According to online expert Magnus Hultberg from the restaurant reservations service Livebookings, the priorities when taking your hospitality business online are: create a website with the right kind of content; make sure your website can be found in internet searches; build a customer database; and engage with your customers regularly, e.g. via e-mail newsletters.
There are some basic free tools to help you achieve these goals, but you if you’re going down the freebie solo route, you can’t avoid the cost in terms of the time it will take you to research the tools, and set up and maintain your online presence.
How to create a website
With a small budget, around £500 to £1000, you can opt for custom designs to create a bespoke site where you still manage all the content yourself, for example using the Wordpress tool.
With a larger budget at your disposal, you can contact an agency to build your website for you. For example, Engage Interactive, Ignite Hospitality and Evolving are amongst the many agencies with experience building websites and online marketing strategies for businesses in the hospitality sector.
What content to include in your website
Your website needs to be clear, informative and easy to navigate. People will usually visit your site for basic information on location, prices, menus, special offers, contact details and online booking – so make sure these are easy to find.
Above all, avoid cumbersome flash animation that slows down the website and prevents customers from getting immediate access to what they came to find.
Also remember that you’re missing an opportunity if you spend time and money on a website but don’t provide an option to convert browsers into customers by allowing them to book online. According to Livebookings, which handles online reservation systems for restaurants, many of their clients take as many as 60 per cent of their pre-booked reservations online.
Here’s a fun and accurate guide to what people want from a restaurant website.
How to get your website noticed by search engines
When you’re creating and maintaining your website, you need to make sure you flag it up in the right way so it’s easily found when people conduct internet searches.
Although this is a vast area that online marketers are continually learning more about, there are several key things you can do yourself to increase your chances of being found online.
1) Include the right keywords in the text on your website. For example, if you’re a B&B in Cornwall, make sure the keywords ‘B&B’, ‘Bed & Breakfast’ and ‘Cornwall' appear repeatedly on your site, including any other words that describe what you’re offering. This means that anyone entering those terms into a search engine will have a chance of coming across your site.
2) Make sure that other websites link to your site. The more ‘incoming’ links you have, the more important your site will appear to a search engine. The easiest way to get started is to make sure your business has a page and link on various listing or review sites, such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google Places, Qype, and Bookatable.
3) Regularly update the content on your website; constantly changing content gives search engines a reason to come back. A simple way to go about this is to publish a regular blog about things that attract the people likely to book at your restaurant, pub or hotel. This could be recipes, information about seasonal ingredients, local attractions etc.
How to build a customer database
Customer data is indispensible to encourage loyalty and repeat visits. The more data you have on your customers the better, as you can make sure you meet their needs and make them feel special. For example, by offering them a surprise birthday deal, or remembering their favourite dish or preferred room when they return.
But as a starting point, you should at least collect names and e-mail addresses. Give customers a quick form to fill in when they pay the bill, or add a form to your website inviting people to sign up to your newsletter. Keep it simple or people won’t bother filling it in, and also offer some kind of incentive to signing up, such as monthly prize draws or regular discounts.
If you have an online reservation form, then this will also automatically capture the customer’s details.
How to send regular newsletters
So once you’ve built up your customer database, what do you do with it? The key is to keep customers engaged, remind them you’re around, and incentivise them to return.
One way of doing this is via a regular e-mail newsletter, but make sure you don’t send this too frequently or customers will feel bombarded. For example, once a month is a good maximum to work with.
The content in your newsletter should also be interesting and relevant. No one will open your newsletters if they don’t feel there’s anything useful that you have to say to them. Examples of content could include your latest offers and deals, your new menu or a summary or your latest blog posts.
You can then use a variety of free e-mail sending tools, such as MailChimp or Constant Contact, to send out your newsletters. Be aware that these tools will generally start charging once you reach a certain volume of e-mails.
How to track your website’s performance
You can use a basic tracking tool to help you analyse how your website is used, which will in turn help you understand how to improve it.
Google Analytics is probably one of the most common such tools, and is free to use.
A small tracking code is inserted into every page on your website, and data of visitor behaviour is collected. You can then see things like how many people arrive daily at your site, how many pages they look at, how long they spend on the website, and how they found your website.
Understanding this behaviour will help you see where you’re going wrong. For example, if people leave your site soon after they arrive there, you know that you’re not capturing their interest with your content.
You’ll also be able to analyse which keywords people search for that send them to your site, and start modifying your website’s text to ensure those words are more prominent.
For more information on how to use the tool, see Google Analytics Help.
As always, the free solution can be upgraded with a small budget. For example, you could pay an agency to track your site’s performance and ensure that your goals are being met, e.g. encouraging bookings or newsletter sign-ups.
With more budget you could opt for a complete professional package and ask an agency to enhance your website’s content, improve Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and conversion to turn more visitors into reservations.
For more in-depth information on taking your business online, see Livebooking’s free guide to online marketing and its blog on online marketing, as well as BigHospitality’s Online Marketing feature.