The Art Of Converting OTA Guests Into Direct Bookers
By Stuart Butler Chief Operating Officer, Fuel Travel | October 27, 2019
Let me start by saying that Online Travel Agency websites get a bad rap. They actually play an important role within the hospitality ecosystem. I don't buy in to the sensational narrative that demonizes OTAs as a parasite that erodes the profitability of hotels. Especially the notion that the duopoly of Booking Holdings and Expedia Group is too restrictive. They are only as restrictive as your distribution strategy allows them to be.
Having worked with hundreds of independent hotels for almost two decades, I have come to appreciate the value that OTAs provide and also learned to recognize the mistakes that far too many properties make when dealing with these behemoths. For the majority of my clients, the property is in control and dictates the terms of the relationship. Unfortunately, the same can't always be said for the industry at large.
The truth is that OTAs, when used correctly, are invaluable as a part of a broader distribution strategy and they should be an essential part of your marketing mix, regardless of your property size, location or category.
Unfortunately, the negative sentiment that has begun to surface over the last few years is resonating with a lot of people because they are feeling the pain caused by an over-reliance on OTAs.The reality is that this is typically a self-inflicted problem caused by a lack of focus or a foolish strategy.
When you lean on OTAs too much, they appear to be too powerful because you begin to fear what would happen if you lost the business that they generate. And, to be frank, it would hurt if you were to completely turn away from OTAs because they can help you find guests that would be unattainable otherwise.
Because of their size and authority, OTAs tend to dominate organic search results for broad keywords in any given destination. This means that OTAs are reaching an audience at the very top of the travel research funnel. It's unrealistic to think that every independent property can accomplish the same visibility, so this is a prime example of how OTAs can help a property reach an audience that it may miss out on through individual marketing efforts.
I am not a fan of the fact that OTAs are in the habit of wielding their massive advertising budgets to saturate the channels where consumers tend to do their research,I especially dislike the practice where OTAs bid on the property's brand keywords within Google. Regardless, I don't believe that it's an insurmountable problem.
It's time for the industry to realize that we're in control of our own destiny and implement a proven marketing strategy that not only maximizes the number of direct bookings that a property is driving through their own website, but also a strategy that uses OTAs for their intended purpose - to find new guests.
A good friend of mine and the host of the amazing 'Thinks Out Loud' podcast, Tim Peter, always says that properties should absolutely rely on OTAs to find and book new guests, but that if the same guest books with you through an OTA the second time, then you're doing it wrong. I couldn't agree more.
In a recent article for the Hotel Business Review, I discussed ways to compete against the OTAs to drive more direct bookings. The reality is that, despite your best efforts, you will inevitably still get some bookings through these third-parties. That's not a bad thing. In this article I want to take a slightly different approach and discuss some of the best ways that your hotel can turn that first time OTA guest into a direct booker the next time they want to stay with your property.
Keep in mind that you, as the property, have a massive advantage over the OTAs when it comes to developing and nurturing a relationship with the guest. The entire relationship between the OTA and the guest exists online, whereas you have the distinct privilege of actually hosting the guest and the opportunity to build a real and meaningful relationship by the way that you interact with the guest both online and on property. Despite the OTA's best attempts to infiltrate more and more moments deeper in the travel experience funnel, the property is still very much in control and should take advantage of this fact at every opportunity.
Below are some areas where the property can implement processes and tactics that not only ensure that the guest who booked via an OTA actually wants to visit you again in the future, but also dramatically increases your chance of gaining that next booking via a direct channel.
It starts by having a solid plan in place to set yourself up for success. There are four key areas in which you need to get it right.
Offer Clear Value For Booking Direct
This should be standard practice for every property. It's not just good enough to hope that a guest wants to book direct with you, you have to provide them with a "why". Assuming that you are offering the same public rate across all of your distribution channels, there are still many opportunities to offer incentives such as a discounted member rate, faster wi-fi, free parking, discounts to on-property food and beverage outlets, early check-in, room upgrades, or a fancy welcome gift.
Given that you'd be spending 15%-25% on commision for a third-party booking, consider the investment of offering these perks a sound business decision.
Collect Guest Data At Every Opportunity
The OTAs have a strong incentive to want to control the relationship. This is one of the reasons why they are reluctant to hand over the guest's contact information to the property. You should make it your mission to try to obtain the guest's email address and phone number and any other personal information, at every possible opportunity. This could be by sending a pre-arrival email to the vanity email address that the OTAs so generously create for you, asking for them to provide you with the data. It should also be a practice at check-in to ask for the information in order to better serve the guest. The vast majority of people will give you the information if you ask, if they trust you, and if they feel like there is some value for doing so.
Ensure That The Guest Has a Great Experience
It doesn't matter how good your plan is to get a guest to book direct as opposed to using an OTA the next time they stay if there isn't going to be a next time. One of the mistakes that hotels sometimes make is to treat OTA guests like second-class citizens. This practice, whereby OTA guests are made to feel bad for their decision or forced to endure the worst room in the house is a sure-fire way to lose their business for ever. Instead, focus on giving OTA guests the same amazing experience that you would for each and every guest.
