All posts by Paul Manzey

Optimizing Your Hotel Distribution Strategy

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2013 was a year full of tremendous growth within online distribution in the travel industry with meta-search engines, mobile bookings and social media all taking significant steps forward.  However, hoteliers expecting similarly massive changes in 2014 may be in for a surprise.

While new technology and platforms of distribution may emerge suddenly, the overall distribution strategies should still be based on the channels that offer measurable ROI.  Understanding the intricacies of each of the following channels is essential in developing a strategy that will be unique to your hotel.

Mobile and Same-Day Bookings

In the multi-channel travel space, mobile has become a major player.  Mobile bookings doubled from 2012 ($6 billion) to 2013 ($12.3 billion), and that trend is expected to continue in 2014 with experts at PhoCusWright forecasting $24.3 billion in bookings made from these devices.  In all, about $1 out of every $12 in travel bookings will be generated via mobile.

A rise in mobile users appears to be influencing business strategy and changing customer behavior.  A recent Hotel Business Review infographic showed that 65% of travelers choose their mobile phone for same day hotel bookings.

Mobile applications will allow you to engage a greater number of potential customers and may allow you to increase your same day booking potential without falling pretty to heavy discounting in an attempt to garner these “spur of the moment” travelers.

OTAs

Whether you hate them, or love them, Online Travel Agencies appear to be here to stay.  These oversized companies have seemingly limitless resources that make them effective in reaching out to customers, often times in markets that hoteliers may find difficult to penetrate.  Along with these positives, third party channels and other travel intermediaries are quick to adopt emerging opportunities to stay ahead of the market.

Although these channels may be among your least profitable thanks to outrageous commission fees (market averages range from 15 to 25%), they offer visibility and exposure like no other platform.  The key in using OTAs is maximizing your revenue potential with room rates (i.e. selling lower rates to OTAs with lower commission rates, thus making these rooms more desirable).

Meta-Search Engines

On the surface, meta-search engines appear to be the perfect channel for distribution of your available rooms.  The concept is simple – meta-search sites neutrally compare various travel sites and other sources to give travelers the best overview results of their requested search.

However, meta-search engines add an additional level of complexity to the system with a keyword bidding system.  Essentially, these sites control the ranking of OTA and hotel websites within the hotel search results based on the value of bids each website has paid for the search keywords.

Larger OTAs have an advantage in this particular arena thanks to larger marketing budgets that allow them to outbid independent hotels and other properties.  If you want to go the meta-search path, it will be important to invest time and resources in understanding the bid management process, or finding an intermediary that can do the keyword bidding for you.

Because of this modified pay-per-click model, you must evaluate the strength of meta-search sites as a traffic source and monitor the click-to-book ratio generated from it.  If not used properly, these meta-search engines could be more costly than helpful to your site.

Direct Online Booking

In a perfect world, you would be generating all of your bookings and filling all of your availability through your brand.com website.  Flashing back to reality, there is only one way to increase bookings on your own site: driving traffic to (YourBrandHere).com.

How do you drive traffic to your website?  Try the following techniques.

1) Make sure your site layout is simple and user-friendly with logical navigation that allows guests to make bookings in just a few clicks.

2) Visual content is always a plus.  Highlight your unique accommodations and use images to share a story of what a traveler can experience when they stay with you.

3) SEO management is a key to showing up on results pages for major search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing!  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but keyword-heavy content is king when gaining customers on the internet.

4) Using Google Analytics, or other analytics software, allows you to see where your site traffic is coming from.  This will help you to develop customized marketing plans to attract these guests.

By effectively using some combination of these distribution channels, or all four of them if your property can afford it, you can optimize your online distribution strategy and fill your availability in 2014.

Can Seasonal Employees Deliver Great Customer Service?

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Your staff is perhaps the most important key to delivering great customer service to travelers.  Year-round properties have the opportunity to be diligent and discerning with their hiring options, but seasonal resorts that only operate for a few months at a time may not have that luxury.

Steve Digioia, a 25+ year veteran of the hospitality industry, was recently asked to teach a customer service training class for the new hires of a ski resort.  This seasonal resort had just completed their job fair and had their newest set of fresh-faced recruits all ready for work; they just needed to know how to deal with their customers.

