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Article by Vikram Singh

Is Your Hotel Booking Engine Destroying Your Profitability?

Vikram Singh 16 April 2018
Almost every other day, I see a headline about the latest trend that is going to have a massive impact on hotels and travel. Some might even be worth exploring. However, the fact remains that if your hotel booking engine is hard to use, none of the trends will have any impact on your net operating income and profits.Having worked in hotels most of my adult life, and having traveled extensively, I have vast experience booking rooms every way possible: using phones, travel agents (yes, I am that old), OTAs, and directly from apps. The one consistent problem I find on hotel websites is a disregard for the basic usability principles that form the foundation of an online shopping experience.Let's review the Top Ten hits when it comes to bad booking experiences.1. The One-Hit (One-Screen) WonderLet me take you all the way back to 2004. Booking engines were still in their infancy. That was the year the one-screen wonder was born. It was introduced to independent hotels as the greatest thing since the Beatles arrived in America. The catch? It was a usability disaster.In this type of booking engine, guests were expected to review room photos and descriptions, and select dates, room types, and rates, ALL on one screen!I tirelessly campaigned against this technology back then, but the public relations machine worked harder and had a much broader reach. Their message - "Did you know our one-screen technology allows consumers to make a hotel reservation in one click?" - proved irresistible to many hoteliers. They installed this software on hundreds of independent hotel websites worldwide; each install was followed by a press release full of praise.In 2010, I came face to face with this monster. While stuck at Chicago's ORD airport, I tried booking a last-minute room. But the one-screen booking process took so long, I did not have time to complete my reservation before boarding the flight. The hotel got my booking from my Expedia account. They paid a commission because they had invested in the wrong technology. You can imagine how many other bookings were abandoned on their website and booked through online travel agent (OTA) websites.Of course, the one-screen booking engine was eventually discontinued. But not soon enough. The real economic impact can never be accurately measured. Don't forget: while bad tech was being sold to hotels using gimmicks and press releases, Booking.com and Expedia were making it easier and easier for guests to book a room at your hotel via their own websites.2. Way Too Many QuestionsWhen a guest finally decides to book a room at your hotel, why delay the purchase by asking so many questions? I am on your booking engine, with my credit card/online wallet ready...so why not take the booking as quickly and easily as possible? Remember...there's a good chance I'm at an airport, in the back seat of a taxi, on my limited lunch hour, etc.This is one of the core issues I have with almost all of the mainstream independent hotel booking engines. The number of required fields makes the experience a little too much like an interrogation by a government agency.As recently as 2014, I encountered one of the biggest hotel booking engine horrors of my life. I analyzed an asset and discovered that their booking engine had 43 questions before checkout! Later the same year, I saw this booking engine provider at a hotel tech conference and found out that 1500+ hotels and inns were using that system! I had to leave the exhibition hall and sit outside for a while to recover from the shock.Generally speaking, you need to severely limit the required fields on your booking checkout page. Require only what you absolutely MUST HAVE from your guest before giving them a reservation confirmation."Way too many questions, you must think I trust you."- Future (Jumpman)Next: why use a teeny tiny asterisk for a required field, which then turns into a big red warning when it's not filled out? Clearly indicate required items at checkout; don't make guests go back and repeat steps.Finally: in 2018, do we need a mandatory title field? Do you really need to know if I am a Mr, Mrs, Miss, Dr, HRH, Lord, Earl, Duke, Baron, or Knight? It's awkward and even offensive. People of every gender, class, and profession pay with the same kind of money.Wait, one last thing..I present you with an asterisk to nowhere that cracks me up every time.3. Land of ConfusionThe optimal layout for the checkout process has been mastered by all the major OTAs, like Booking, Expedia and Airbnb. All the hotel technology providers need to do is follow the blueprint. The multi-million dollar investment in UX (user experience design) and usability testing has already been done for us! But instead of following these best practices, many booking engines continue to confuse the guests... resulting in a direct hit to your revenue and profits. Some of these checkout screens remind me of the 1986What is happening here:Useless hotel rate code jargon is likely to confuse your guests.Default setting shows more than one room, even when one room is selected in the date/rate calendar.Odd placement of the "Continue" button in the middle of the layout makes your guest think too hard.Listing amenities during the checkout process is distracting and gets in the way. This info belongs on the rooms page.Four-step checkout? No, thank you.4. Failure to LaunchAccording to research fromGuess what? This group filed for bankruptcy in 2009 due to massive losses in revenue. I am not a detective, but it's elementary that a non-functioning