Nurture The Relationship By Developing a Communication Strategy That Educates and Inspires
All long-lasting relationships are built on a foundation of good communication. None more so than the relationship between the host and the guest. It begins by ensuring that the guest feels appreciated, feels welcome, and feels special. You can then move on to educating the guest on how to maximize the experience with you and making it easy for them to do so. I recently wrote a blog post that outlined many of the types of messages that you can send to a guest throughout the travel journey and it illustrates the many opportunities you have to develop a relationship between the property and the guest that is mutually beneficial.
One key to creating an affinity between the guest and your property is to train your staff well. Ensure that every single team member knows the value of building strong relationships with each and every guest and that they exemplify the spirit of hospitality at every given opportunity.
Once you have the framework for success, you can get more detailed with your approach. Here are some specific areas where you and your staff can influence the guest's future decisions.
Set The Tone From The Moment of Booking
As soon as the booking comes in, and assuming is through a third-party who provides you with a method of communicating with the guest, send them a welcome message. This message should focus on sharing their excitement and anticipation for the upcoming trip and should set the tone for the relationship hereon in. A good practice is to introduce the guest to the property, and even introduce the GM or a specific staff member. The objective is to get the guest to start thinking about their relationship with you and not their relationship with the OTA.
This may also be your first opportunity to ask the guest for an email address or a phone number in case you need to contact them prior to their stay. If you don't want to do this in your first message, maybe send a helpful pre-arrival message that offers information on the check-in process, and what to expect. During this message, you could ask for contact information by providing a way for the guest to pre-register and expedite the check-in process, or you could promote the property's mobile app, which will give you another opportunity to communicate with them via push-notifications.
Give Them a Warm Welcome
As with all guests your staff should show the guest how delighted they are to have the opportunity to host the individual at check-in. This is the second, and perhaps best, opportunity to gain contact information from the guest.
Begin The Education Process
Check-in is also the appropriate time to introduce the concept of booking direct. Often times, the guest neither knows nor cares that there is a difference between booking on the hotel website vs. via an OTA. Be sure not to shame the guest or make them feel bad. Simply let them know that they get benefits when they do book direct and, perhaps, offer some or all of the benefits to the guest this time as a gesture of good will but ask them if they would please book directly with the property in the future. You don't need to get into specifics of how it benefits the property, but it doesn't hurt to let them know that it does. More importantly, you want to plant the seed in the guest's mind that it's in their interest to book direct next time.
Don't Let Them Leave Unhappy
A good rule of thumb is to touch base with the guest during their stay. Depending on the length of the stay, you can do this multiple times. A courtesy call or text message on the day of arrival to ensure that everything is satisfactory can help you head off any looming problems and also give the guest a method to reach out in the event that something does go awry. Additionally, sending a mid-stay satisfaction survey can also provide you with an opportunity to deal with any problems before the guest leaves the property. Not only does this help with your online reputation by reducing negative reviews, but it also shows the guest that you care about them and, if handled correctly, can nurture a closer and tighter relationship between the property and the guest.
Thank Them For Their Business
You should show appreciation for all guests after their stay but this is especially important for first-time OTA guests. In the message, acknowledge the fact that you're glad that they found you and trusted you with their travel decision via the OTA and again remind them that they can have an even better time and that you can serve them even more effectively in the future if they choose to book via your website or your call-center.
In some cases, you may even want to sweeten the pot by giving them an exclusive offer to save even more on their next stay if they book direct. This may cost you a little in the short-term, but once you've broken the habit of booking via an OTA, it will be a lot easier to keep them coming back via direct channels.
Keep On Trying To Win Them Back
You'd better believe that once the stay is over that the OTAs will be bombarding the guest with promotions for them to book their next trip. The OTAs don't care whether they stay with you again next time, they only care that they book via their channel. This is where you need to really begin competing head to head with the OTA for the attention of the guest.
One approach that has yielded a lot of success for my clients who are in seasonal destinations is to proactively send out a triggered and personalized message to the guest 30-days prior to the anniversary of when they booked their last trip. The message should again sell the value of booking direct and should make it as frictionless as possible for the guest to make their plans. Show them rates for similar dates and the same room from their previous stay and give them the ability to jump right into the booking process.
In addition to doing this electronically, many of my clients will make the extra effort of having a reservationist reach out via an outbound phone call. The approach should be the same and should combine reinforcing the value proposition of booking direct with the convenience of making the next booking. Again, it may be a good idea to offer an additional discount if they act within a specific timeframe.
The goal of this outbound approach is to short-circuit the typical travel research behavior and to get the guest locked in before they have a chance to be exposed to your competition and the OTAs by performing a Google search. Keep in mind that you won't be successful with all of your guests, so you should also continue to ensure that your branded website is visible on every major channel. This includes bidding on your brand within Google Ads and participating in Google Hotel Ads and TripAdvisor's myriad of advertising opportunities.
A recent leisure travel study revealed that 87% of travellers will visit the hotel website at some point prior to making a booking, regardless of whether they end up booking direct or via a third-party. For this reason, it's also important that you always prominently promote the value proposition of booking direct. This will help you win both first-time and repeat bookers alike.
While OTAs aren't evil meanies who are destroying the industry, anyone with any common sense will agree that it's better for the property and the guest if the booking is made through the brand's owned channels. With a little effort and thoughtfulness, the OTAs can be reduced to a bit-part player in the overall hospitality ecosystem.
The OTAs do have an important role to play within your property's overall distribution strategy, but when you don't try your best to win over the hearts, minds, and wallets of your guest, you give the OTAs too much control over your profitability and your long-term chances of survival.
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