COVID-19 May Benefit Direct Bookings—Is Your Hotel Ready?

According to Larry Mogelonsky of Hotel Mogel Consulting, COVID-19 might be a boon for direct bookings. As OTAs (online travel agencies) struggle with mass cancellations due to the pandemic, travelers are finding it difficult to access overloaded customer support systems (online and on the phone) to process cancellations, refunds and credits.

As Mogelonsky pointed out in his article, the frustration and uncertainty resulting from difficulty reaching customer helplines and not knowing if or when refunds or credits are available may put many travelers off using OTAs, at least for a while. Instead, making the effort to book direct with hotels and airlines for personalized and immediate service might give peace of mind to cautious travelers.

Whether such a behavioral shift eventuates is yet to be seen, but using the downtime now to rethink your distribution strategy and optimize your direct sales channel is a good plan in any case.

Now’s an opportune time to review systems like your website booking engine, or to get online bookings up and running on your property’s website if you haven’t already. Check with your property management system (PMS) provider to find out if they offer an integrated website booking engine. If you’re using WebRezPro, a commission-free online booking engine is included with your PMS.

Below, we’ve outlined important elements of a future-proof website booking engine to help you make sure you’ve got one that will maximize direct conversions and profitability going forward.

What to Look for in a Website Booking Engine – A Checklist

Travel consumers are used to the kind of streamlined online booking experience provided by OTAs. It’s important to meet the expectations of today’s travelers with a simple, seamless and secure booking process on your property’s own website to maximize conversions.

>>PMS integration

Your online booking engine should integrate with your property management system and channel manager (if your PMS is integrated with third-party distribution channels, the PMS will essentially act as your channel manager). This will ensure that room availability and rates are always up to date across all distribution channels—a necessity if you want to avoid overbooking—and that reservations coming through your website are automatically entered into the PMS.

Integration with the PMS also supports customer loyalty through recognizing repeat guests, streamlining the booking process by auto-filling fields and awarding reward points.

>>Secure

An online booking engine accepts personal and payment data from customers, so protecting the privacy and integrity of that data is critical—for both your customers and your business. Choosing a PCI DSS compliant system is extremely important. Look for security measures that include SSL encryption, secure data storage and certified integrations with payment processors.

>>Simple booking process

Complicated booking processes have higher rates of booking abandonment. The simpler, the better. Think no more than three steps: 1. Search for availability and select room; 2. Complete required booking information; 3. Booking confirmation. Only require the information you absolutely need to confirm a booking. Any additional data or options should be voluntary—strive to keep booking forms as short as possible. Remember, additional information can be collected after the booking is made, via pre-arrival communications or at check-in.

Upon completion of the booking, the system should automatically trigger a confirmation screen, instantly reassuring the customer that their booking was successful, and also a confirmation email containing the reservation details.

>>Flexible

To maximize revenue, your website booking engine should be able to accommodate all the pricing strategies you use. It should offer the flexibility to sell packages, group rates, add-ons, password-protected rates and so on, applying length-of-stay and other booking restrictions as applicable. Flexibility is more important than ever during these uncertain times. As the world recovers from the pandemic, hotels must be ready to pivot their marketing and pricing strategies to capture demand.

>>Reservation modifications and cancellations

As proven by the travel disruption caused by this pandemic, a simple, accessible process for modifying or canceling existing reservations is desired and expected by travel consumers. Going forward, this may have an even greater impact on the traveler’s decision to make a booking.

Allowing customers to modify or cancel bookings online through your website booking engine is convenient for customers and saves front-desk agents time—as long as the process is quick and easy. For example, customers should be able to retrieve their booking information by simply entering their email address and booking confirmation number, and then make changes without having to re-enter personal information. Confirmation emails are key to reassuring customers by confirming the change, and should be automated for efficiency and consistency.

It’s also important that your cancellation policy is clearly stated within your website booking engine at the time of booking. Following this crisis, it’s likely that the majority of travelers will need time to regain confidence in travel and spending. Clear, flexible cancellation policies will help provide the reassurance they need to make a booking.

>>Commission-free

Direct bookings carry a lower cost of acquisition than bookings coming through third parties that charge commission. If your PMS includes a direct online booking engine, make sure it’s commission free to maximize profit. This can make a big difference to your bottom line, especially as your direct channel gains more weight within your distribution mix.