booking engine might have hastened their demise.Here is another example from a luxury hotel brand based in Asia, which has some of the highest ADR rooms in Hong Kong. Every non-responsive session is probably costing them a ton. Luckily for them, they are publicly listed and backed by heavy institutional investors. It's easy to be lazy with other people's money.What happens when your booking engine does not load quickly enough? Here are some possible outcomes:a) The same booking comes in via OTA minus a 15-20% commission.b) The guest books another hotel.c) The guest decides to give up on their trip and stay at home (voted least likely outcome by revenue and digital experts worldwide).A and B negatively impact your revenue, and option C is highly unlikely. One other possible outcome is that the guest calls your hotel reservations line...but kids these days don't talk much on phones. So that outcome becomes less likely all the time.5. Just Plain BrokenEvery now and then I see a hotel asset that is completely failing online. In a time when the majority of bookings are happening online, you have to have a booking engine that works! Here is one that actually showed a System Error right on the checkout screen:This booking engine worked great in some Western US states, but not so much on the East coast or London. It worked in Barcelona, but not Dubai. You get my drift? A shopping cart working part-time is just plain broken. It's crucial to test, test, test, and repeat when it comes to your booking engine. An error message that literally spells out "system error" in red will decimate your brand, guest loyalty, direct revenue, and online marketing efforts.6. Back in BlackBlack is my favorite color. It's good for a lot of things, but not as a background for a hotel booking engine. The top retailers of room nights around the globe (Expedia, Booking, and Airbnb) all use a white background for their ecommerce transactions. When it comes to website conversions, usability is the only thing that matters. In a desire to match the "look and feel" of their website, some hotels are using a dark background for their booking engine, making it really hard for everyone to use.In the example below, selecting dates on a black calendar is really difficult...difficult enough for your guests to give up without completing the transaction. When you highlight dates, nothing happens to show you have done it. There is also a LOT of wasted space, where the booking engine could have displayed useful information. Is this blank space, or is something not showing up against the background? Either way, I'm inclined to run over to Expedia.com and take care of this booking quickly, in a more familiar layout.Solution:8. Blast From the PastIn 2018, there are hotels that still have not integrated a booking engine into their website. If a date search on your website's home page calendar triggers a pop -up window... please stop doing everything else and get it fixed.9. Too Much InformationNobody likes folks who overshare. Why would you share your entire year's business with me when I am just trying to book a room? Are you saving me more searches? Do you want me to change my vacation plan based on your availability? You don't think I can find another place to stay in your town? Are you starting to see my point? Thank you and stop this.10. Do You Even Mobile?Everything I have listed above gets compounded 100X when things move to a small screen. I could load up one hundred screenshots here, but the example below truly captures the struggle hotels have when it comes to mobile revenue and conversions. This hotel has done the unimaginable...served me THREE popups (including one survey and one special offer) when ALL I ever wanted to do was give them my money! This, folks, is the bad mobile booking experience to rule them all.In mobile, you have to do testing. You cannot entirely outsource the responsibility to make sure your booking engine works properly on all the major screens your guests are using. You have to dive into your analytics and then follow up in the real world. One way is to go to your local phone store; time yourself and a bunch of your closest friends to see how long it takes to book a room at your hotel for some random dates. Brace yourself for the outcome!The hotel brand in the example above has over 300 hotels in 40 countries worldwide. You'd think they would have friends to alert them...but guests never do. If you cannot sell them rooms on a mobile device, there are some spectacular mobile booking options available on the Expedia/Booking network that they will end up using.Bonus Tip:The single most amazing mobile experience offered in the travel business is the functionality of the HotelTonight app. If you have not tested it yet, please download the app to see mobile ecommerce done right. Anyone who can take the app experience to the mobile web will be the world's top hotel mobile booking engine.Oh, and my 2014 article still stands...do not sell $7 rooms on HotelTonight.ConclusionOffer protection, kill doubt. In a world of online scams and identity theft, you must make sure that you present guests with a secure and reassuring booking engine. A shady looking booking engine is certain to fail.Make it easy. Most guests will abandon a booking engine that is hard to use while asking for too much personal information. Please note that booking engines and surveys are two very different things. Nobody should ever feel interrogated on your hotel booking engine.There are many places where things can go wrong on your website. But none is more important than your booking engine. It is the core of your direct revenue strategy and deserves your undivided attention.
