difficult for operators to compete for business. But you also don’t want to “bite the hand that feeds you.”

Luckily for hotel operators, there are a number of tricks they can use to increase direct online revenue without breaking OTA agreements. Here’s a few our hotel technology experts devised.

Catch Visitor’s Attention With Smart Design and Layout

Many times when customers shop for deals, they find a handful of properties in a similar price range. Their next step is often to navigate to the individual hotel websites. This is your big opportunity to convince them to book directly through your website.

The first and most obvious (yet surprisingly overlooked) best practice is to put your most attractive rooms front and center on the homepage. When customers book on deals sites, they often assume they will get the most basic room you have to offer. So if they see immediately just what they would miss, it might be enough to convince them to pay the extra amount needed for the better room. Use professional photos that show the room’s best features, whether that’s the view, a huge soaking tub, or the square footage — whatever generally “sells” customers on the room. Here’s a great example from the Hilton in San Francisco:

This page also demonstrates another design best practice – the “check availability” button in the top right corner. You should make it extremely obvious where site visitors can book online. The experience should be seamless. Your web booking engine should enable customers to view availability in real time and book their room immediately.

Finally, you should prominently display your own discounts and packages. Rate parity requirements only apply to offers for the exact same room. Even if you can’t offer a lower price for that same room, you can offer more value than the savings with add-ons. Here’s a great example from the same Hilton website. They dedicate an entire page on their website for packages:

Steer Them to Your Website with with Online Reviews

Another common step in the evaluation stage on OTAs is to browse online reviews on TripAdvisor, Yelp and the like. This presents yet another opportunity for hotel operators to jump in and drive direct website bookings, rather than sending them back to the OTA.

Hotel operators should respond to every comment possible that users post. For example, if someone comments on how much they liked the room layout, view or another feature, the manager could respond by thanking them for feedback and and providing a link to their customer loyalty program. Or, in a scenario where the customers was less than satisfied, they can thank them again for the feedback and offer a discount for their next booking. This shows customers you care and are willing to take steps to provide them with more value. Here’s a great example from Hotel San Jose in Austin, Texas:

Send Your Facebook Fans and Loyal Customers Special Discounts

Parity agreements prevent hotels from offering discounts publicly. However, this restriction doesn’t apply to those offers hotels distribute to a limited audience, including to Facebook followers and people signed up for your loyalty program.

Here’s a great example from the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego. They posted an update with a nicely-designed poster and advertisement for special packages they offered that weekend. If you click through, it takes you to a landing page with discount codes:

You can also send regular discount codes to an email list of people who signed up for your loyalty program.

“We give better rates to returning guests than any rate on a OTA,” says Gary Bruton, principal at Cypress Hospitality Management, which manages The Sanctuary Beach Resort, among others.

About once a month, he sends a form of communication to his mailing list of former guests. Sometimes it’s a newsletter, other times a blog post. This communication provides the reader with up-to-date information about what’s going on in the hotel.

Savvy hotel operators can personalize these communications through automation technology. These tools can also enable customers to rack up reward “points” that can then be put towards a future purchase via self-service portal.

What strategies does your hotel use to drive direct bookings? Join the conversation with a comment here.

Ashley Verrill is a market analyst at Software Advice. She has spent the last six years reporting and writing business news and strategy features. Her work has appeared in myriad publications including Inc., Upstart Business Journal, the Austin Business Journal and the North Bay Business Journal. Before joining Software Advice in 2012, she worked in sales management and advertising. She is a University of Texas graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.


The Hotel and Travel Week

We’ve visited World Travel Market London 2012 last week and here is a quick round-up of impressions:

WTM London 2012 –
destination promoter walking the halls

The most obvious fact compared to previous years was the lack of large OTA exhibitors – the likes of booking.com, HRS etc. Only Expedia showcased with a smallish booth. Are they saving money or don’t they need representation anymore we asked ourselves?

A similar picture with large hotel brands – no corporate IHG, Starwood or Wyndham stands – only smaller groups such as Warwick, Jumeirah and Millienium Copthorne Hotels were present. However, individual hotels exhibited under their given destinations, both branded and independent.

Destination booths there were plenty from all over the world, showing off with costumes, colours and ‘noise’ even though some of their budgets have been cut, too – as Enrique Ruiz de Lera, Head of the Spanish Tourist Office, UK and Ireland told the audience at a social media marketing conference taking place aside the WTM show. During the seminar titled ‘Spain – Marketing in the time of nada’, he offered figures of his marketing budget having shrank from 90 million per year to only 10 at present and how to approach this difficulty.