Here is a brief overview of the group he was working with:

  • Job Fair Attendees – 200
  • Employees Hired – 180
  • Positions Hired – ski lift operator, equipment rental associate, retail store clerk, cashier, waiter, cook, housekeeper, etc.
  • Age Range – 16-21 years old
  • Salary – $7.25 per hour, minimum wage, for all new hires
  • Perks of the job – Free ski pass for the season

These individuals already had a week of position-specific training and were now meeting with Digioia to discuss the company culture, guest relations, expectations of service and more.  Most of these new hires were beginning their first job and had little if any customer service experience.

How was Digioia supposed to teach customer service when many of these skills are greatly influenced by life experience and experience gained through years of interactions with friends, family, co-workers and strangers we meet every day?

Why These New Hires Wanted to Work

What was the motivation for these employees to apply for jobs at the resort?  Were they looking to start working at a young age in hopes of developing a career path within the resort?  Probably not.  What about the opportunity to serve pizza, chicken fingers and fries to the masses?  Is $7.25 per hour for an eight-hour workday 3,000 feet up a mountain your idea of a dream job opportunity?

More than likely none of the reasons listed above were the primary reason for applying, but a free season ski pass was probably at the top of most lists.

If the ski pass is the only reason these individuals are concerned with their job, is it reasonable to expect that they will provide the customer experience in the manner that their management and owners expect?  Perhaps a few would excel, but Digioia believed that most would not.

Seasonal businesses across the country use the model for hiring that this particular resort did, accepting nearly anyone who walks through the door into their ranks.  The customers of any business are not concerned with the challenges you may face in hiring seasonal staff.   They expect quality service, and deserve it.

Consider the following example for just a moment.  Your iPad stops working and you take it into a local dealer.  Would you expect poor service from the sales rep?  What if there was a delay in receiving a replacement tablet?  If this happened on multiple occasions, would you consider changing to a different brand the next time you purchased one of these devices?  Most people would.

What You Should Take From This

Your hiring process should be about finding the most qualified individual to fill a role at your property, not offering the best perks to attract the most applicants.  Consider what the expectations of your customer are, and train your employees appropriately to ensure they are delivering the best possible experience.  Even if they are only temporary personnel, they are still representing your property to what is hopefully a large number of guests.

To read more about Digioia’s insights on this topic, click here.

Business Travel Shows Growth in 2013

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We have recently talked a lot about the millennial generation and leisure travelers in general, but the business traveler is an equally important segment of the travel industry.

A recent report by Amadeus, a leading travel technology partner and transaction processor for the global travel and tourism industry, studied the travel habits of 400 adults from the U.K. and Ireland who work for large companies and regularly travel for business.  Here are some of the key results they found and why you should take notice.

Business Travel Increased in 2013 Compared to 2012

There was a small increase in total number of business trips taken annually (13.1 trips in 2013 compared to just 12.7 trips in 2012), but the key number to consider is the percentage of individuals who traveled at least once for business.  From 2011 to 2013, this number doubled from four to eight percent.

As the travel industry continues to see growth, the number of companies that feel comfortable sending employees on business trips will likely increase as well.  This could be due to economic factors, or a dedicated effort to expand business opportunities worldwide.

Efficiency is a Key Factor

Obtaining the closes hotel to a meeting venue was the top priority when traveling according to 21% of those surveyed by Amadeus.  The second most important focus in the business travel segment is connectivity as 18% cited the ability to connect to Wi-Fi as their top travel need.

Although these factors are relatively straight-forward, it makes marketing towards this group difficult.  Business travelers do no use the same trip planning process as leisure travelers.  You cannot move the location of your property just so that it is closer to popular meeting areas.  Instead, focus on making the business traveler’s experience as efficient as possible.

This includes offering free Wi-Fi access (something every guest seems to be looking for these days), quality food and beverage choices, and a stream-lined check-in/check-out process (no one wants the lasting impression of a stay to be a lengthy check-out process).

Travel Plays a Significant Role in Employee Satisfaction

In general, business travelers are positive about the impact of travel on working life, with 96% reporting they like business trips or do not mind traveling for business.  The percentage of respondents who found business trips interesting was 55%.

For all of the happy business travelers out there, some individuals have some reservations about business travel with 21% of respondents stating that budget cuts make them less willing to travel, and 19% saying that their company travel policy has a negative impact on how they feel about their employer.

To learn more about the Amadeus survey and business travel trends, click here.

