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Industry Insight: Boosting your direct bookings

Jerome Smail 17 April 2015

Paul Liascos ReachLocal (1)By Paul Liascos, UK managing director at ReachLocal

Online booking agents have become a fact of life and indeed helped many through tough times. Most hotels have a website but find that when they put their hotel name into a search engine they often do not even appear on the first page of results, because of the dominance of the booking agents.

As the online booking agents grew, they began to introduce full search and reservation systems, completely bypassing the hotel, with the result that customers became more loyal to booking sites than the hotels they stayed in! Furthermore, hotels can now end up paying commissions of over 20% per booking, taking a big chunk of their margin.

Online booking agents are useful in making sure distressed room inventory is utilised, but all hotels would prefer to boost their direct bookings so that fewer rooms are released to these agents, creating more certainty, higher profits and building a closer direct relationship with customers.

The key to this is not just the pricing and quality of your rooms, but whether anyone finds you online in the first place – and that means taking control of your online marketing to outmanoeuvre the agents. In our experience, taking control of your online marketing can reduce the cost of a booking from a typical 20-30% to between 1% and 5%.

Search engine algorithms use a whole variety of factors, all weighted differently to decide which site appears where in their listings. Here are some tips on the areas you should look at to push your hotel up the rankings, get noticed and boost your direct bookings:

Have a well-designed, smart website
The most important thing to remember – a website represents your property to rest of the world. Over 60% of customers that cannot find the information they are looking for on a website leave without taking further action. Get your website right and you will see a huge uplift in bookings and revenue. It has to: be well designed; explain your rates and facilities; have visible contact information throughout and be mobile friendly. Given that an increasing number of consumers now access the web on mobile devices such as smartphones (68%) and tablets (40%), you must be able to connect with them on the move, through a website that looks great whatever the device make or screen size. Websites that do this now even get preferential organic ranking from search engines.

Content is king
Post fresh and authentic content to your website or social media pages weekly. It doesn’t have to be directly about your business; it could be a related news story, community event or perhaps even a quiz or contest. Integrate your social media into your website and then updating this, updates the website as well! This content will boost your organic rankings in search engines and can be used to promote your hotel through other online channels.

Advertise on search engines
Search Engine Advertising (SEA) offers a way to improve your hotel’s position in search engine results. Companies bid to be linked with search terms and this determines where they appear in the listings, with position determined by a combination of bid value and quality score (a method used to check an ad and landing page are relevant to the viewer). By using advertising tools to monitor the keywords people are using to search with, you can refine your terms, bids and landing pages to get the best results and even match promotional activity such as ‘half-term’ or ‘wedding venue’. You must take time to understand the keywords and search terms by which customers will find you and your competitors. Invest in those with most relevance to your business. Search Engine Advertising is one of the key ways in which using digital marketing can help you outsmart the large online booking agents. Also remember to consider advertising on all the major search engines. In the UK, many searches are on Google, but not all, and Microsoft’s Bing is growing in popularity.

Banner advertising
In the same way that SEA gives you a presence on search engine results, consider using contextual banner adverts. These display on other websites based on what the consumer has been looking at. This offers you the opportunity to create and publish relevant creative material, targeted only at those people looking for hotel rooms or venues.

Monitor your marketing progress
It is important to monitor where customer interest is coming from, which website visits are converting to bookings, and why. It could be advertising, a phone call, a specific search term or promotion, or even how a member of staff dealt with the enquiry. There are tools to help with some of this and a marketing agency can help manage, refine and report on marketing across all channels, even giving advice on staff training by monitoring customer engagement on calls. The important thing is to choose a marketing partner that understands your business and can help you understand the costs and return from your investment in digital marketing.

These are just some of the key components; get them right and your overall performance will increase. Original websites are weighted more favourably than aggregating agents, so the changes have a big impact, boosting your chance of being found and seen online by potential guests. It doesn’t happen overnight but hotels across the UK are taking control of their online marketing and boosting direct bookings. You can join them and move out of the shadow of the agents, cutting your booking costs and reclaiming a direct long-standing relationship with your customers.