In this post, I will help hotel marketers adapt their marketing strategies for 2020, with a focus on generating more direct bookings.
A lot has been written about how the hotel business is evolving in a technology-led environment such as the one we all live in today. The growth and increasing dominance of online travel agencies (OTAs) and businesses such as Airbnb make this a challenging time for most hotels to stand out from the crowd. If your hotel isn’t part of a global group such as Hilton, Marriott, or IHG then this task can be even harder.
Take your website seriously
When was the last time you visited a hotel website and made an immediate online booking WITHOUT visiting (a) an OTA site, or (b) checking a competitor’s hotel website? Unless you’re the most impulsive of online shoppers, it’s unlikely that you’ve ever engaged in such activity and this is perfectly in line with human behavior when shopping or making purchasing (or booking) decisions on the internet.
According to Google, 52% of Hotel guests will leave an OTA website and go directly to the official website of the hotel. This is often referred to as the ‘billboard effect’ where the OTA site brings attention and drives interest in a particular hotel, which in turn drives traffic to a hotel’s website. This creates a wonderful opportunity for hotels to not only leverage the free marketing of their property provided by the OTAs but to also generate a direct booking at the expense of them. However, in my opinion, 99% of hotel websites globally are flawed, which directly impacts the conversion of website visitors to direct bookings. While this might seem slightly exaggerated, it’s easy to understand the validity of this statement by simply conducting a search for hotels in almost any destination in the world. Here are a few reasons based on our research:
The majority of websites look alike.
If you open up any number of hotel websites, you’ll notice a clear pattern when it comes to the structure and content of a website. You’ll see a large image/photo banner (or large video), navigation at the top and side, a ‘check availability’ box, and a button that’s highlighted saying ‘Book Now’. The terminology may, of course, differ from country to country but in the main, each website will contain these features in the same way, and therein lies the problem.
As we know, 52% of guests will visit a hotel’s official website after seeing the hotel on an OTA site. But when a visitor goes onto the website, a hotel needs to make the right kind of impression with the guest to engage them to spend more time on the hotel’s website and convert that visitor into a direct booking or at the very least, a subscriber on the hotel’s marketing database. But with most hotel websites looking the same, it becomes difficult for a hotel to create the type of the first impression that impresses the guest to the extent where they start to engage with the brand and its offering.
Hotels today must think about differentiating their websites to engage guests and many areas of this article address how this can be achieved.
The quest of unique content (is the king)
Linked very closely to point above is the distinct lack of unique content hosted on a hotel website. More often, a hotel will use the same images, text, and promotions on their hotel’s OTA pages as well as their own website. From a guest experience perspective, if a prospective booker visits OTA pages and then comes to the official website, they’re not going to see anything different from what they’ve previously seen on other websites. I mentioned the need to create a great first impression earlier in the article and this becomes more difficult when content replication is prevalent across the internet for a specific hotel.
When I’ve spoken to clients about this, we’re often told that they have a limited number of quality images that they can use or even that the OTA guidelines insist on using a specific number of high-quality images on their sites and these are often cited as reasons as to why the hotel doesn’t retain high-quality images for use on their owned assets but the reality is that hotels must have the discipline to do this.
In addition, there are certain types of content or media that the OTAs don’t tend to host on an individual property page such as videos and downloadable helpful content. Videos, in particular, provide an interesting opportunity for hotels as these are highly interactive, work well on all modern devices including smartphones and tablets and it’s now very cost-effective to produce professional material than was previously the case. Hotels should, therefore, consider creating this type of content and hosting it front and center on their sites to help differentiate themselves from both OTAs and competitor hotels. This is a clear opportunity that most hotels are not taken advantage of.
Hotels are asking visitors to do the wrong thing
One of the challenges with most websites having a consistent content structure is that hotel website visitors are being driven to parts of the website that may not be to the benefit of the hotel. With over 15 years of website design and development experience, we understand that most website users will follow the path that a website lays out for them. For instance, if the main call to action on your hotel website is the ‘Book Now’ button or check availability search section, the majority of website visitors will follow that lead and visit those sections of your website.
As noted earlier, we’ve already seen that most hotel websites have these types of call to actions as the main focal point for website visitors. Clearly, most visitors will then visit those pages ahead of pages that may contain more meaningful content that explains more about the hotel itself, its location, facilities, and brand story. The biggest challenge, however, is that by directing guests to sections of your website that focus on a price before educating the guest about your property, you’re essentially competing for head-on with the OTAs. The sad reality here is that by focusing on price and driving user attention to this area of your website, your most likely going to lead the website visitor back to the OTA site – a platform that has many more prices and is deemed potentially cheaper than your own website.
