Hotel Industry Blog

Thursday, February 17, 2011

How Hotels Can Best Seize The Growing Mobile Opportunity

Bookassist's Des O'Mahony points out some painful truths for the hotel industry online, and recommends learn form their mistakes when looking at mobile

As we study the technology marketplace in early 2011, it is clear that the mobile space is growing at an unprecedented rate. It presents real and immediate opportunities to hotels to reach their customers and generate direct booking revenue for low acquisition cost.

How Hotels Missed The Internet Boat
Unfortunately for hotels, the guest has usually been well ahead of them in terms of their service requirements online and their knowledge of online technology. In the late nineties, as the web began to explode, the guest was already online and increasingly looking to book online. But hotels were far from ready to serve the online guest directly. The result was that third party channels stepped in as middlemen to fulfill the need and facilitate the online guest, taking control of that middle ground between hotel and guest.

Hotels spent much of the following decade paying high commission fees to third party channels that were servicing the hotels’ own guests online. Meanwhile the hotels’ own direct web presence was woefully inadequate and underpromoted, with little chance of converting lookers into bookers. The third party channels succeeded in taking strong control of the online space, and while they have certainly served the guest well, the hotels have been suffering the financial consequences ever since, with third party channels in control of many hotels’ inventories.

Gradually, hotels are realizing that they can sell quite successfully directly, that they can reach their guests directly online, and that they can do so with lower acquisition costs than the third party booking channels would have them believe. The savvy (but still too rare) hotel is embracing online marketing and social media and is no longer at the mercy of what the third party channel dictates in terms of rate.

But just as hotels have realized this past mistake, a new battle looms where the stakes are even higher. That battle is for the mobile space, and it is growing far more explosively than the rapid growth witnessed in web adoption. Hotels need to seriously invest in keeping up with guest requirements on mobile and ensure they don’t make the same mistakes in the mobile arena that they paid the price for in “traditional” web. It may seem a trivial market now, but it is set to change rapidly.

The Growth In Smart Devices
Let’s look at the potential that the hotel market faces. As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt remarked in early 2010 “I am struck by the explosion of mobile computing. Mobile is clearly going to win the battle with traditional computers”. These are ominous words that hotels would well profit from noting.

On the upside for travel, many reports have shown that the majority of customers are completely comfortable with booking travel online. A recent Google IAB/TNS Consumer Confidence Barometer survey of ecommerce purchasing behavior in Q3 of 2010 showed that an impressive 68% of customers both research and purchase travel online, significantly higher than any other category of goods or services such as technology, retail, media etc. The same survey shows there is ample evidence to suggest that this extends into the mobile area: 42% of people say they use their mobile because it is the easiest way to research or buy, while 49% of non-mobile users say they will use mobile in future to buy. Only 9% mention some reticence regarding security issues in buying on mobile. So hotels already have a captive and lucrative audience if they choose to reach them directly on mobile.

Now look at the rate of adoption of mobile technology. An October 2010 CNBC report on smart device acquisition stated that “Growth in Smart Device sales is unprecedented even in technology sales history” and figures from Apple, just one manufacturer, bear this out. It took Apple 680 days to sell the first one million iPods, a figure reached in 2003. In 2007, it took the company 74 days to clock up the one millionth iPhone sale. Last year, Apple shipped one million iPads in just 28 days. This is staggering growth in mobile internet-capable devices, and this is the space where the hotel customer is increasingly comfortable.

The result of this explosive growth in mobile internet access is that, according to Gartner research, and Morgan-Stanley, mobile internet access is expected to surpass desktop web access sometime in 2013 or so, with more mobile internet access devices (1.82B) in use than desktop or traditional computing devices (1.78B).

So we have the devices, and we have the willingness to purchase. Hotels need to act now to ensure they are maximizing their mobile presence and their mobile marketing and advertising strategies in order to capitalize on this fast-approaching perfect storm.

To App or not to App
In January 2011, Apple trumpeted its ten billionth app store download. Many hotels have asked if they should be on this app bandwagon. The answer is, “it depends”.

