According to a Hospitality Asset Managers Association report published in August, the cost of acquiring customers is now increasing faster than hotel profits. With 30 per cent of all hotel bookings made through Booking.com, it would be easy to blame the OTAs for that increase.
Hotel Football’s Stuart Procter explained that OTAs are unavoidable in today’s marketplace: “You’re kidding yourself if you think that you’re going to target everyone without OTAs. You only need to give them three rooms per night but it will give you brand awareness that sales people in your team can’t achieve. Once you’ve got customers into your hotel, you need to meet them to make sure they never book through OTAs again, but people are naive if they think they can challenge lastminute.com and laterooms.com.”
However, there are things independent hoteliers can do to increase direct bookings. According to Jarrang managing director Stafford Sumner, OTAs are “necessary evils” - very valuable when managed correctly, but taking high commissions.
“Smart direct marketing will not eradicate that, but can reduce it. It’s all about configuring costs correctly to maximise returns - you can use things like search engine marketing including pay per click (PPC), and email marketing, which is very cost-effective and great to convert OTA business into repeat direct business,” he said.
Alan Rowe, managing director of Aro Digital Strategy, encouraged hoteliers to use the data that is readily available online: “What I love about the internet is that it is transparent. PPC is very measurable and has a place, and once you know the return you can use it very well. Affiliate programmes are also great, but my favourite one is email marketing to build up a relationship and loyalty.”
Email may have been overlooked with the rise of social media as a marketing channel, but hoteliers need to remember that 58 per cent of all booking traffic still comes from emails.
“The key is to know how to use your channels efficiently: Emails are very good for starting conversations, but not as good as social media to continue them. You can start a campaign on email, and continue it on other channels,” said Fiona Robson, managing director at email marketing company Rocketseed UK.
One thing hoteliers cannot afford to overlook is mobile marketing. According to Frank Reeves, CEO of Avvio, mobile visitors represent 50 per cent of all visitors to a hotel website, making mobile communication “a potential game-changer”.
Robson reminded hoteliers of how important it is to make emails mobile-friendly. “Reading emails is the number one activity people do on their mobiles. We snack on that content while waiting in a queue - but 70 per cent of emails that are not mobile-formatted are deleted.”
She pointed to other opportunities to improve guest experience through mobile, such as reminding them of check-in times, or allowing them to order drinks to the pool through an app.
Operators should be careful about how they build their mobile-responsive website. “Some people build a responsive design that works for tablets but not for mobiles, and you will be disadvantaged on Google ratings if you have too many different designs, so there’s a challenge there,” said Rowe.
He also urged hoteliers not to make their mobile-friendly site just an optimised version of their desktop site to maximise marketing opportunities, particularly with more calls to action to facilitate mobile bookings.
“Mobile booking engines can lead to a huge increase of business, as long as they’re efficient,” he added.
Whichever channel they use, hoteliers should ensure they provide relevant content for their customers, in order to build loyalty.
“OTAs can sell prices, but customers are looking for that advice they can get from the general manager; that’s what you can push through your marketing and direct conversations. Talk to them as individuals, and push through all channels,” said Sumner.
Procter explained: “Loyalty is about knowing your clients. It’s so simple: go talk to your clients, find out what they want and need and make them feel special. We spend all this money on marketing and travelling the world, but if you don’t talk to clients there will be no loyalty.”
Rowe added that some of his company’s clients achieved 40 to 50 per cent of direct bookings, and that they all have the same attitude. “Their pattern is that they really believe in and understand how to manage their time and know how to push and control marketing. If you really want to make this work you have to commit to it.”