As we all know, Expedia, Priceline, Hotwire and other online travel agencies (OTAs) are extremely valuable resources for keeping rooms filled. But how do hotel operators keep them from cannibalizing business from customers that might have booked direct in the first place? This is one question I hear all of the time from companies that call me for advice on hotel automation systems.
Most OTA agreements require that hotel operators not advertise room rates for lower than what is listed on their websites. Fortunately, we worked with Revenue Matters and other marketing experts to discover five ways hotel operators can bring customers back to booking direct, without conflicting with their OTA. Here’s a summary of each:
1: Offer Deals to a Limited Audience
Parity agreements prevent hotels from offering discounts publicly. However, this restriction doesn’t apply to those offers hotels distribute to a limited audience. You can send a discount code to your Facebook fans, for example, or to customers who’ve opted into your email list.
2: Offer Value-Add Packages and Other Add-Ons at a Discount
Rate parity only applies to offers for the exact room advertised on the OTA. This doesn’t prevent you from packing that same room with other services for a value that is overall a better deal than what’s on Hotwire, Priceline, or where ever. You could, for example, package a room with drink tickets and a shuttle ride to an event happening that weekend and provide savings that equate to more than what is on the OTA. Other Add-ons could include parking, wi-fi or a discount for room service.
3: Create a Thriving Customer Loyalty Program
One of the best ways to cut the OTA out of the picture is to leverage your past guests. Anyone who stays at your hotel should be added to your email list for “discounts, offers and other exclusive deals.” This is a list you can email and offer packaged services or other discounted rates “as a thank you for your past business.”
4: Offer Discounts at the Front Desk
In addition to your website, another point of contact with guests you control is your front desk. Here you’re engaging in face-to-face interaction with customers, so give them a reason to use your website instead of an OTA’s. If a guest reserved their room using an OTA, upon check-in you offer them a 10 percent discount off their next stay if they book directly from your website. To cultivate trust, the front desk should also have a sign that prominently guarantees that the hotel’s website will offer the lowest rate. In addition to deals, you could also send newsletters or your latest blog post. The goal is to always keep your property top of mind.
5: Make Sure Your Website Layout Follows Design Best Practices
A marketing channel many hotels seem to give scant attention is right under their own doormat, so to speak—their own website. All too often, hotels ignore the most obvious ways to optimize their site’s user experience. Hotels must make it as clear and hassle-free as possible to book from them, or potential customers will seek out an easier solution.
You have to capture the user’s interest immediately. There should be a call to action, something that says, ‘Book Now!'” She also recommends having a prominently displayed phone number on the site.
Far from being as inviting as their guest rooms, some hotel websites are actually turn-offs. I’ve seen websites that are difficult to navigate, don’t let you book online, or do not list rates.
5: Leverage Online Reviews to Attract Website Visitors
Many times when customers use OTAs, they get a list of five or so properties in a similar price range, which prompts them to visit review sites to see which property other guests have liked the most. This is also your opportunity to draw customers to your own site, rather than having them go back to the OTA to book.
In order to draw Yelp and TripAdvisor users back to your site (instead of to the OTA), hotel operators should respond to every comment users post. For example, if someone comments on how nice the spa was, a hotel could respond by thanking the customer for their feedback and informing them of a new spa package they’re currently offering with bookings through their website. This shows customers you care and are willing to take steps to provide them with more value.
While we’ve illustrated the many ways in which hotels can encourage customers to book through their websites over OTAs, this doesn’t mean that hotels should think of OTAs as their enemy—quite the contrary, in fact. “Embrace your OTA market manager,” says Trevor Stuart-Hill, president of Revenue Matters. “You may be surprised at the latitude that is afforded you.”
The bottom line is, you should have a strategy for compelling customers to book directly through your own website or phone lines, but it’s still wise to work with your OTAs to devise a marketing strategy that optimizes sales across every channel.
Ashley Verrill has spent the last six years reporting and writing business news and strategy features. Her work has been featured or cited in Inc., Forbes, Business Insider, GigaOM,CIO.com, Yahoo News, the Upstart Business Journal, the Austin Business Journal and the North Bay Business Journal, among others. She also produces original research-based reports and video content with industry experts and thought leaders. Alan S. Horowitz contributed to this report.