For the hotel that is looking to capture the casual rather than regular customer, an app is not an ideal solution. The casual customer finds hotels on mobile primarily via search, using Google or other engines on their mobile browser. When a hotel is listed on search results, the user taps to continue through to the hotel and does not want to encounter a barrier in the form of a request to go to the app store, find the hotel, download an app etc. The nature of the searching guest is to want information quickly, so they’ll just move on to the next search result if they encounter barriers. Understanding how your potential guests are finding you on mobile is critical to developing your solution.

What the hotel needs is a mobile website or webapp that instantly serves the mobile guest transparently and without barriers. A single tap from search results on mobile should deliver the hotel’s information and booking capability in a form suitable for the device in question, whether that be iPhone, Android-based phones, BlackBerry or whatever. No downloads or complications should be put in the users’ way.

Luckily, iPhone, Android and the newer BlackBerry devices (Torch) all share common web browser architecture, called WebKit, so minimal changes are required to get a webapp functioning well on all three. And since webapps can be built in HTML and CSS, just like regular websites, hotels need only invest in better web technology to serve the mobile customers’ needs. Webapps in HTML and CSS are easily adapted to new devices and platforms as they arise, so investment in a proper webapp architecture means you are building in future flexibility for new devices and standards. A Taptu Mobile Touch Web Report from 2010 showed that webapps grew at three times the rate of regular app development, with ecommerce being the fastest growth area in webapps.

Contrast this with the popular but fragmented app space. To build a great app for iPhone takes programming expertise that is not as readily available as web expertise. To additionally do so for Android-based devices means largely redeveloping your app solution, since iPhone and Android are on a completely different code base, speaking a different technical language if you will. Add BlackBerry to the mix and you are again developing in a different programming environment from scratch. Likewise Nokia/Windows Mobile. You are now faced with multiple development processes to give the same general experience to your customers, and multiple upgrade processes when you change information or when the platforms develop. Not to mention the fact that you would be relying on customers to go to the app store for their platform and search there for your particular hotel in order to find you, which is not the way that people traditionally find accommodation online and, by extension, on mobile.

For hotels with considerable repeat business and regular corporate guests, an actual downloadable app does make some sense - but as a complement to a proper mobile webapp solution, not as an alternative.

Good Old Fashioned Customer Service
It is easy to get bogged down in the technical details of what should be delivered, which platforms to target and what strategy to best adopt. But it is well worth noting that delivering solutions now on mobile to satisfy your customers’ needs is nothing more than a manifestation of good old fashioned customer service. If your customer is online on mobile, and you are not there to serve, then you have lost the opportunity to impress. To fail to embrace mobile now, or to cede your mobile presence to some third party, is to implicitly tell your potential mobile guest that you are not really interested in serving their needs and are content to let someone else do so.

As always, the key to success on mobile, as anywhere, is to understand what best suits the guests’ need, not what best suits the hotel's, and to deliver on it.

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Dr Des O'Mahony is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Bookassist (bookassist.org). Bookassist's mobile webapp solution for hotels and hotel groups is a quickly-deployed and increasingly popular solution.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Five Effective Steps to Promote Your Special Offers Online

Bookassist's Pasquale Mellone gives five effective things that you can do to get your customers booking special offers online

In the current economic climate, customers are still spending but are far more value-conscious. Special offers and deals are appealing, and represent a strong incentive for customers to book. A competitive and attractive special offer can positively boost your online direct sales. Whether it's a seasonal offer (St Patrick’s Day, Easter, etc.) or special package (spa, golf, etc), setting up special offers in your booking engine always serves the purpose of giving your potential customers more options and opportunities for making a reservation.

However, just setting up a special offer is not enough in itself to generate conversions. The special offer needs to be communicated, needs to be prominently visible and needs to be found by potential customers. The following five steps are what we recommend in order to get the most out of your special offers.