Article by Vikram Singh

Use Hotel Website Content to Increase Your Revenue

Vikram Singh 24 October 2017
Plenty of attention, and plenty of space, is given to photos and design. Hotel websites have started to look like clones, favoring heavy imagery and very light content; but that is a mistake. Your website is not an Instagram feed with a booking button. If you replace substantive content with photo captions and a parade of adjectives like Luxurious!, you are sending up red flags. Instead of giving a detailed description of your offering, you are just using generic marketing terms, which online consumers are too savvy to believe. And, by providing very little information that guests can use during the travel planning stage, you are sending your potential guests to other hotel websites or OTAs to get the information they need.It's your hotel content's job to build trust, answer questions, and capture your guests' attention. Good content will not only attract new visitors but also keep them on your website. The longer you can hold a visitor's attention and answer their questions, the more likely they are to book with you.You need more than photos to tell your story, and the time you invest in good content is worth it. Here are some of my top content guidelines for your hotel website.The Need for SpeedGreat content will never get consumed if it does not load quickly. Before you go about improving content, you must take a look at your website architecture and hosting. Your website visitors today are just like Tom Cruise in Top Gun: "they have a need...a need for speed." Google recommends that your web pages load in two seconds. To make this happen, your content delivery process must be highly optimized. This is hard to achieve when you are sharing your hosting environment with hundreds of other websites; and even harder if they also share a clunky agency-backed content management system.Using the right technology for content distribution will make sure all your hard work is served quickly to the desired audiences worldwide. Here are the two fastest ways for you to speed things up: Use a content delivery network (CDN). What's that? Well, it's system of servers (a network) that delivers web content to people visiting your website based on their geographic location. The main goal of a CDN is to solve latency issues. What's latency? It's the delay that occurs between the moment you request a web page until the moment its content appears on your screen. A CDN stores a cached version of your hotel website in multiple geographical locations to reduce latency. Optimize your photos. How can you make your images (and your whole website) load faster? Here are some steps you can follow. Use CSS Effects (gradients, shadows, etc.). CSS animations produce good resolution-independent assets that look sharp at every resolution and zoom level. Use Web Fonts. Web fonts allow you to use beautiful typefaces while preserving the ability to select, search, and resize text. Never encode content as part of an image. This decision doesn't just give you speed, but also represents a significant improvement in usability. Compress images. Don't use higher resolution images than you need; web images can and should be much smaller than images used in print magazines. You should also remove hidden data in your photos (eg, color profiles, geolocation metadata, etc.) Less is more and every byte counts. Also, use vector images vs raster images wherever possible. Vector images are zoom- and resolution-independent, which translates into better speed and usability. Fast load times will make your website visitors happy and drastically increase your chances of converting them into hotel guests.The 5 Fundamental QuestionsI always bring up these questions during my speaking engagements on digital and revenue optimization best practices.These are the five questions your hotel website must answer:Who are you?Where are you located?What do you offer?How are you different?How can I buy, or contact you?Looks like a pretty simple list, right? These are some of the easiest questions to answer for any property. However, somewhere along the way, in the quest for "cutting edge" branding and design, these simple questions are not getting answered. Unanswered questions - confused website visitors - loss of confidence - lack of revenue. Hotel websites are all starting to look the same. One massive image, accompanied by a few bold adjectives that mean nothing to your guests. Of course, these adjectives were highly praised during the "branding meeting." I suspect even a few high fives were involved.Get to the point! Tell guests who you are, where you are located, what are you offering, and how they can buy that or contact you right away. Superlatives and adjectives do not get people to take action. The best home pages drive people further into the website to read more. Relevant content invites people to click deeper. Answering questions = making connections.The Tagline FallacyFrom famous shoe companies (Just Do It!) to folks peddling diamonds (A Diamond is Forever)... everyone loves a good tagline. So why not your hotel? Sounds like a pretty good idea... right? Welcome to the dark and mysterious world of hotel website homepage taglines. Cue in Genesis's Land of Confusion.It's not practical to take a hotel experience and condense it into a few words. Different travelers have different needs. Counting on a few words to be memorable and reflect your brand and build trust and put your website visitors at ease? To quote the late Bill Pullman, "Game over man, game over." Your guests cannot act on something they cannot understand. Remember the core questions I highlighted above? No tagline can do the job of answering them. It's downright impossible.Now try telling that to a marketing agency's "branding guru" and watch the fireworks.Content Cleanup StrategyContent is one of the easiest things to access and repair on a hotel website. (This is especially true if your website is powered by one of my fav content management systems.) Time spent on improving content will generate results for you, if you do the following.Ask yourself one simple question: Would I describe my hotel to a close friend using the words that are currently on my website?Yes: Success, your content is good.No: Write down how you would describe your hotel to someone you know and care about. Then add all the extra information you would be giving them if this