20.7% of guests who booked on the individual hotel website
found the hotel on an OTA portal.

There was a large technology section, ranging from tech offers like booking interfaces, channel managers, on-site search to mobile and payment solutions. Several seminars and presentations took place on social media marketing (Facebook, Foursquare, Blogging), trends such as the one by PhocusWright on ‘Innovation: Shaking Up the Travel Marketplace’ and general hotel online marketing. During one of the latter, online marketing agency Wihp offered an interesting fact they found doing some market research. OTAs listen up: 20.7% of guests who booked on the individual or brand hotel website found the hotel searching an OTA portal.
Maybe this answers our question above?

QR codes everywhere (stands, posters, hand-outs, business cards) were the big trend at this year’s show. We were slightly surprised that the travel industry took so long to take them on board as we’ve got a QR code on the back of our business cards since 2009!

It also surprised us that only now travel companies are beginning to think about monetising their social media presences and moving on from marketing to social media merchandising. Again, we introduced Hotel FaceBooker 3 years ago – a booking interface enabling users to check availability directly from within Facebook which links to the hotel’s booking engine: www.hotel-facebooker.com

We don’t want to praise ourselves but both facts speak for the accuracy of our company slogan: creative  web solutions for the hotel and travel industry: www.e-conceptory.com

WTM London 2013 we are coming!

The Hotel and Travel Week

TripAdvisor drops list of ‘Dirtiest Hotels’
10th January 2012

TripAdvisor decided to drop its annual ‘Dirtiest Hotels’ list, which instigated a lawsuit by a hotel against the company in 2011. TripAdvisor had previously justified the list as empowering travelers with an honest source of information. Now the company has changed its mind.

Room Key Online Portal

Hotel big players launch their own online portal
11th January 2012

Six of the world’s largest hotel companies have joined forces to create an online portal that offers bookings on better terms than most online travel agencies (OTAs). A beta version of RoomKey.com was officially launched on Wednesday. Its operating company Room Key was founded by Choice Hotels International, Hilton Worldwide, Hyatt Hotels Corp., IHG, Marriott International Inc. and Wyndham Worldwide Corp. and includes direct booking facility of 23,000 hotels affiliated with these companies worldwide. Each hotel company owns an equal slice of Room Key. The company earns a commission from the booking, claimed to be at a more supplier-friendly rate than what third party OTAs are offering. A major plus being that the site redirects users to the hotel company’s websites for direct booking. Room Key is looking to add additional hotel companies and said a major announcement on this is planned for next week. However, Best Western International already announced on Thursday that it has signed up as the first partner to supply hotel inventory. Room Key is concentrating on U.S. consumers initially before expanding globally in summer.
www.roomkey.com

We would like to hear your opinion about this effort to compete with existing OTAs.
Please, take part in our poll on the right!

The Hotel and Travel Week

Monday, 24th October 2011

Starwood adds hotel reviews to their corporate website and is the first global hotel company to do so. The new function will let Sheraton, Westin, W and other Starwood hotel guests write an assessment of their recent hotel stay directly on Starwood websites. Like TripAdvisor, Starwood will first check reviews for bad language before publishing. Then, Starwood will take the added step of confirming the reviewer’s stay. The process could take 2 or 3 days. Once a review has been vetted and confirmed, Starwood will publish it – no matter whether good or bad, they say.

Tuesday, 25th October 2011

Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts is adopting a new brand positioning, targeting ‘strivers’ who are ‘traveling for success’, a group they say represents 9% of all annual hotel stays and is currently unsatisfied with available options in the marketplace. Strivers are defined as individuals who are climbing the ladder to success but have not yet arrived. Crowne Plaza will adopt its new positioning during 3 phases to be completed in 2015.

Wednesday, 26th October 2011

OTAs are now part of the deal at Google Flight Search. Intermediaries are no longer completely shut out of the service. Although airlines are still more prominent, all 4 major online travel agencies now advertise on Google Flight Search, for example Priceline, Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity as well as Cheapoair and Kayak.

Thursday, 27th October 2011

Google is taking its Street View feature indoors. Last May the company announced it would be taking interior shots of stores, but now it is moving out of this pilot phase with more 360 degree interiors showing up online. In order to have your hotel’s interior photographed, you must fill out an application with Google. If chosen, you will be contacted by Google’s photographers to set up a time for the shoot. Google owns all rights to the photos, though including the right to keep an image up, even if you object to it. In order to have an image removed, you must submit a request for it to be taken down. According to a Google spokesperson, the company has already worked with thousands of businesses to shoot these 360 degree interior views. Photos will be available on your Google business page as well as the Google Maps Street View.