1. Create a proper Special Offer Page
It might seem a simple and obvious statement but the most effective way to promote offers is through your own website. The individual special offer needs to be made clearly visible on the hotel’s homepage through a banner or visual advert, and via a link in the main navigation that brings the customer to your special offers page. Keep in mind that your special offers page is the bridge between the potential customer and the reservation. The page therefore needs to be optimized with a specific purpose in mind: converting visitors into paying customers.

A special offer page optimized for conversions is relevant to the deal/offer promoted, makes use of attractive and high-quality photography, features a keyword-rich title and text for increasing visibility on search engines, includes a strong call-to-action (book now!) and a link which sends visitors directly to your booking engine, and creates a compelling reason to book. Advertising specials that are for a limited time only or that relate to an immediate upcoming event is critical. Finally, it's important that your special offer page is easy to navigate, runs smoothly, and doesn't take too long to load the content, so that it can create an immediate impact. (Users of Bookassist’s Sitebuilder website technology get automatic dynamic special offers pages and functionality built into their hotel websites, with updated information being automatically fed form the Bookassist database each time a special offer is created or changed.)

2. Bring Qualified Traffic with Google Adwords
With your compelling page of offers in place, you need good traffic. Running a Pay Per Click (PPC) campaign on Google Adwords can dramatically increase the volume of qualified traffic (people actively searching for a hotel/special offer) to your site.

Campaigns on Google's advertising circuit are very cost-effective. Your advert can be seen thousands of times by an audience in over 180 countries and 40 languages. However, you pay only for the clicks your advert receives, and those who click are doing so because the find the advert appealing. You have full analysis of your campaigns, including your spend, your revenue generation and your return on investment, through Google Analytics. To be even more effective, you can have specific revenue analysis for each type of special offer and each type of advert if your booking engine provider has full integration with Google Analytics Ecommerce, as Bookassist does.

Promoting your special offers through a PPC campaign is now more effective than ever thanks to Ad Sitelinks. This feature, which was launched by Google last year, allows you to extend the value of existing ads for your hotel website by providing up to four additional links within the advert that can point to specific sections of your site, such as your special offers page (see figure 1). By availing of Ad Sitelinks in your PPC campaigns, you will make your advert more visible and eye-catching to potential customers, resulting in an increase in qualified traffic coming from PPC that varies between 10%-30% in our experience.

Ad Sitelinks are a powerful addition to Google adverts, with the example advert above for the Mespil Hotel (click on image to see full size) showing four different links to Special Offers within the advert (top of page). Google Places is also being used effectively by the hotel, with a prominent Place page and map location for the hotel showing in search results.


3. Promote Specials on Social Media
Social media is a powerful tool for promoting your special offers and your website. Social media was until recently considered a less-than-serious channel but is today recognised as being critical for business. They have become a crucial part of a hotel’s online strategy, second only to search ranking in Google and other search engines’ natural listings (eg Microsoft Bing social search).

Social media offers a free yet effective way to increase brand awareness and to build the image of your hotel online. Promoting special offers through social media such as your blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare can strongly increase the exposure of your packages and can indicate to potential future customers the value that can be found in your hotel offerings. You can, for example, write a descriptive and relevant blog post about your offer, post a short entry on the hotel Facebook profile's wall, write a 140-long message on Twitter. While Facebook and Twitter are all the rage, blogs have another key advantage: blog entries are time-stamped content, so that even after an offer has lapsed (for Valentine's Day for example) people who are searching next year will find the old offer and therefore anticipate that you will have a new one in the coming year. Blogs are like having a keyword-rich history online of the kinds of offers that you run and the kind of service that you offer.

In all of these social media entries, it is important that you paste a link to the special offer page on your site so that potential customers who have come across your offer through social media they can read more details on the dedicated page. Links are sometimes long and cumbersome, so use a URL-shortening service like bit.ly to create short versions of your links for space-sensitive services like Twitter. If you wish to build an loyal audience among local customers, you can reach them by setting up a special offer on Foursquare, a location-based social network catching potential customers as soon as they check in at your hotel.