Price has always been the focal point
OTAs have been successful over the last decade because they provided a clear and simple service to guests across the world. The service focused on providing a list of hotels for any location with the price being the leading comparative factor used to filter hotels. For guests, this provides a one-stop-shop where both live availability and price can be checked for any given date. But as we’ve seen, despite this solution, 52% of guests will still go to a hotel website first before booking a specific hotel. Why do they do this? There are a few areas of thought here. The first is that guests are looking to see if they can find a cheaper room rate than what’s available on the OTA site. With rate parity agreements, it’s unlikely that the net rate available is going to be any cheaper than what was previously noted on the OTA site but it’s important not to forget that most guests will never have heard of ‘rate parity’ and therefore doesn’t understand the impact of this on hotel room rates. The second school of thought is that guests are looking for more information about the hotel as the OTA contains limited information (often just one page of information about the hotel).
What is it that your guests really want?
When we work with a new hotel, we always ask a series of questions that help us gain a deeper understanding of the property and its guests. Some of the questions are:
- Why do guests choose to stay at your hotel?
- If your closest competitor (in terms of star rating and proximity) was marketed at exactly the same room rate as your hotel, which hotel would a guest choose?
- What are the top 5 reasons that a guest would book a room in your hotel?
While there is certainly a degree of overlap between each question, it’s often interesting to receive the results from a hotel in order to ascertain employee thoughts and mindset. Once this is complete, we test these answers by creating an internal process that gathers data from the hotel website, email inquiries, and call center conversations – all tracking the types of questions that actual guests are asking. Once there is enough data for analysis, we can start to identify how aligned a hotel team is to the needs of its guests and more importantly, the actual reasons why guests are considering the hotel for their stay. While the analysis helps to re-focus employees, there are other tangible benefits of this exercise:
If the same or similar questions are being asked by guests across multiple channels, it’s important that the hotel provides a consistent, unified answer. This can be especially difficult when multiple teams are managing different channels, so the creation of a ‘script’ or similar process coupled with training, can help a hotel enormously.
Identification of ‘new’ opportunities.
Every now and then, this process unearths a new opportunity for the hotels that we’ve worked with that not only creates a new unique selling point (USP) for the hotel but also provides both organic and paid Google ranking opportunities as well as a strong reason to Book Direct with the hotel. One such example arose when working with a budget hotel in Orlando, Florida. When analyzing guest questions, our team identified that a large number of questions asked during the pre-booking stage via the call center and website were focused on Amazon.com deliveries and specifically, if the hotel provided free package handling from Amazon. Upon further analysis of the data, we found that over 40% of these requests came from Brazilian tourists.
Armed with this information, we started to research this more and found that the hotel had typically been charging between $5 and $10 per package received for a guest. When we asked the manager why, he mentioned that the inconvenience was what they were charging for, but that there actually was no direct cost incurred by the hotel for handling packages. When asked by guests if the hotel charged for Amazon deliveries, the hotel staff correctly mentioned the charges incurred per package but our team identified this as a real conversion and direct booking opportunity and began to dig deeper.
First, we checked Google to see if any other hotel was marketing this service, whether free of charge or for a nominal fee, and to our surprise, found that this area was totally untapped. Even TripAdvisor hadn’t created a Top 5 Hotels in Orlando that Provide Free Amazon.com Deliveries article, which would normally be found at the top of a Google search engine results page! What we did find were multiple forum questions, where people were asking the very same question as to the hotel’s call center and website had been asked! Second, we also checked to see if any hotel was paying for Google adverts for the same/similar types of search terms – there were none, meaning that this area was totally untapped and confirmed as a real opportunity for the hotel.
Getting to grips with your data
We spoke above about the importance of collecting data for a hotel and how this data can be used to train employees and identify new opportunities, but in the digital world, getting to grips with and understanding online data can significantly improve how you market your hotel. That said, we understand that it’s getting harder and harder to not only access data but to use it for a hotel’s benefit.
Since 2015, Booking.com has made guest data anonymous and in doing so, has removed the ability for hotels to access guest information including email addresses. This not only forced hotels to create new data collection processes but it can be argued, consequently increased guest frustration at having to provide information to a hotel at the time of check-in that would previously have been provided to the OTA at the time of booking (most guests won’t understand that data isn’t passed onto the hotels in full by the OTAs once a booking has been made). In addition to this, GDPR implementation arguably impacted hotels more than any other type of business given that GDPR restricted data use and communication to all EU citizens.