>>Analytics

As a core component of your distribution strategy, your online booking engine should track performance so that you can measure the success of your direct booking strategy and identify areas for improvement. Automatically generated reports should provide insights into conversion rates, booking lead times, revenue from special promotions and so on.

>>Mobile-friendly

Today’s travel consumers research, plan and book travel across devices, so be ready to maximize conversions when travel bounces back with a mobile-friendly online booking engine that provides all users with an optimal experience. On mobile, that means a simple, secure, tap-friendly booking process that is easy to read and navigate on a small screen. An online booking engine that utilizes responsive design will have you covered on all devices (from desktops to smartphones).

>>Customizable to your brand

Your website booking engine should offer a degree of customization to display your business’s logo and images, as well as customizable messages and descriptions, to reinforce branding and help build credibility and trust.

>>Facebook compatibility

Very effective at attracting qualified traffic, social media has become much more than a platform to stay in touch with friends; it is also an important sales and marketing channel for businesses across industries.

Connecting your property’s Facebook page with your website booking engine makes it easy for your customers to make a booking directly from Facebook, a convenience that will help create a seamless online experience for your customers and result in increased direct bookings.

>>Inclusive

Make sure your website booking engine welcomes all by providing all customers with a user-friendly experience. Currency and language options simplify the process for international customers, and ADA-compliant features, such as ALT text for images (for screen-reader compatibility) and alerting bookers that the property offers accessible units, makes booking easier for customers with disabilities.

Many things have changed since COVID-19 swept the globe. It will take a while to get back to “normal” and it will happen at different rates and in different ways for different regions. People will travel with enthusiasm again, but it may take time for consumers to regain confidence in travel spending. Make sure your property is ready to meet future demand with a website booking engine that supports your customers through a simple, seamless and secure booking experience.

Best E-Commerce Practices for Independent Hotels

When you think of “e-commerce,” online retail sites like Amazon, eBay and Etsy probably first come to mind. But have you ever thought of your property’s website as an e-commerce site too?

E-commerce refers to commercial transactions that are conducted electronically over the internet, so if your hotel website processes bookings through an online booking engine then, technically, you should think of it as an e-commerce site, especially if your goal is to drive direct bookings.

Retailers have shaped consumer expectations of the online shopping experience. Today’s consumers are used to simple, seamless and secure shopping experiences online and hotel websites need to provide a similar booking experience to maximize conversions in an increasingly competitive hospitality industry.

Hotel websites must go beyond compelling visual design and great photos; a frictionless user experience is key to the success of any e-commerce site. So, start thinking about your property’s website from an e-commerce perspective and follow best e-commerce practices to ensure your website provides a simple, seamless, credible and supportive online shopping experience that turns lookers into bookers.

Simple

The most successful e-commerce sites keep things simple. Even online retail giants like Amazon that sell hundreds of thousands of products across a multitude of categories offer a straightforward and intuitive shopping experience.

Consumers prefer websites that are visually uncluttered and easy to navigate and understand. For hotel websites that means a clean, modern visual design, a clear USP (unique selling proposition), well-organized content (one topic per page), images that specifically support page content, prominent and relevant calls to action (CTAs) like “book now” and “view deals” buttons, and familiar menu formats for intuitive navigation. 

The online booking engine must also offer a simple, intuitive user experience that guides users effortlessly through the booking process. Avoid overwhelming users with too many options and reduce the steps to complete a booking as much as possible by only asking for the minimum amount of information required to make a booking. Personalization is important here too; your online booking engine should recognize repeat customers and auto-complete information as appropriate to simplify the reservation process.

An uncomplicated path to booking is key to converting website visitors into paying guests.

Seamless

A seamless user experience goes hand in hand with simplicity. It’s important to eliminate any obstacles to booking—you don’t want to give customers any excuse to bail. As mentioned above, simplicity helps pave the way to booking via an easily understandable and navigable website and online booking process. 

As well, look at your website from a more technical perspective to ensure a seamless user experience that eliminates friction.

Ensure pages load quickly; approximately half of website visitors abandon a page that takes more than three seconds to load. You can run your website through a page speed test (like Google’s PageSpeed Insights) to find out how your website performs and what you can do to make it faster—because every second really does count.