4. Avail of Google Offers and Google Places
In late January 2011, Google moved into the local deals arena by launching Google Offers. The service follows Google's well known attempt to buy Groupon (groupon.com), the very successful local offers site. Google’s move aims at bolstering the search giant's local advertising business.

How it works is very straightforward. A user who enters a search query on Google (e.g. 'dublin hotel offer') is given a number of related offer results. By clicking on one of the offers, the user is taken to a dedicated page with details of the package, map, and printing options (see figure 2). The service is still in its initial phase of launch and is currently available in the United States.

Offers from Google for a hotel in the USA (click on image to see full size) . The new Offers functionality is linked to Google Places and will allow hotels to promote their offers on Google Places and have them automatically expire in order to keep the page fresh.


Hoteliers can also dramatically increase visibility of their special offers by adding them to their listing on Google Places. Google Places is an online service that allows business owners to update and manage their physical business location information (you will see it appear as a small map and business listing on search results from time to time - see figure 1). Hotels can claim ownership of their business listing and can update their details so that it appears correctly within Google Maps and lists their offers. Once set, offers are visible on Google Maps for a period of 30 days. Do a search on Google for Places and for Offers to get more information and help on how to set these up.

5. Blast an Email to Your Client List
Email marketing can be considered as an old-school marketing technique but, when used properly, it is a highly effective one. Provided you don’t over-use the medium, you can further increase the exposure of your special offers by sending an email to guests who stayed at hotel or to prospects that didn't convert in the past. A personalised letter explaining what the offer is and including a link to the special offer page on your site, as well as a call-to-action, should do the trick.

It is important to make the offer time-sensitive and time-relevant - this offer “must close today” or this offer is for the coming weekend. We all have experience of how the airlines have used this sense of urgency to great effect. It's also a good idea to promote your special offer by adding it to the email signature of all the staff in the hotel so that every communication helps to build the potential audience.

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Pasquale Mellone is Search Engine Marketer in the Online Marketing Division of Bookassist (bookassist.org), the technology and online strategy partner for hotels.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Presentation Techniques Can Confuse!

Bookassist's Des O'Mahony points out that some graphs are not quite like others...

Sometimes you see marketing performance presentations with what look like very impressive results! Until you look more closely.

Suppose someone is measuring marketing performance for your hotel in terms of conversion of lookers to bookers, i.e. the number of visitors who come to your site (green below) compared to those who eventually book (red below). If the following two graphs of this were shown to you, which of them looks the more impressive performance at first glance?


The one on the right looks like a much more impressive result! But in fact the information in both graphs is exactly the same - there are 1150 visits (or lookers) and 11 bookers shown in each example graph, a conversion performance of 0.96%.

If it's not obvious to you that the graphs above actually show the same information, then an explanation is needed. It goes like this.

The graph that looks "worse", on the left, has a linear scale. This is the usual sort of scale you see in graphs, a scale that goes up in even steps 1,2,3 etc. Each step is the same size, in this case steps of 250. This sort of scale reflects the natural way that people think, so its the "true" or natural scale to use to compare the size of two things. 11 bookers looks small on this, 1150 visitors looks way bigger, but that's what you would expect.

The graph that looks "better", on the right, has a logarithmic or log scale. Each step goes up as a power of ten, so instead of going upwards as 1,2,3 like the linear scale, the scale goes up as 10 to the power of 1, 10 to the power of 2, ten to the power of 3 etc - 10^1 = 10, 10^2 = 100, 10^3 = 1000. This means the steps are 1, 10, 100, 1000 etc. The steps are not at all the same size and get bigger by a factor of ten each step upwards you take. On this log scale, 11 bookers is just over 10, the first step, while 1150 is just slightly above 1000, the third step, making the bookers line look almost like a third of the lookers line at first glance.

Log scales have the effect of amplifying very small numbers, while reducing the apparent size of very large numbers.

Log scales are very useful and important in mathematics and science. But when used in marketing, they can sometimes mask the true result and make poor results seem far better than they are. Beware of how you interpret results that are shown to you in graphical form. When you have an option, always make sure you view data on a linear scale to get a clear interpretation.

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