The battle of the bookings: How hotels can work with, not against OTAs

The battle of the bookings: How hotels can work with, not against OTAs

As the industry gears up for two major hotel events in the next few weeks, experts have agreed that online travel agents (OTAs) may not be the ‘necessary evil’ they are made out to be, and may actually offer many features designed to help, rather than hinder, hoteliers.

Over the last few years, critics have panned OTAs for their uniformity, relatively high charges and alleged price-fixing, but as BigHospitality finds out ‒ ahead of the Annual Hotel Conference (12 and 13 October) and Independent Hotel Show (18 and 19 October) ‒ in that time the platforms have evolved, expanding their marketing scope and offering more features such as translation services and access to data.

In a panel debate at the 2016 BDRC Hotel Insights conference last month, Julie Fawcett of Qbic Hotels said hoteliers needed to embrace OTAs and let them do the work of bringing the guest to the business.

She says: “We have to change the vernacular around OTAs. They’re powerful and well-funded [and] we do need them to market, especially to reach the international market. I would say, use OTAs for marketing, but once the customer is there, you can gain their loyalty through a direct channel.”

Hayley Lowe, managing director, global industry relations at one of the most powerful OTAs - Expedia – unsurprisingly agrees, but also underlines why it makes sense to use an OTA for the booking process.

“Hotel brands are feeling more pressure to drive direct business and a number of chains have used that strategy, but we think this is damaging for owners,” she says. “The OTA customer is very different to those who book brand-direct. They are younger, brand agnostic and international. Once they have booked those international travelleers are also more valuable as they tend to stay longer and book further in advance.”

Your guests’ booking experience

Converting website visitors – especially those who may have already found your business through an OTA – is about understanding the user experience, and putting yourself in the bookers’ shoes, the BDRC Hotel Insights panel said.

Panellist Ciara Crossan from wedding venue service Wedding Dates agrees that hotel websites needed to be aware of how users were coming to their websites, and what they were looking for when booking direct compared to via an OTA.

This was especially true in the light of recent research showing that younger customers are less likely to be loyal to specific brands, and choose to book based on individual properties themselves.

“These days, hotels need to emphasise the uniqueness of their property. That’s what will get guests booking,” says Crossan.

Sarah Lim, from Google, agrees that the booking experience is key. She says: “It’s in the micro-moments that people are thinking about booking; if they’re waiting in a queue or on a train, dreaming about their holiday or their trip. You have to think about the user journey. Let the OTAs do the initial marketing for you, and then step in. Ask yourself, where do you need to step in on the user [booking] journey?”

Winning websites

Once a hotel has captured business from an OTA, they should then ensure their own website offers a good experience on a par with the experience offered within the hotel itself, according to the panel.

This will encourage guests to return, or ultimately book direct.

Stuart Harrison, of the Profitable Hotel Company, explains: “You may pay 17 per cent [to the OTA] to get customer standing there [in your hotel or on your website], but once the customer is actually there, they’re yours.”

Conversion rates from site views to should be the main objective for hotels, the panel agreed.

This means ensuring that potential customers that see your website, and then go on to book directly through it, without encountering any obstacles or problems along the way.

As Frank Reeves at Avvio, says: “It’s about how well your [website] traffic converts from visitors to bookers. Fix your conversion rates, and that will fix your budget.”

Fawcett agrees, adding: “Traffic on our websites is not the problem. But hotels are rubbish at changing traffic into bookings. There is simple stuff you can do though, such as making it easy for people to book online, and make the experience online as smooth as that in the hotel itself.”

Data capture

Much has been said about ‘owning the customer’ and productively using all the data captured at booking and during a stay.

OTAs, with their widespread investment in technology, can help this. Expedia, for example, now supplies the data it holds to hoteliers, after asking members of their hotelier panel (set up two years ago) what they wanted from the relationship.

“We’re obviously a global business, which means we have a wealth of data at our fingertips,” says Lowe. “In Expedia Partner Central, a hotel can go into the back-end and see things such as how they compare with their competitors. We have a section called ‘who ate my lunch’ where members can see why another hotel was booked rather than theirs. A lot of the data we’re providing can help their business.”

The power of mobile

Bookings from mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, were on the rise, the panel said, especially among Millennials (Generation Y, 18-35 year-olds). Optimising your website for booking via mobile platforms was highlighted as crucial as a result.

The conclusion coincided with the news that Booking.com had launched a mobile-based app, Booking Experiences, in a bid to create a personalised, ‘seamless’ booking process that allows customers travelling to London, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, or Dubai, to book hotels as well as entry local attractions from within the same platform.

However, despite support for the power of OTAs, the panel was still keen to emphasise that a personal experience and emphasising your own brand and customer experience was key.

Lim, at Google, says: “The main advantage you have over the OTAs is the guest experience and the connection with the brand that the guest had once they’ve stayed with you. Satisfying their need is why they pick your brand, so you can’t hand over all your marketing and sales power to the OTAs.”

OTAs and online booking: Top tips for hotels

  1. Embrace OTAs for their increased marketing scope and skills – Like them or loathe them, OTAs have bigger marketing teams and budgets than most small businesses could ever dream of. Use this to your advantage.
  2. Understand that your customers will use OTAs. It’s once they’ve found you that your work can really begin, and step into the booking process from there
  3. Make your own website as easy-to-use as possible. Savvy travellers will use OTAs to search for options, and then may visit your site directly to actually book, or look closer at your offer. An attractive website that emphasises your brand values, shows off your property well, and also makes booking a breeze will convert casual browsers to booked beds.
  4. Optimise your site for mobile. Significant numbers of bookings now come via mobile. According to Google’s Sarah Lim, 40 per cent of visitors will go elsewhere if your site fails to load or work properly within just three seconds, and just one in three of those will ever return to try again.
  5. Seek to capture direct repeat business once a guest has discovered your hotel. Much of this lies in making the direct booking experience as attractive and easy as a stay in your hotel itself, and in showcasing your brand to emphasise loyalty. 

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