Skift Take

Attaining direct bookings can be a tough fight, especially for independent hotels that tend to operate on tighter marketing budgets than their corporate counterparts. But if the independents get the tactics right, there’s a lot of room for growth.

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The so-called “direct booking wars” have been raging for a while now as corporate hotel brands, independent hotels, online travel agencies, and Google have each tried to push customers to make transactions on their respective online and offline properties to build loyalty and drive revenue.

Independent hotels often have more to lose in these situations due to a lack of corporate backing — especially as Airbnb and VRBO usage creeps into the mainstream and achieves increased market penetration. But because of their inherently lean nature, independent hotels also have more opportunity to make swift moves to align with shifting consumer demands and changes in the market. As Kyle Buehner, CEO of NAVIS explained, “What we have seen is that the best independent hoteliers are driving more direct bookings by connecting all of their systems, aggregating their data, and gaining deeper insight into their guests. They understand that personalization and interacting with their guests on a one-on-one basis drives significantly more direct reservations and increases repeat business.”

Paying attention to growing occupancy and revenue per available room (RevPAR), as well as overall profitability, and focusing not only on online channels, but offline channels as well, can make a big difference when it comes to keeping the customer close. Here, we examined five ways independent hotel owners, general managers, and revenue managers can encourage their customers to book direct.

1. Cater to the End-to-End Guest Experience: In 2017, a report from Kalibri Labs stated, “The success of the book-direct effort — and all future campaigns to drive direct bookings — will hinge on how well hotels can cater to the guest experience.”

For hotels, experience and loyalty are inextricably tied together. Of course, the hotel properties themselves need to offer a next-level product and account for every step of the hotel stay guests may engage with, from the mattresses they sleep on and the food they eat, to the elevator they take to their room and the in-room amenities they’re offered. But every communication touch point must be considered as well, including credit card transactions, booking channels, phone calls, email communications, and in-person interactions with staff. Fortunately, the leaner operations that independent hotels operate within often give them more control of the guest experience and can provide them with greater customization than larger branded properties.

2. Bridge Online and Offline Channels: Digital has completely altered the way guests book their hotel stays, and hotels have put their marketing dollars behind it. But for many hotel properties — especially those that operate as independents — the power of the phone call remains, whether it’s being made through a call center, travel agent, or wholesaler. Phone calls are especially valuable to consumers when making high-ticket purchases — which most hotel stays would be considered — even if the purchase ends up being made online. And in the age of all-things-digital, they’re often overlooked.

As NAVIS stated in its report, “The Owner’s & General Manager’s Field Guide to Direct Bookings,” “voice channel bookings have a higher conversion rate and typically earn two-thirds more revenue than online bookings.” In the report, Mark Bartlett, vice president of sales at NAVIS, said, “I’m surprised when I run across a property that doesn’t include a phone number throughout their website, especially on the booking page. And it happens frequently. Independents and vacation rentals have so many more considerations than a chain hotel …. and often a guest will realize that a phone call, even at the last minute, will help them feel 100 percent confident in their decision.” However, in order to be effective, both offline communication — or specifically in this case, phone reservations — must work in tandem. Messaging must be aligned and clearly integrated.

3. Alleviate Booking Friction: Whether the guest is booking online or via phone reservation, booking friction can negatively impact transaction completion. And as NAVIS explained in its report, limiting the ways guests can book — for example, only offering online booking when they may not yet feel comfortable or certain — is one reason guests often make indirect bookings. “In many ways, properties have undermined their success by attempting to corral the guest into booking on the property website. What guests want are choices for booking. What happens when they are not given options? They go elsewhere, either to another property or an OTA,” the report explained.

For online channels, reducing booking friction means having the tools and messaging in place to address cart abandonment, offer guests click-to-call opportunities, provide them with clear input tools for check-in and check-out dates, as well as allow them to make payments as simple and secure as possible. On the phone, alleviating unnecessary friction means making sure that agents are prepared to quickly answer calls, answer any question a potential customer may have, and take on high call volume patterns.

4. Build Sustainable Loyalty: The NAVIS report stated, “Loyalty can serve as a vital measure of the overall health and potential profitability of the operation.” But all too often, hotels large and small put too much emphasis on loyalty in terms of transactions and discounts. It’s true that repeat customers reduce guest acquisition costs and tend to spend more over time. But nurturing relationships, creating trust, and centering on the segments that are appropriate for your properties — through both guest interactions and technology systems — are key to building loyalty that can be maintained long-term, instead of simply focusing on lowering rates or building loyalty programs to attract new guests that may or may not stick around.

This could mean having a staff member recognize a guest’s name and stay history, rerouting a guest to speak to the same agent he or she spoke to on a previous phone call, or leaving a note in a customer relationship management (CRM) system about a guest’s food and drink preferences. Building a long-term relationship means looking beyond just putting a loyalty program in place. Instead, independent hotels should look deeper into guest engagement, service, trust, and creating memorable moments.

5. Put Metrics Into Play: With the majority of travelers switching between their mobile and desktop devices as they plan a trip, tracking campaigns across channels is no longer a “nice to have,” it’s a “must have.” Measuring how travelers move from online to offline channels and vice versa and then reducing (and tracking) booking friction between the two channels can allow independent hotels to design effective and highly profitable strategies for guest acquisition and limit costs at the same time.

NAVIS’s CRM platform has unique identifiers for every marketing campaign that allow bookings to be tracked across channels. This provides insight into whether conversions for the same campaign differed online and offline, which avenue drove the most booked leads and revenue, and allows for the ability to test different approaches to cross-channel promotions.

The ultimate goal isn’t to drive online bookings over phone calls or phone calls over online bookings. Instead, to encourage direct bookings, independent hotels should aim to meet the guest wherever and whenever he or she is ready to be met.

This content was created in collaboration with NAVIS and published by Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.

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Tags: booking, customer acquisition, customer retainment, guest experience, hotel CRM, independent hotels, loyalty

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