Today’s online consumers frequently switch between desktop and mobile devices (and browsers), so a website that functions optimally across devices is key to a seamless online user experience. A responsive website and booking engine automatically detects and adapts itself to the screen it is being viewed on, adjusting layout, content and functionality accordingly to present an optimal and consistent user experience on all screens.

In addition to being mobile friendly, your online booking engine should offer a branded experience with a similar look and feel to your website to create a seamless booking experience and gain customers’ trust. Even basic customization of your booking engine with your logo and background colour helps support credibility of your business (which brings us to the next point)…

Credible

Successful online retailers earn consumers’ trust by establishing credibility. Professional product images, customer reviews, contact information, payment and shipping policies, affiliation badges and secure URLs are all important elements of an e-commerce website that help gain customer confidence.

Make sure your hotel website demonstrates your property’s authenticity and reassures prospective guests that it’s safe to book direct online.

Do this by investing in a quality website design and professional, high-res images of your property (avoid stock photos) that accurately portray the stay experience. Include guest reviews throughout your site or on a dedicated page, and add social media icons to your header or footer that link to your social channels, to provide your customers with the social proof that will convince them to book with you. Most review sites and social media channels provide widgets that display a live feed of your reviews, ratings and posts directly on your website.

Display trust symbols like a TripAdvisor badge (if your property is doing well on TripAdvisor), and affiliation badges for any relevant memberships you have, for example, with your local Chamber of Commerce, lodging association or eco-friendly certification, to show you take your business seriously.

Make sure you’re providing your customers with a safe shopping experience with secure URLs (secure URLs begin with https rather than http), and that goes for your online booking engine too. Display a Best Rate Guarantee and make booking and cancellation policies readily available for customers.

Supportive

Without easy and instant access to customer support, online shoppers are more inclined to abandon their shopping carts if they have a question about the purchase. The same goes for travelers booking accommodation online.

Live chat is a common element of e-commerce websites, allowing an agent to help customers via real-time messaging as they are shopping. Now, AI-based chatbots, which can handle basic queries well, are replacing live chat. An increasing amount of hotel websites successfully employ live chat or a chatbot to answer prospective guests’ questions and guide them down the purchase funnel.

Whether or not you use live chat or a chatbot on your property’s website, it’s crucial to display contact information—especially a phone number and email address—on every page of your website (ideally in the header) so that customers can reach out at any point. Including social media icons in your header too will catch those millennial customers who prefer to communicate with businesses through their social channels.

But it doesn’t stop there. Once a customer completes a booking through your website, continue to offer excellent customer support via booking confirmation and pre-arrival messaging that invites them to upgrade their stay, informs them of useful property information, or asks if they have any special requests. They’ll feel reassured about their choice to book with you, and you’ll have laid the foundation for a loyal customer relationship.

Much more than a pretty digital brochure, hotel websites today are highly functional e-commerce sites designed to drive direct online bookings. Make sure your hotel website engages proven e-commerce practices to maximize conversions.

How to Sell Hotel Rooms Without Offering Discounts

Slashing room rates can feel like an obvious and easy solution to a decline in bookings. However, your marketing strategy should not appear obvious or easy. Low prices invite the idea ‘you get what you pay for’ and discounted rates can indicate a hotel-in-trouble. For many, price determines quality, and price is likely to determine a potential guest’s first reaction to your hotel. If rates were the only factor in selling a room, the hotels with the lowest rates would always be fully occupied. So, while discounts may lead to some short-term bookings, they rarely lead to the long term goal of establishing a sustainable and flourishing business. But the question is: how do you sell rooms without slashing rates?

1. Be Distinct.

It’s laughably obvious, and of course, what everyone and every business desires to be. But it’s worthwhile to spend time and repeatedly revisit the following questions: What makes you different than other hotels, inns, and B&Bs in your area? Why should someone book with you instead of with the hotel down the street? Who are your ideal guests? What do they value? Be specific. You cannot build a successful marketing strategy without understanding who you are. Get out a piece of paper and jot down ideas. If your hotel’s unique qualities and distinct assets do not come quickly to mind, this is where you need to spend time and energy because the following pieces of advice rely on your answers to these questions.

2. Add Value.

Instead of discounting prices, maintain your rates and add services and products. Your potential guests will perceive and then receive increased value, which not only sells rooms but strengthens your brand by providing another opportunity to highlight your assets.