Friday, 28th October 2011
The European Travel Commission (ETC) publishes its third quarterly report on European Tourism in 2011 for the third quarter of the year. According to the report, travel recovery is continuing. However, the rate of expansion is slowing with few exceptions because of the economic landscape which presents a challenging environment for travel. Through August, room demand has grown nearly 4% and been particularly strong in Eastern and Southern Europe, with occupancy rates up 7.3% and 5.2%, respectively. Although occupancy growth has been relatively weak in Western Europe (2.4% YTD), room rates have performed well above average, growing 4.8%. European inbound travel is expected to slow markedly, to 2.3% in 2012 from 5.6% in 2011. The core Eurozone countries are most exposed to the downturn.

The Hotel and Travel Week

Monday, 20th June 2011

An Irish hotel is taking Google to court over autocomplete.
When searching for Ballymascanlon House Hotel and beginning to type in the hotel name, the second autocomplete option coming up is ‘Ballymascanlon hotel receivership’ wrongly suggesting that the hotel is going into receivership. As a result, worried customers have contacted the hotel, concerned it may close down before their arrival. The hotel also argues it is losing bookings because of the autocomplete search term in Google Suggest. Google Ireland say autocomplete results are automatically generated by an algorithm based on the most common searches. It is anyone’s guess how the search term became so popular. Apparently, there is a precedent of Google correcting search terms manually, although this was mainly done to rectify copyright issues in the past.
Tuesday, 21st June 2011
The Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA) has hired InnLink LLC to create a customized portal solution that will allow to book multiple stays within one transaction. The portal will facilitate online booking across nearly 100,000 U.S. hotels – i.e. both AAHOA member and non-member properties. The portal is planned to go online later this year and may become a competitor to traditional OTAs.
Wednesday, 22nd June 2011
TripAdvisor reveals their 2011 Accommodation Owners Survey and find that most owners embrace online engagement with customers. 57% of owbers expect their social media marketing budgets to increase this year. Virtually all owners (99%) plan to respond to online guest reviews. Mobile marketing is also a growing trend with 27% of survey respondents planning to launch mobile programmes for the first time in 2011. The TripAdvisor annual poll surveys more than 1,000 U.S. accommodation owners.
Thursday, 23rd June 2011
Marriott International’s nine resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico are turning Manhattan’s Madison Square Park into a free tropical spa on Thursday. The one-day “Step Into Summer” contest is open exclusively to Facebook fans who are given an invite after ‘liking’ the Facebook page. The event features free relaxation activities like massages and pedicures as well as the chance to win a four-night vacation for two at CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa by entering through a secret website address given to them at the event.
Friday, 24th June 2011
Google is finally rolling out behavioral targeting to all of its advertisers. Users can now be targeted by interest — based on their previous browsing activity. The system looks at the types of pages a user visits, considering how recently and frequently the visit has taken place and associates the browser cookie with the appropriate interest category. Advertisers can choose from over 1,000 interest categories on a cost-per-click basis.

Google Maps with hotel pricing – changes everything, again.

Have you recently searched Google for a hotel?
If so, you may have noticed the new meta-search functionality on Google Maps.
Google has now launched a service on Google Maps and Google Place on many of their domains in Europe, the Americas and Asia. The new functionality lets users enter their desired arrival and departure dates above the generic search results. It then returns rates and availabilities in real time next to the hotel listing, including drop down boxes displaying rates from various online booking channels along with links.
Ads are usually listed at the top and highlighted as such. Non-paid links to owner sites appear at the bottom.


This new functionality is very likely to change users search behavior.

When looking for a hotel in a particular destination, Google now displays a clickable map on the right-hand side next to the search results taking users straight to Google Maps.

They will then enter their travel dates and decide on a more specific location by zooming into the map. Checking the rates, they will make a selection based on the price they are willing to pay before even clicking on a link and visiting an OTA or hotel website.
In my view, with this new meta-search feature, Google Maps could easily replace OTA websites as well as meta-search travel sites which users have to date used in order to pre-select hotels – also mainly based on location and price.
Hotels and chains can also buy ads that display direct booking links underneath a Google Map search result and so compete with OTA ads within the rate drop down boxes.
It remains to be seen whether Google is just experimenting or whether Google Maps hotel pricing is here to stay.
Some questions should spring to your mind immediately:
1. How can you improve your hotel’s ranking on Google Maps?
2. Should you change your SEO strategy?
3. Could you publish your direct booking rates in Google linking them with your CRS?
4. Should you pay for Google Map ads?