Travelers Use Mobile for Inspiration and Booking

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Mobile technology will not experience a decrease in relevance any time in the near future according to recent studies conducted by PhoCusWright.  The travel market research later forecasts that by 2015, $39.5 billion bookings will be made on mobile devices, as compared to just $6.15 billion in 2012.

However, bookings are not the only area where mobile devices are experiencing growth.  Now, mobile is also soaring in the planning portion of your trip, used as inspiration to help you plan the ideal getaway.

Instead of using them to buy while on the go, travelers use mobile devices to dream up destinations and hammer out logistics while commuting, or in the middle of office meetings.  According to a Q3 2013 report by PhoCusWright, more than a quarter of U.S. travelers said they turned to their phones for destination selection and shopping, compared with less than 20% on tablets.  This gives some indication of major smartphone travel opportunities in 2014.

What is Holding Travelers Back?

Although these numbers are staggering, there is still some hesitation among consumers to use mobile technology in the booking and trip planning process.  Airlines, hotel chains and OTAs have been slow to beef up their mobile offerings, and U.S. travelers studied by PhoCusWright were often too frustrated by a variety of issues including:

-Limited offerings by these major travel industry players

-Limited capabilities of the mobile devices themselves

These two issues, specifically, are preventing mobile from fully taking hold as an indispensable instrument for purchase.  Frustration was most often caused by small screen sizes (51% of those surveyed) and poor user configurations for websites and mobile apps compared with those on their computers (36%).

What Changes Must the Travel Industry Make?

In order to stay on top of the mobile and multi-device boom, travel companies need to be ready to do the following:

1) Make sure your mobile site is responsive, and will fit to any screen.  Make sure your website looks good and is usable across a variety of devices to ensure guest satisfaction throughout the planning and shopping process.

2) Do not release a mobile application until it is bug-free.  This may seem like a simple concept, but many companies are so eager to release an additional source for travelers, and are willing to troubleshoot on the fly.  This is leading to applications that are not effective for consumers, and could turn them off to your brand all together.

3) Tracking across multiple channels will consistently be a challenge going forward.  People using multiple devices (desktop, laptop, mobile, etc.) may not have a cohesive shopping experience because of inconsistent tracking information from device-to-device.  Because cookies are not useful for tracking on mobile platforms, it will be imperative that companies have a strong customer relationship management (CRM) system in place to provide a seamless travel planning experience.

3 Tips to Help “Sweep” Up More Fans

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Marketers should always be looking for an opportunity to engage customers, with the ultimate goal of letting consumers do your advertising for you.  The recent social media boom gives travelers a channel to do this, but the social-media-saturated world we are living in makes choosing a medium a top priority.

After you choose a medium, you still need to find a way to engage with a large number of people, and encourage them to share with their own friends (who will potentially turn into your future customers).  A great way to bring a large group into the fray is planning, and seamlessly executing, a sweepstakes promotion, drawing or other contest.

These three tips will help you create a program that lets your fans do the talking for you, while generating new followers and potentially new customers as well.

1. Know your fans’ social habits and integrate them into your engagement plan.

Let’s assume you are running a resort with a golf course or spa you wish to showcase, and are looking to give away a package deal.    Although these two amenities are not exclusive to males and females, golf typically seems to be lumped in with men’s activities, while spa treatments are commonly linked with women.

Knowing this, does it make sense to market your golf sweepstakes on Pinterest, a social media channel with women making up nearly 80% of total users?  Use this helpful link to learn more about user-demographics of key social media channels from information compiled by Pew Research.

If consumers feel interrupted in their day-to-day lives or they think that their privacy is being invaded, they will tune you out without thinking twice.  It is important that every aspect of your contest flawlessly fits into their conversations.  Once you unearth the channel that best fits your audience, you can work on intersecting with their lives.

2. Don’t underestimate the power of incentives.

Studies show that when people are provided incentive, 20% more will share your message vs. those without incentive.  When you relationship is mutually beneficial, your audience is more likely to come back more often.

The problem with incentives can be how expensive they are.  If you do not have money in the budget for daily giveaways, try something else.  Reward fans who share the promotion on their social media sites with additional entries into your contest.  Fans will have to opportunity to increase their odds of winning while you reach more people through different social media channels.

3. Partner Up!

Find the Robin to your Batman, and become the next dynamic duo!  Associating with an outside play will do two things to help your promotion:

-Increase the potential reach for your contest

-Improve the quality of the prize you are giving away (e.g. Why offer just a night’s stay when you can offer a round of golf, or a romantic meal as well?)