was their first time visiting your city from somewhere far away. That is the content your website visitors need.The hardest part for many hotel owners/marketers is realizing that your hotel content should not be about you...it's about your guests and the location they are visiting. Almost all the website content I see on hotel websites is focused on describing the product or experience, instead of highlighting the hotel's location and how guests can best enjoy it. Very few hotels are iconic enough to be a destination. Like Biggie said, never get high on your own supply (ie, don't drink your own Kool-Aid).Formatting for SuccessReadability is your friend when it comes to converting visitors into bookings. When a traveler has over ten website tabs open during the travel research phase, one of the best ways to stand out is to present readable, well-formatted content. Your website visitors are not reading a mid-19th century novel. Remember kids: everybody skims. People only click when something catches their attention or answers a question they are researching. If they don't find what they are looking for quickly, they just bounce off the website.Here's how to keep things readable/scannable:Fonts. Google wants you to stick with a base font size of 16 pixels. I personally prefer larger. (That's partly because I refuse to wear corrective glasses for my failing vision). The cute tiny little font size you are using might be directly contributing to your website bounce rate.Headers and Paragraphs. Don't let your content headers and subheaders become a parking spot for adjectives. These are tools to help make your content scannable and create a typographical hierarchy. Shorter paragraphs with descriptive headers are going to make your content easier to digest.Lists and Bullets. If Buzzfeed has taught us anything...lists work. "If you are looking for clicks, then you must make lists" is something I would say to a classroom of content writers today. (I also know they would all hate me for it!) Bullets, numbering, and bold highlighted content can help you break down large blocks of content into readable bits of information. Think of it like bite-size incentives to read the whole website.The assumption that website visitors will never have time to read anything on your website is a crime. They will make time for your content if you make it easy to read, and convince them bit by bit that your content is worth their time.Using Design to Boost RevenueHow you lead guests through your website comes down to your design and navigation. Great content that cannot be discovered will just perish in the shadows. Many hotel websites with good content lose their guests by using cutesy navigations, drop-downs, and irrelevant calls to action. Competing calls to action (Book Now, Check Rates, Sign Up for Emails) need to be addressed on a page-by-page basis.For those who want to read more about this, check out my guide to hotel website design. Don't design first and then stuff content in there. Design around content and watch your most relevant hotel website metrics point to the sky.Popup InterventionThree words: Don't Use Popups.Check out this banner I was shown within five seconds of visiting a hotel website:The fact that you offer better rates than the OTA's should never be a full-screen popup for someone who is visiting your website for the first time. Instead, let them read your new and improved, content-filled homepage and see what you're about before accosting them with an urgent message.Who Has the Best Content?A question that I get asked all the time is, "So who is doing travel content right?" I really wish I could say the name of one of the big hotel brands. They have been in the travel game for decades and their online content should probably be the best. Unfortunately, that's not the case. A not so little startup founded in 2008 in San Francisco has the best travel content in the game. I am talking about, of course, Airbnb.Hotels thrive when people travel. Shouldn't hotel content be inspiring and encouraging people to travel? Shouldn't your hotel take the lead in answering questions about your location and neighborhoods?One of the best examples of travel content is the Airbnb neighborhood guide that was launched in 2012.Not only do they have excellent content on these pages, but also give the pages extra credibility by adding advice from locals. They feature best-in-class writing with clear-cut titles. And they take the whole thing to a higher level by breaking down the attributes of each neighborhood, and even the moods you are likely to encounter in each location. Check out the killer segmentation matching travelers to their preferences:You would think the big hotel brands would be all over this because they do have the bandwidth and franchise fee revenue to produce this stuff. Instead, we get office desks taken out of hotel rooms and are told to travel "brilliantly."Here's another tip: people love maps! Adding curated maps with comments about different points of interest makes travel planning a breeze. It's amazing what you can create with the Google Maps API. It's in their header, folks: "Build the next generation of location experiences."And let's not forget the quality of the photography being used on Airbnb pages. He is my version of the Friday night lights quote:"Good content. Great photos. Can't lose!"- Vikram SinghToo many hotels are waiting at the bottom of the funnel for revenue to trickle down. Great content is the perfect opportunity to feed the funnel and create demand. Instead of squeezing the life out of a "book direct and save" campaign, how about participating in the guest's travel experience at a much earlier stage?ConclusionGood content is your competitive edge at a time when buying advertising is getting more and more expensive. With so many hotel and OTA websites competing on the web to attract travelers, content can be your salvation. If you have a content-poor, design-rich website, it is hurting your long-term revenue as well as your immediate conversions. On the other hand, the playing field is wide open for your hotel to start filling the travel-planning void. Inspiring and useful content will not only get you new business, but will also help you stand out in a crowd of mass-produced content-free websites. If you are not using content to capture the attention of people interested in your location, neighborhoods, and attractions...someone else will.