The Hotel and Travel Week #15

Monday, 1st March

Yotel, the futuristic hotel chain, will open a hotel in New York City in 2011. This will be the brand’s first hotel outside it’s current airport locations, London Heathrow, London Gatwick and Amsterdam Schiphol. The hotel will be an affordable and distinct luxury property in Manhattan, Yotel say the hotel will feature 669 stylish cabins as well as a restaurant, bar, meeting rooms, Club Lounge and the largest outside terrace of any hotel in New York. It will be the first and only Yotel full-service hotel.
Tuesday, 2nd March
IHG, the world’s largest by rooms hotel chain, is targeting candidates to fill job vacancies with Twitter-based job postings and mobile recruiting. They are working with TweetMyJOBS, a Twitter-based recruiting solution that connects job seekers with recruiters and companies instantly via social media. Job seekers can search TweetMyJOBS.com by type of work, location or company and receive instant notification on their mobile when a job matches their criteria. TweetMyJOBS say they have reached more than 18k highly-targeted applicants for the 1k open positions at IHG in January alone.
Wednesday, 3rd March
Revinate announce a new Online Reputation Management solution, specifically designed for individual hotels and hotel chains. The tool provides comprehensive monitoring of top review sites, blogs, news sites and social media services such as Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and TripAdvisor.
There is a Reputation Dashboard with an analysis of reviews from sites such as Yelp, Priceline, Hotels.com, Orbitz and Travelocity, a section called Social Media Scorecard which tracks key performance metrics and benchmarks of competitors and a TweetConcierge with hotel-specific features like multi-user management and campaign tracking.
Revinate clients include InterContinental, Peninsula Hotels, Joie de Vivre Hotels and Trump Hotels.
Thursday, 4th March
Priceline.com launch the Big Deal Hotel Price Guarantee promotion. If a customer finds a better price until the day before check-in than the price they’ve booked a room for under Priceline’s Name Your Own Price® scheme, the company will match that price and pay the customer an additional USD25. Customers in the U.S. will also receive a USD50 coupon which they can use for future bookings on the site.
Friday, 5th March
ebookers.com waive hotel cancellation and amendment fees. Customers amending their booking will now only have to pay a fee if the hotel has their own cancellation policy. The OTA has also removed all booking fees throughout the entire hotel portfolio.

The Hotel and Travel Week #4

Monday, 9th November

Hilton Worldwide announces the launch of ‘the most comprehensive iPhone application in the lodging industry’. The application encompasses 7 brands in the United States: Conrad, Hilton, Doubletree, Embassy Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, Homewood Suites and Hampton Inn. It also features a ‘Request Upon Arrival’ service whereby a traveler can place an order for room service upon arrival at a Hilton, Doubletree and Embassy Suite hotel. Moreover, there is the ‘e-check-in’, for remote check-in up to 48 hours in advance. Both these features are a first in the hotel industry.
The launch comes after reports of a 59% increase in mobile revenue for Hilton during the third quarter of 2009 compared to the first quarter of the year which is primarily generated from the company’s mobile website that was launched 2 years ago.
The hotel owners / OTA row, initiated by Choice vs. Expedia 4 weeks ago, continued on Monday when the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), the world’s largest association of hotel owners, took stance against last-room availability. Read more.

Tuesday, 10th November

 
Sheraton Hotels & Resorts launches a new website and becomes first in the industry to use Facebook Connect. Users can now connect directly to their Facebook account from sheraton.com, share travel experiences, upload pictures and more. If they are not on Facebook, they can still participate and also create a two-way dialogue with the brand through the site’s new online community. Sheraton.com has also been optimised for search so that visitors will be able to find stories by activity and interest, including beach, romance, sports, business and spa. Each story is accompanied by hotel information, a booking interface and applicable special offers.
The new site is part of a USD6 billion worldwide effort to revitalise the Sheraton brand.