To Sum Things Up

-Sweepstakes are a fun and exciting way to engage current customers while also capturing new ones.

-Incentives, even free ones like additional entries into a contest, are a great way to expand sharing across social media platforms.

-Partnering up allows you to expand your fan base, while improving the product or service you are giving away.

Your Website: An Online Dating Profile for Travelers

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With Valentine’s Day upon us and love in the air, it is time to talk about hearts and Cupid.  Well…maybe not Cupid, but we will talk about hearts, specifically the heartbeat of your eMarketing program:  your website.

Because travelers research hotels in a variety of ways, it is important to place the correct content in the correct medium, whether that is online through your website, on social media channels or on mobile devices.  To show customers and potential guests that you care and want their business, hotel marketers need to learn how to romance these potential travelers with appealing and relevant content.

A recent HotelMarketing article, written by DJ Vallauri, compares setting up a hotel website to setting up a dating profile.  This is the channel that will tell prospective guests everything you want them to know about you.  It is important to know what your potential “suitors” are looking for, so here is a list of five things your dating profile should include to help garner the most potential “dates”.

Make Sure Your Content is “Fresh”

Fresh content does not mean tweaking the copy you use for social media, and placing it on your website as well.  Your site needs to look its best in order to attract the most prospects.  Make sure your services and amenities are up to date, and give other tempting tidbits to keep travelers away from the generic OTA sites.

Widgets are Useful and Helpful Interactive Tools

Attaching widgets to your website that link to various social media outlets allows travelers to connect with other individuals who have already visited your property.  They also can add some additional interaction between your site and potential guests.  One recent trend is offering a live chat widget, which allows travelers to connect to your property in real-time, although social media channels can be used in the same capacity.

Make Sure Your Mobile Website is User-Friendly

Based on consumer demand and the prediction that there will be more mobile users accessing the internet this year than desktop users, extra attention needs to be placed on the mobile web.  The latest responsive design technologies adapt website content to a variety of screens making them easily viewable across whichever device travelers prefer to use.

Make Sure Your Social Media Content Matches the Social Media Channel

We have consistently discussed the importance of using social media channels to attract a greater following for your property, but truly reaching prospective customers requires hoteliers to respect the context of each platform.

Users of each social media platform are different, and they like to be communicated to in the context of their social media platform.  You will not be effective in communicating to Instagram or Pinterest (photo-based platforms) users with a lot of wordy content.  Effective online marketing is about using all the tools available to reach and engage with potential customers wherever they are online.

Storytelling is a Great Way to Connect

Build an experience for a guest, and you may be able to build loyalty and future business opportunities.  Use video resources to give potential travelers a tour of your property, or to showcase annual events that draw large numbers of visitors.  Give your potential guests a typical experience, whether overnight or extended, they can expect when they stay with you.

Guest Acquisition: E-mail vs. Social Media

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I cannot go a day without seeing a social media-driven article on many of the top hospitality and travel marketing websites.  Social media is everywhere and plays an important role in your marketing campaign, helping you connect with potential travelers.

With that being said, is social media the most effective marketing tool available, or should you stick with more traditional options like e-mail?

A recent study by predictive analytics firm Custora discovered that customer acquisition via e-mail has quadrupled in the last four years and now accounts for almost seven percent of customer acquisitions.  The study also found that organic search is the most powerful acquisition channel, accounting for 16 percent of customers acquired.  Despite substantial recent growth in social media channels, Facebook and Twitter lag far behind in customer acquisition.

Custora’s data also gave some insight into Customer Lifetime Value (CLV), which refers to the future profit a company expects to earn from a customer throughout his or her relationship with the business.  Similar to the customer acquisition model, organic search lead the way with a CLV of 54% higher than average.  Twitter ranked dead last in this category with the lowest-value customers (23% less than average).

E-mail may not have some of the flash and pizzazz of social media, but it’s a medium that generates revenue.  Whereas Facebook, the highest-ranking social media platform in CLV, ranks at 1% above average, e-mail has a level of 11%.  Simply put, customers who come to businesses through e-mail tend to shop more and spend more.

Social media is at its most effective when it is used as a customer engagement tool.  It can be a two-way communication line between a company and potential customers.  Twitter is typically used to relate breaking news and deals, while Facebook users usually want to increase their contact with a brand.

