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For years, the travel industry’s largest players have urged travelers to book directly. But smaller players have often lacked the know-how to do the same. Recently, tech vendors have debuted tools that strive to level the playing field for tours-and-activities operators and for smaller hotel companies.

Look at the tours and activities sector first. For years, well-capitalized tours and attractions operators have bought display and video ads programmatically. “Programmatic” is a wonky term that means they use software to target consumers based on internet-browsing behavior.

Programmatic is a foreign notion for many local sightseeing and experience operators. While anyone can buy ads on Facebook and Instagram, few mom-and-pop operators know how to coordinate campaigns across different digital channels to build brand awareness cost-effectively.

Sojern, a travel-focused ad tech firm, will debut this week a subscription-based direct marketing service. The tool can help smaller operators run coordinated digital ad campaigns

“A lot of small operators are super-passionate about the experience they deliver, but they’re not experts at digital marketing or technology,” said Noreen Henry, Sojern’s chief revenue officer. “We can help them with creative, for example. If they provide us the visuals, we can help optimize the marketing message by testing different messages over a few months using A.I. [artificial intelligence].”

Sojern pinpoints travelers who have booked travel online to an operator’s city and are looking for something to do. Operators worldwide can use Sojern’s tools to sync and optimize their digital campaigns.

To be sure, large operators like the San Diego Zoo, Dollywood Theme Park
, and the Kennedy Space Center have run direct marketing campaigns via Sojern for years. What’s notable is the new subscription model starts at $300 a month, which may be more affordable for smaller players. Sojern has also designed the service to be intuitive enough for non-techies to grasp.

Driving travelers to your site only works, of course, if you have a booking engine on your site to accept reservations.

One provider of booking engines for tours and activities, Xola, has integrated with Sojern’s system. Xola has always tracked every booking from every source, whether it’s online or over the phone or a walk-up. But Xola’s integration lets Sojern credit if a buyer had been seen a specific marketing campaign.

“This partnership lets a tour operator track their return on ad spend, meaning they can know what the value of a click on ad was by tracking it down a booking pathway to the checkout,” said Xola CEO and co-founder J. Scott Zimmerman.

Sojern’s package for smaller operators is incomplete, lacking support for search engine marketing. But that’s in the works, the company said.

Hotels Can Milk Google for Direct Bookings

Large hotel groups have run noisy direct marketing campaigns in recent years. But smaller hotels in Europe and Asia have struggled.

Direct bookings may be harder for smaller hotels and hotel companies to attract than for larger ones.

Between 2014 and 2018, direct online bookings shrunk from 27 percent to 21 percent, according to a survey of about 600 small-to-midsize hotel clients by D-Edge, the hospitality tech service owned by Accor.

One key competitive disadvantage for smaller hotels has been in search engine optimization.

Until recently, when users entered search requests, Google fetched answers that favored sites it sensed had “authority, relevance, and trust.”

But last October, Google tweaked its methods to better grasp the context of what users are searching for and make inferences about their intent. Google called this “one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of search.”

Overnight, companies that had been gaming Google’s results with search engine optimization techniques based on the old approach saw the value of their efforts reduced. Headline losers included Expedia Group and Tripadvisor.

Smaller hotels can take advantage of the newer, more level playing field by optimizing their pages for so-called intent-based searches. Companies like Pegasus, NextGuest Digital, and WIHP are some of the tech providers who say they can help hoteliers receive more search referrals and convert more users because they use the latest best practices.

Hotels Using Visuals to Boost Direct Bookings

One counter-intuitive source of direct bookings is from the so-called billboard effect, where consumers learn about hotels while shopping on third-party sites like Expedia or Booking.com and then sometimes choose to book directly. Studies at Cornell University and elsewhere suggest that direct bookings increase by 8 to 26 percent when all online channels present a hotel’s information in the same, accurate, vivid way.

“Hoteliers spend a lot of time updating their hotel information across channels,” said Jana Friedel, a business development executive at Giata, a Berlin-based hotel tech firm. “Often, it is very tedious to find out who is distributing what info.”

This month, Giata has launched a tool that shows a hotelier in one dashboard how various online channels present their property’s images and descriptions.

Imagery and content are critical for both direct and indirect distribution, as Shiji, the Beijing-based hospitality tech company, underlined last year when it acquired IcePortal, a firm that helps hoteliers manage the digital imagery of their properties and display them right on distribution partners like online travel agencies.

Hotels Using Packages to Boost Direct Bookings

Another non-obvious way for hotels to attract more people to book on their branded site is to offer sales of vacation packages.

In the past five years, many independent hoteliers have been installing booking engines from companies like Avvio, Amadeus’s TravelClick, Accor’s D-Edge, Roiback, and Sabre’s SynXis.

But these tools don’t combine hotel stays with flights, activities, or airport transfers. Selling packages can make for a “stickier” site experience and inspire “lookers” to become “bookers.”

A new widget that hoteliers can add to their sites to enable vacation package bookings comes from Destinia, one of Spain’s five largest online travel agencies, which recently branched into offering business-to-business services.

Hotels that already give guests the option to book a room can now add the option to buy a room-plus-flight package instead. Destinia services the flight booking on a white-label basis.

Users of other booking engines can add Destinia’s booking engine as a separate, complementary tool. The approximately 2,000 hotels who use Roiback’s booking engine, in particular, can add Destinia’s new solution in a faster way thanks to the integration, said Managing Director Ricardo Fernández.

Broader Trend?

Vendor efforts to make tools available to smaller travel companies holds promise.

“Travel is one of the top three industries in something like 80 percent of developing countries, and it’s absolutely a democratizing sector,” said Zimmerman of Xola.”

“In developing countries, you typically have petroleum, natural resource extraction, and other oligopoly businesses controlled by the elites on the one hand, and then you have tourism, which lets you start a business without much formal education or capital,” Zimmerman said. “I find it inspiring to build technology that helps empower these small businesses.”

Photo Credit: An image of a zip-line "forest flight" tour across Redwood trees run by Sonoma Canopy Tour, an operator that uses Xola as an online booking service. Smaller tour operators and hotels have lacked the tools to grow the direct share of their online bookings, but tech vendors like Xola aim to fill the gap. Sonoma Canopy Tour