Wednesday, 11th November

Choice Hotels International and Expedia announce to have signed a new three-year agreement to include Choice properties on the more than 80 sites Expedia operates worldwide. The hotels will start to be available again on expedia.com and hotels. com within a week and later on hotwire.com. The terms of the agreement and whether Choice is offering Expedia the much discussed last-room availability have not been disclosed.
This announcement seems to mark the end of an argument between Choice and Expedia that had started publicly a month ago and dominated the hotel industry news.
Thursday, 12th November
TUI explains its reasoning behind the launch of the new portal Cheqqer.com during a seminar on travel technology at World Travel Market London. The site has been launched in the Netherlands this summer and provides user-generated reviews which are then rated by other users. The highest quality reviews are always displayed first. The user can also filter reviews by demographic to best suit their requirements. While there have only Dutch reviews been loaded so far, reviews from across the TUI travel portfolio will be added in future with a plan to have 1 million reviews loaded in early 2010.
 
Friday, 13th November
British Airways and Iberia agree upon merging and will become the world’s third largest airline by revenue. The merger is expected to be completed in late 2010. The aim is to combine the carriers’ leading positions in the UK and Spain. The new group should also enhance the two airlines’ strong positions in the international long haul markets. Both individual brands and current operations will be retained. BA also says, the merger won’t have an impact on the further job cuts that had been announced last week.

The Hotel and Travel Week #3

Monday, 2nd November

Rotana Hotels announces plans to open the tallest hotel of the world in Dubai in December 2009. The Rose Rayhaan Hotel will rise 72 storeys at a height of 333 meters and offer 481 rooms, suites and penthouses.
Tuesday, 3rd November
Priceline’s The Hotel Negotiator becomes the #3 free travel application on the Apple Store. Featuring William Shatner, the application has a Shake Down function whereby shaking the device establishes the traveler’s location and performs a winning bids search for hotels in the surrounding area. The application is available for iPhone and iPod touch.
Wednesday, 4th November
The world’s biggest budget airline Ryanair announces a profit of 387 million Euros for the first half of 2009. This means an 80% increase in profits. At a time where airlines struggle, the announcement came as a surprise. Reasons mentioned were, business travelers increasingly using budget airlines as well as Ryanair’s additional charges such as check-in and luggage fees.
Thursday, 5th November
One of the big sticking points in the ongoing feud between Choice Hotels and Expedia is last-room availability. It requires hoteliers to make every room available to the OTA. Hoteliers say, this effectively renders revenue management ineffective. A survey by HotelMarketing.com confirms that it is hardly standard operating procedure in the hotel industry, although the controversial practice is becoming increasingly prevalent.
Friday, 6th November
British Airways plans to cut a further 1,200 jobs after a loss before tax of £292m ($485m) within the 6 months up to September. This is the first time BA announces such a loss over the summer period. BA says the reason is that all airlines are facing the same pressure during this recession. 2009 is said to be the most difficult year in the history of the aviation industry.

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The Hotel and Travel Week #2

Monday, 26th October

InterContinental Hotel Group announces a second InterContinental Hotel in London to open before the 2012 Olympic Games.
IHG have signed a contract with Splendid Hotel Group for a 20 year management contract. The property in question is a new 254-room six storey building in the Westminster area.
Despite tough economic times IHG seem to believe in the strength of their brands. They are planning to add 5,000 rooms in the UK over the next two or three years.

Tuesday, 27th October

Hotels Magazine reports that Choice Hotels may soon have a major ally in its ‘war against Expedia’. At their annual conference, Best Western has been hinting that they are prepared to take similar action against the OTA. They also said that they are working more aggressively with Expedia’s competitors to define their market share.
Wednesday, 28th October
The business travel segment is growing again, according to InterContinental Hotels Group. Corporates had pulled back their investment in business travel during the financial crisis but more recently IHG see people coming back. Is this a sure sign of the crisis being over?
Thursday, 29th October
A surprise announcement that Choice Hotels have resumed negotiations with Expedia last week. Apparently Choice is not interested in leading an industry revolt against Expedia and try to end a ‘messy public feud’. The reason given is that they want to do ‘what’s right for their franchisees’. Expedia had pulled all Choice Hotels from their website after negotiations had come to a standstill.
Friday, 30th October
Travelocity announces to be the first and only to guarantee hotel prices across the web prior to the day of check-in. Competing sites offer price protection on hotel bookings only for lower prices found on respective sites and often within the suppliers cancellation window. Travelocity customers can now claim a refund whenever they find a lower price for their booking anywhere on the web (except name your own price services). Additionally, Travelocity scrap change or cancellation fees for hotel bookings or packages (excluding last minute packages).