Mobile Plays a Role

One reason why e-mail is so effective is the fact that it is permission-based.  Customers typically have to opt-in to start receiving e-mails.  Moreover, with the prevalence of smartphones and tablets, they are always listening.  In fact, e-mail is the top activity for most people on their phones.

People check e-mail constantly, wherever they are, and that enables you to stay connected with them.  However, people who read their e-mail on a mobile device do so quickly, meaning your messages must be powerful enough to grab their attention.

For all of its positive aspects, mobile also offers some drawbacks for marketers.  Forty percent of all e-mails are now viewed on smartphones, which means they must be coded to be attractive on a phone screen.  If your message looks bad on a mobile device, 70% of customers will unsubscribe from your e-mails.

The Importance of Online Reputation Management

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In October 2013, a Huffington Post contributor, John Rampton, wrote an article questioning whether online reputation management was dead.  In a more recent Hotel Business Revew article, Jane Coloccia, President and Chief Creative Officer of JC Communications, asked how important online reputation management really is.

The answer to both of these questions:  online reputation management is incredibly important, and is certainly not dead.

While the spectrum through which hotels and other properties view the importance of online reputation management varies widely from companies that consistently check review sites, social media and OTA review columns, to those with a completely hands off approach, it is clear that the growth of the worldwide web makes this an issue hotels at least have to consider.

Coloccia talks about a time when a hotel’s only concerns were the actual physical appearance of a property, the professionalism of your staff, efficiency of operations, how your brochure and collateral materials looked, and what legitimate journalist said about you.

Now, you have to concern yourself with a new set of principles including website presence, the need for a booking engine and e-mail marketing.  Hoteliers who were on top of traditional marketing techniques needed time to catch up to the internet-driven, tech savvy traveler.

Why a Change is in Order

Dan Sorenson, president of the well-respected reputation management authority Big Blue Robot, posed the question, “Why would someone want to band their head against a wall?”

This may seem like an off-topic question, but he explains that metaphorically companies are banging their heads against a wall with their reputation management strategy.  Although the search world keeps changing, these companies still employ the same tactics they always have in an attempt to mold a great search engine results page and solidify their diminishing returns.

These companies are using these same strategies because in most cases, they do not realize they need to change, or do not want to put the effort into creating a new strategy.

The White House Office of Consumer Affairs reports that, “A dissatisfied consumer will tell between nine and 15 people about their experience.  About 13% of dissatisfied customers tell more than 20 people.”  A decade ago, this was done by word of mouth.  Now travelers are getting on social media channels and reviews sites to voice their concerns.  Their reach with these outlets is no longer limited to 20 people, and may actually be closer to 200, or even 2,000 people.

Today, if a traveler has a negative experience with a surly front desk attendant, you can bet that by the time they have reached their room, the news has already reached Facebook and Twitter, if not TripAdvisor or the OTA site where they booked the room.

The Growth of Social

Just a few years ago, it was still okay for a company to ignore the social web.  Facebook, Twitter and other social sites were considered immature and unproven.  Some companies still consider social media as a young person’s fad.  However, today’s fastest growing demographic for Facebook is the 55-plus crowd.

Today, social needs to be a part of any marketing strategy and is essential to successful reputation management.  Social profiles are easy to create and they take up space in the Google results, improving a company’s online reputation.

Just having a social media profile is one thing, but truly managing a social media channel can make or break your online reputation strategy.  Consumers are taking the time to contact companies through these channels to complain about a situation.  In fact, many media today are actually advising consumer that if you are unable to get a response through a company’s customer service line, you will get a more immediate response on social media (nine out of 10 times this is in fact the case).

Not Everything Has to be Negative

Keep in mind that while your online reputation might be negative, it could also be quite positive.  You may be searching for your property on Twitter and find an amazing experience someone had at your hotel.  Travelers may post photos on Instagram and Pinterest of the mouth-watering meal they had in your dining room.

It is important to address this positive feedback the same way you would if it were negative.  A timely response is important in our “always on”, mobile-friendly landscape.  This is just a single example of how you can positively manage your online reputation, and how to leverage social media to create awareness for your brand.

Key Points

-Online reputation management is far from dead, and will continue to be an important aspect of your marketing campaign as the internet continues to play a large role in the vacation planning experience.

-Social media has recently driven, and will continue to drive companies to focus on their online reputation management.

-Having a solid online reputation strategy requires being aware of not only social media, but travel review sites and OTA review sections as well.