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David vs Goliath: helping independent hoteliers win against the OTA giants

It is commonly known that 80+% of the online travel agency (OTA) industry is owned by two giants called Priceline (who own Kayak and Booking.com) and Expedia (who own the likes of Hotels.com, Orbitz and Travelocity). Together they have put hard-working hoteliers at their mercy, trading reach for high commission fees.  

However, it doesn’t have to be this way for your hotel business. If you could reduce OTA bookings, but increase direct revenues and make additional revenue, would you? We have helped a UK partner of ours reduce OTA bookings by nearly 50%, while increasing direct revenue by 15%, adding an additional £2million to their annual takings. In this article, we will share with you some key insights and actions we used to achieve this.

To start, you need to create a fantastic booking experience for your customer. Callum Donnelly, Digital products director at Etch, said: “It’s no secret that the likes of Booking.com and other OTA giants have armies of UX and development teams at their disposal, creating and optimising a smooth and easy booking experience. This is why the OTAs are winning and it is therefore no longer enough for hoteliers to pass customers to a third party booking provider where the quality and visual style of the user experience is compromised. In our experience, seamlessly integrating the booking provider/s into a booking journey within the hotel website can drive a significant uplift in direct bookings and a reduction in the reliance on OTAs – in some cases we’ve seen the uplift to be as high as 300%”.

So, how can hoteliers take the game to the likes of Expedia and Booking.com when resources and budgets are more limited?

Donnelly added: “We believe it’s about offering customers value and an experience they can’t get elsewhere. In the work we do with hotels, we look to integrate room, table, spa and activity bookings into one single booking journey – effectively everything you’d want to do during your stay booked and arranged in minutes. This is something the OTAs simply can’t do whilst hoteliers may not be able to compete on resources and budgets, they can deliver far greater value to the customer. From the hotelier’s perspective, the cross-sell opportunities this presents and subsequent uplift in table bookings or additional revenue from the little extras such as champagne or chocolates in the room on arrival are commercially beneficial too."

Mike Chart, Lead developer at Etch, has worked with many hotel booking providers including Oracle Opera, ResortSuite, Guestline and Quadranet. He said: “Every hotel is different and the booking providers hotels use vary greatly, however, as long as the booking provider has a good, open API, we are able to undertake an integration of the booking system with the website and create a tailored, seamless and aesthetically pleasing experience for customers”.

Whilst creating a fantastic booking experience for customers requires both a financial and time investment, there are activities hoteliers can be doing to get the ball rolling themselves to build the case for investment. Jamie Heuze, Head of product at Etch said: “One of the things we find most helpful in building the case for investment is to test your existing website and booking journey with real users. Products such as Lookback and What Users Do are hugely helpful user research tools that make understanding how customers use your website and their pain points when doing so quick and easy. Asking just five users to test your website and playing back these findings to your stakeholders can really highlight the need to improve your booking experience and make doing so a no-brainer."

Heuze continued: “Another valuable exercise hoteliers can undertake before engaging with an agency is to clearly identify and define the different customer groups visiting their hotel, what they’re looking for from their visit and how they might best engage them through content or meet their needs via their website. This is the process of discovery we go through at the outset of any project and getting on the front foot of this is always a valuable head start”.

Aside from the armies of UX and development teams that OTAs have at their disposal, they also invest heavily in attracting and retaining the right audience. Fortunes are spent on paid media and organic search, to drive large volumes of traffic to their sites. We appreciate that having the deep pockets that OTAs have is unrealistic for most hotels. We do however have some valuable tools and insights that you can action without having to find large budgets to work with an agency.

Starting with understanding your customer and insights into their behavioural is critically important. We love research tools like Canvas8, which provide you with a deep database of valuable behavioural insight into your customers and gives you a lead on trends and industry analysis. Over 2019/20, we predict that solo travel is going to grow in popularity; achievement travel is one to watch; bite sized holidays are in strong demand and staycations are growing in popularity with our clients’ customers. These are just a few insights pulled out of Canvas8. 

Customer’s behavioural insights play a crucial role in developing the right digital content strategy and proposition for your targeted audience. James Perrin, head of content, at Etch explained that: “to ensure that your digital marketing efforts are effective, OTAs must build a content-first strategy for their owned, earned and paid media tactics to improve conversion rates and direct bookings. You need to understand what makes your customers click, which will help to improve your paid media campaigns, as well as your organic search results.”  

Speaking of organic search, local listings in search engines present a huge opportunity for hotels. To improve organic visibility, local SEO is extremely effective in attracting consumers in the research phase of their buyer journey to your website. Through the use of a journal or local guide section on your website, you can conduct valuable keyword research to discover what your customers are researching in relation to your local area before booking a hotel stay. Answer The Public and the Keywords Everywhere are great free tools you can use to research keywords. After you have an idea of what people are searching for and a list of keywords to target, whether it be “best beaches in {location}” or “things to do near {location}” you can begin to create content which is optimised to target those individuals.

Nine times out of ten, searching for a hotel in a specific location will land you in a localised search engine results page. If you are not optimising your Google My Business listings, you are missing an opportunity. To improve your hotel’s ranking position in the map pack, you need to build your local authority and trust signals, alongside localised content. According to Dean Dowsett, SEO manager at Etch, three of the most important local ranking factors are: 

  1. Review Count - Generate more Google reviews than your competitors
  2. Review score - Aim to achieve an average star rating of above 4.5 or above 
  3. Links – build links from local sponsors, PR, partners, charities, local newspapers & business citations.

The other area of investment that has proved very fruitful, is investing in paid media across paid search and more importantly, paid social. Our favoured platforms are Facebook and Instagram, but we have found success in others a well. Chris Robinson, Paid social media manager at Etch said: “Running general awareness campaigns that drive traffic to the website, that aren't 'hard sell' but give an overview of the experience are really vital. In our experience, you need to run these consistently through the year. For example, you can then run conversion (room booking) ads to people who've visited the site in the last seven days and not booked - you've already warmed up that audience and they are primed to make a booking. Selling the 'experience' is vitally important, and those general awareness ads do that heavy lifting for you. Robinson added: “While we are not largely in favour of offers or discounting as a strategy, we have found offers work particularly well selling to cart abandoners, so that's another really useful thing to get people over the line and converting."

In the battle of David vs Goliath, a combination of a great booking experience, a sound understanding of your target audience and investment in the right marketing channels, will give you a great chance of competing and winning against the OTAs, we do however appreciate that it may take a bit more than a few stones to win!

 

Chris Laas, Head of digital marketing at Etch Group.

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