Personalize content for every guest
As we already know, guest expectations are higher than they’ve ever been and hotels are feeling the consequences of this. It’s therefore important that at every interaction point with a guest, data is recorded that helps a hotel understand more about that individual, their interests, and any insights that can increase the quality of the guest’s experience with the hotel.
How can this data be collected?
It’s not as difficult as you may think. There are a host of tracking tools that can be implemented on your website that track an individual’s journey and interactions on your website. These include the specific pages visited by a guest, how frequently they return to your website, the searches they conduct as well as the content they download or engage with. All of this data when combined and stored in a single interface becomes use-able content that can be used to personalize a guest’s experience with a hotel.
How to personalize content
Most websites today are dynamic by nature. They have the ability to adapt the content hosted on it in terms of size and structure based on elements like device type and connection speed. But in addition to this, content can also be dynamically customized based on what your website knows about a specific visitor. Here are some potential use cases for a hotel:
- If the website visitor has been on your website at least 3 times and conducted numerous searches but has not yet made a booking, a simple pop-up can appear that can be designed to help the guest complete the booking by offering a free and immediate telephone call back. If a website visitor has browsed your spa pages, the next time they visit your home page, your website can show text and images about your Spa and perhaps even offer a time-limited offer, whereby the guest can receive a 25% discount at the Spa by booking directly through the website. The world’s best e-commerce websites do this incredibly well and hotels should consider applying the same to their businesses.
- There are unlimited combinations of content and activity that can be combined to create dynamic content that is personalized for each guest but data collection is at the heart of any potential activity.
Nurture guests to drive bookings
Each of the website home pages showcased above in section 1 is from different brands and are located across the world, but as we identified earlier, none are offering any major call to action to a guest other than to “book now” or to “check availability”. While this user experience enables guests to start the conversion process (ie making a reservation), how many guests are likely to complete the booking on their first visit? The reality is that very few (if at all) will. It’s therefore hugely important that hotels identify ways of interacting, engaging, and building relationships with potential guests BEFORE the booking process. This will enable hotels to increase their chances of converting website visitors into paid guests.
How to nurture a guest from website visitor to paid reservation
This process will, of course, differ for every hotel, but the general theory behind this approach is valid and deserves attention:
When a visitor lands on your website, consider the following approach:
- If this is the first time they are visiting your website, tell them more about your hotel:
- Show them testimonials (or a TripAdvisor feed at the very least) that show your hotel cares about what others think about them
- Provide them with helpful content (especially if their IP address indicates that they are located outside of your city). Collect data in exchange for the ability to download this content. See the next section on content creation for more information about this.
- Once you collect data, use this to automate communication by email or SMS to the guest and drive them back to your website to complete the booking.
While it’s impossible to suggest a formula that works for every hotel, the table below should help to provide some guidance when planning your online marketing and advertising budgets:
|Marketing Channel||When should you use it?|
|Intent-based searches but be careful not to use Google for the types of short-tail keywords that will not convert into a booking.
You should consider using Google Display banners for remarketing to those who have already visited your website. Think about using special promo codes within the ads to track the effectiveness of these.
|Facebook & Instagram||We’ve grouped Facebook and Instagram as these adverts on these channels can be created from the same platform. We wouldn’t recommend using either of these channels for anything other than a brand-building or retargeting.
When it comes to retargeting, Facebook and Instagram offer you the opportunity of showcasing your property using images and videos that will educate the guest about why they should stay at your hotel. Consider using ‘Direct Booking’ incentives within your campaigns to further increase direct revenue opportunities
|Programmatic Adverts||Depending on the type of programmatic platform you use, there are some incredible opportunities using the data available. Being able to target those who are in the market for a flight/hotel to your destination allows you to customize messaging and tailor-make promotions and offers for your hotel. In addition, combining available data with other 3rd party sources can assist you to further pinpoint target audiences.|
|Snapchat||Snap / Snapchat presents some interesting marketing opportunities at a cost-effective rate, that hotels should consider using if their target audiences are millennials or those who reside in demographics where the importance of social media privacy drives usage amongst an older age group. Some Middle Eastern countries, for example, have higher Snapchat adoption rates than most other countries because of the platform’s ability to erase content after 24 hours of publishing.|
|An expensive online platform, LinkedIn nonetheless does present marketing opportunities for hotels. Targeting secretaries or personal assistants, as well as a meeting room or event bookers, may drive awareness for your business.|
Ηotels that are serious about increasing profitability and reducing OTA reliance need to create implementable strategies that are designed to do just this. It takes commitment and discipline but once achieved can be a sustainable way to grow the business in the digital age.