Article by Vikram Singh

BookingSuite: A Lesson in Direct Revenue Strategy

Vikram Singh 27 October 2016
William Shakespeare, King LearYour website, booking engine, digital marketing efforts, and revenue management strategy are the pillars of your direct revenue. Viewing them as cost centers instead of investments in your future is the root problem underlying disadvantageous marketing decisions for hotels of all sizes. This cost vs investment approach (looking at departmental budgets instead of overall growth and revenue) is causing hotels to act against their own self-interest; it makes you pick the wrong vendors for wrong reasons.Not to get all Nostradamus on you, but I would like to quote myself from all the way back in 2014:"Ownership of your digital assets is more important than ever before in the history of the lodging business. Who provides your technology and in what format really matters. In this case, if your hotel is using a website made by Buuteeq, your site is now essentially a subsidiary of one of the biggest OTAs in the world."This Is the Checklist You NeedThe fact remains that the majority of hotels and inns worldwide are renting their digital assets; and this is hurting their long-term direct revenue potential. When you make all your marketing decisions on the basis of lowest possible cost, your long-term profitability will suffer.If you're ready to take control, here's a five-step checklist to get you back on track.Website. Pick any designer/website vendor in the world... but build and power your website using WordPress as your CMS. It is always the right time to start running and managing your most profitable digital channel using open source technology.Search Engine Optimization. Google is all about website speed, health, usability, and useful content. There are no secret algorithms that any agency has in place to tackle this. You can read in detail here how search engine optimization has changed for the hotel and travel industry over the years. Staying with a vendor because they are good at SEO and "keyword rankings" is like investing in the stock market using a psychic as your portfolio advisor.Pay Per Click. Here is some detail on why PPC is one of your most powerful marketing tools. Pick any vendor you like as long as you use your own credit card to pay Google directly and own your AdWords account. Yes, you should own your AdWords campaign so that you maintain control of your history and retain the quality score built over years of spending and testing. That way, when your vendor wants to peace out on you (example: what BookingSuite is doing now), it won't be a big deal. You will have to find a new vendor; but you will not have to start from scratch again.Social Media. Make sure the ownership of all of your social media accounts stays with you. Use your email address, and not a vendor's. This includes Facebook and all other social media marketing campaigns that you are currently running.Analytics. Stick with Google Analytics. Here is a detailed article on staying away from expensive solutions designed with agencies in mind. When working with Google Analytics, always set it up with a Gmail address that you own. You might have several vendors working on your account with access to the same data. But they shouldn't control the account. Avoid the headache hotels experience every day when the vendor who owns their analytics account decides to walk away, taking years of website data with them.Here is a detailed guide on managing all your digital assets. Successful hotel and travel marketing departments own and continually build on their marketing and digital assets. Just like you would not build a hotel on land that you do not own (or lease for a long time), your online assets should not be built in someone else's proprietary digital environment. Of course, you will always need someone to help you maintain your hotel/home. But you don't have to give someone the deed to the house in exchange for making sure the plumbing is working. *mic drop*ConclusionPeople I have worked with over the years know that I do not believe in declaring "wars"; I believe in making revenue. The hyperbole in the marketplace around the "war on OTAs" is impractical and annoying. Using this article to launch a tirade against BookingSuite is a complete waste of time. You cannot blame others for your poor decisions. Also, please remember that Priceline Inc. and Expedia Inc. are not going anywhere anytime soon. So, buck up, Champ.My goal here is to highlight that now is (still) the perfect time to invest in owning and maintaining your digital assets and marketing campaigns. Marketing agencies and vendors will eventually get acquired or lose interest. Nobody can control or predict when that will happen to your marketing agency. I could not have predicted the exact date when Buuteeq (the helpful agency who wanted to take all your work and worries away at a super low price) would sell out to the world's largest OTA.... or the date when they would later shut down the SEM services that were not making them enough money. What I can do and always will do is to recommend that you own and invest in your own digital assets and marketing. Remember: your profitability needs to outlast your current marketing agency. Stay woke.

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