Hotel marketers should heed the old adage to not “put all their eggs in one basket” — especially if that basket happens to be their own brand.com sites.

That is, perhaps, the biggest takeaway from a new report from brand engagement firm Sullivan and qualitative research firm 20|20 Research, called “Where They Go. Why They Stay.” The report tracked the individual customer journeys of 25 different people as they researched and ultimately made a decision on where they wanted to stay for an upcoming leisure trip.

Of the 25 respondents, 12 were male, 13 were female, and they lived throughout the United States, with incomes from $60,000 to $125,000 a year. They ranged in age from 27 to 54, and 10 of the 25 also belonged to travel membership loyalty programs. Together, they were each asked open-ended questions and to rank factors that influenced their decision-making process.

Researchers found that, despite hotel marketers’ best efforts to invest in their own brand.com sites and channels, the best return on investment is likely with third-party sites or platforms, and most of all, in search.

Beyond the Brand

“We found that reliance on third-party sites, peer input, and the desire for finding the right fit for a particular kind of trip they were looking to have was crucial,” said Lauren Walsh, Sullivan CMO. “Search is key to everything: Everyone started with searching for a particular type of hotel experience, most of the time, in Google. That was their jumping-off point. If you didn’t make your way into the search results at that point, you didn’t come into play.”

A popular search phrase, Walsh noted, was “hotels near [destination].” And by third-party sites, Sullivan and 20|20 Research found that respondents were looking at a wide variety of sources, as many as 10 to 14 different places, to find what they were looking for, both in terms of information, reviews, and pricing.

One source that was a bit of a surprise, Walsh noted, was Reddit. “Before this, if you had asked me if Reddit is a place people go to for travel advice, I never would have thought to say yes,” she said. People were using Reddit for travel advice and also looking for information on specific neighborhoods, as well.

In addition to Reddit, other likely sources of information used in the decision-making process included online travel agency sites like Expedia, Priceline, and Booking.com, as well as metasearch sites like Kayak and peer review sites.

Most alarming to hotel marketers would be the fact that not a single respondent went to a hotel website to conduct any of their research. And when asked if they were ready to book and where they would book, none said they would book on a brand.com site.

“No one specifically went to a brand and that was unanimous,” said Walsh. “It’s interesting for hotel marketers to understand how much of the decision has moved away from the properties they own and control. They need to think about the moments on third-party platforms that are part of the decision where people choose to stay, and how they can get represented there. How do their messages make it onto third-party sites or channels? How do they use influencers to get their messages across?”

Interestingly, Walsh noted that, in this particular study, only two of the respondents said they would book on a home sharing platform like Airbnb or VRBO.

When it comes to marketing messages related to hotels, what resonated most with travelers was the location of the hotel and the importance of a special experience or particular type of experience (family, romance, adventure, girls’ getaway, etc.).

Hotel marketers, this report suggests, should be paying even more attention to optimizing search than they already are, emphasizing the types of experiences people can have at their hotels, highlighting the uniqueness of those places, and taking a much more multi-channel approach to digital marketing.

Photo Credit: A qualitative research study recently found that hotel websites hardly play a role in the customer decision-making process when it comes to choosing a place to stay on vacation. Sullivan and 20|20 Research