While the pace of increase in online bookings is slowing overall (as it must do, given the proportion it now accounts for), its growth nevertheless continues and represents significant opportunity for the savvy independent hotel.
With this in mind, it’s worth returning to the concepts of the customer journey online (customer funnel or path to purchase) when it comes to hotel booking. The landscape is changing so much and so rapidly that many of the ideas from just one or two years ago are already outmoded.
The Decision Matrix
Much of this flux of course has to do with technology. The continued growth of web access on mobile phones and tablets, which is surpassing desktop access and changing habits in so many ways, is requiring online services like the hotel website to be fast, nimble and punchy on multiple format screens used by increasingly impatient audiences. But much also has to do with seismic changes in the online travel technology sector. There’s been rapid consolidation of large brands with Priceline/Booking.com buying up smaller companies and expanding into web services, Expedia buying Travelocity and Orbitz, Sabre launching website services for hotels. There’s also been development of a whole third way of travel booking, with meta search engines like Trivago, Kayak, Hotelscombined, and of course Google’s Hotel Finder. TripAdvisor has entered the fray with instant booking being rolled out throughout 2015 to capture bookings right on that review site.
This dizzying progression is good news for independent hotels though, once they can keep up. Why are Booking.com and Sabre trying to get into website development and on-site booking? Because they see huge potential in the growth of direct booking on brand hotel websites and they want a slice of that too. And of course they see the threat to the growth of their online travel agency (OTA) business from the direct channel also. Reducing dependence on big pay-per-click spends on Google is also a desirable aim for them I’m sure.
The result of all this change is that the customer funnel is now multi-dimensional and multi-device driven. It can be a simple search-to-hotel-to-book model but it is more likely to be radically more complex, moving between devices over time and eventually leading to a booking via a ‘decision matrix’ rather than path to purchase (see figure). Tracking this is extremely complex.
Recent research by PhocusWright, sponsored by Webtrends, determined that leisure travellers typically access more than 6.5 “digital touch points” (devices and websites) before booking a trip, with anything up to 38 website visits being recorded. We know this ourselves without any statistics – jumping around between devices during the day is now commonplace and we expect to be able to continue where we left off seamlessly. As customers move between awareness, evaluation and purchase stages, it’s therefore critical that hotels optimise their informational presence across all touch points in a coherent fashion. You need to be firing on all cylinders everywhere and your message needs to be consistent, consistent and consistent.
Improving Your Impact And Measuring Correctly
Here are a number of things that Bookassist recommends your hotel to do now to improve your impact on the newer and more complex customer decision matrix.
(1) Presenting a coherent image and coherent content across all touch points is a must, but in our experience this still presents a challenge for hotels. Consider devising and maintaining one master content set or database, a superset of all the information you may need for websites, mobile, tablet, social media, OTA websites, meta search sites etc. Give one person in your organisation ownership of this.
Keep a clear record of what elements of content are being used where, so that if an update is needed to your facilities, opening times, etc., you can go from the single master content to all known digital sources and update them all accurately and quickly.
(2) Do the same for imagery. There is a lot of inconsistency and lack of thought for example on the selection of profile/primary images for hotels. Choosing imagery that encapsulates your brand is not easy, but it is worth doing and worth paying to get it right. In a fast-moving online world where your target audience is skimming through pages of your competitors, we believe that this singular identifiable image can help your hotel stand out from the noise and be remembered later on, especially as people move between sites and platforms.
Develop your imagery, and keep a master record of it all and where it is used. Again, when updating, update across the board. Consistency reinforces, and helps you stand out. It’s worth the time to get right. It follows that as people move between devices and platforms, more consistent information is critical in order to engender confidence and reinforce the buyer’s decision-making. Displaying different descriptions, photos, pricing etc. across multiple platforms or devices just raises questions and doubt that ultimately diminish conversion rates.
(3) Hotels must also expand their advertising strategy thinking beyond just Google search. Meta search for example targets potential guests who are very close to making a reservation decision and is a good area to invest in. Remarketing and Display Advertising also makes the hotel brand more visible, especially in your local market. But what if they are not showing a clear return?
Businesses need to think holistically on return metrics. The return-on-investment (ROI) measure revolutionised advertising, making digital spend simple to track in comparison to print, radio and TV. But it’s now becoming less relevant and less accurate. Here’s why. Within the more complex decision matrix, multiple paid and unpaid sources can assist or aid an ultimate reservation though information provision and consistent brand reinforcement. Different campaign types target guests at different stages of their decision process from awareness to evaluation to purchase and inform and assist the decision even if they don’t directly trigger the final action.
Rather than deciding on a budget allocation by comparing cost and revenue for each campaign or platform in isolation, hotels also need to measure the totality across all their digital touch points as a coherent unit. The ROI on the purchase trigger is an easy measure but it is not the full picture as the purchase trigger alone is likely to be far less effective without the assists from the awareness and evaluation stage contributors.
At Bookassist we urge hotels to look at the total investment versus the total direct revenue achieved on your digital platforms and not be too blinkered to the cross-fertilisation effect they can have. It makes it more difficult to tweak and optimise as a strategy, and it is harder to identify cause and effect, but it’s a critical view to take. The decision matrix today is far from linear and certainly less immediate than it used to be.
Dr Des O’Mahony is CEO & Founder and Bernhard Boehm is Senior Digital Manager at Bookassist (http://www.bookassist.com), the multi-award-winning technology and digital strategy partner for hotels worldwide.