Add value in two ways:

Offer hotel products, amenities, or services. Consider offering unlimited access to your onsite gym, a complimentary massage at your spa, free laundry services for business travellers, or whatever services or products that make your hotel unique. This takes some creative thinking, as you want to ensure you’re offering something that your guests find valuable but also keeps costs low.

Collaborate with local businesses. Approach restaurants and music venues to offer a combined price for a night or weekend away. Collaborate with museums to bring out-of-towns guests to see the opening or closing of an exhibit. Create packages with sports teams or theatre companies that offer season passes that would bring guests back multiple times a year. Understand what experiences your ideal guests desire and work with local businesses to offer mutually beneficial packages.

3. Enhance your Online Presence.

Website. Your property’s website is vital. It offers a powerful first look at your hotel and should immediately present the feel of your establishment. Your website should make someone want to stay at your hotel. Currently, minimalism is the trend for websites, which is particularly effective for hotels because it gives a clean and calming impression. It’s important to understand that a website should be updated regularly, not just for its content but to keep it looking fresh and modern. This is especially important if your brand incorporates these traits. A website should be easy to navigate, responsive (so that it can be viewed on every possible screen), feature high quality images, and offer information that’s readable and concise. It’s recommended that you hire a professional. A good website designer, writer, and developer can help you tell your brand’s story through images and concise words, and can also ensure that your website is easily found through online searches.

Hotel Rating Websites. Websites like TripAdvisor have become a necessity… and a thorn in the side of many service oriented businesses, even the ones who consistently get good reviews. You cannot stop people from posting negative reviews, but you can respond to them, giving potential guests an opportunity to see how you resolve issues. Here’s a helpful guide to maintaining online reputation.

Social Media. Social media is a good medium for showcasing your carefully curated packages, but mostly it’s a storytelling platform. Many modern travellers seek individualized experiences, and one way to show that you can fulfil their desires for individuality is to be unique yourself. Tell and show the behind the scene stories of your hotel through original photographs; highlight the people who work for you or the people who stay with you (with their permission); and feature your surrounding area’s attractions. Remember, too, that social media is meant to be social. Don’t focus solely on presenting your story. Interact with other businesses and members of your community; engage with former and potential future guests; and respond quickly to inquests.

Cultivate Repeat Business. It’s easier to encourage repeat guests than to attract new ones. To do so: think small. Small gestures have a big impact. Ensure the front desk staff know and address repeat customers by name. Walk around at breakfast and briefly chat with guests about how their enjoying their stay. Send handwritten thank you notes and birthday cards. Offer complimentary champagne upon the arrival of a repeat guest. Also, consider starting a customer loyalty program based on the number of nights booked or referrals made.

Empower your Staff. While their main role is not to sell rooms (although staff members are potentially your hotel’s greatest ambassadors), they can upsell. Whenever the opportunity arises, your front desk staff should have the knowledge and freedom to offer room upgrades – the suite with the oceanfront view, the room with the king size bed or garden terrace – for a suitably enticing price.

Welcome Pets. More and more people desire to travel with their pets, especially dogs. This is particularly important for guests travelling within a 300-kilometre radius. These are the clientele who are most willing to pick-up-and-go for a weekend (or even mid-week) getaway, and they’re more likely to embrace spontaneity if they do not have the added complication of finding care for their four-legged family members. Need more incentive? It’s likely you can charge extra for a pet-friendly room. Here are some considerations for accepting four-legged guests.

Offer Discounts when Appropriate. Discounts have a time and place, but they should be offered for a reason. Guests become irritated when they discover that they could have found a reduced rate through another website or if they had waited longer to book. However, there are ways to offer discounts fairly and effectively. Consider offering discounted rooms for extended stays, for repeat customers, and for referrals.

If you offer discounts too frequently and without a specific purpose, you run the risk of having discounted room rates become your regular rates, which means your revenues will decrease, you will no longer be able to offer a high level of service, potentially driving away repeat customers. It’s a trajectory you do not want to instigate. When facing a slump, it’s natural to think ‘let’s try lowering prices,’ especially if other hotels are doing so. However, it’s best to maintain your rates, maintain your service, and return to the foundational questions: Who are you as a brand? What do you do well? Who are your ideal guests? What do they most desire? The answers to these questions will help you build packages, market your assets, tweak services, enhance communication with the public, and ultimately, sell rooms without slashing prices.