As the hospitality industry waits for the opportunity of a post pandemic comeback, there is an opportunity for hotels and other suppliers to develop a strong and sustainable direct booking structure that would see them less dependent on third party sales channels. This will also go a long way to building a level of brand loyalty that may be so important in a post COVID-19 world. Joe Galea writes
The marketing of hotels and hospitality establishments is executed today through a choice of different channels. Marketing in the hospitality industry has evolved in ways that we could not have imagined just 15 to 20 years ago. A decade or two ago, being in the brochures of the main tour operators was the most important determinant for success, as this assured with a high probability, if not even certainty, the opportunity to attract sales. The only avenues for hotel marketing were in fact either through tour operator brochures or through expensive traditional advertising, normally in print media which is a medium few hotels could really afford. In recent years however this has all changed as conventional tour operators rapidly lost market share in most markets and the options for distribution became increasingly diverse, whilst competition also became more intense.
In the space of just a few years the internet has led a revolution in the way consumers shop and the travel industry has witnessed a total disruption in the sale process of its products. The rapid development of online has in the travel industry given rise to new stakeholders, such as OTAs (Online Travel Agencies) and online travel comparison sites. These entrants offer customers the opportunity to access the online travel hypermarket made up of a wide range of destinations and tourism products.
The new developments, supported in no small way by cheaper air travel driven by the growth of LCCs, heralded a period of expansion in the demand for travel worldwide. As an industry, we may have enjoyed a period during which marketing was hardly required to sell rooms in your hotel, given that tourism demand was frequently outstripping supply. Many hoteliers have explained to me that they were not active in marketing and sales over the last years but were more concerned in yielding to get the better rates. In such cases the only marketing a hotel needed to focus on was to ensure that it was present on international online booking platforms. While a convenient and cost-effective way to fill any hotel, the property however was becoming more of a homogenous asset, with a low degree of brand diversification compared to any competing hotels. Although hotel labels were liberally applied, the main criteria to sell was the room rate charged. When the room rate was not an issue the booking conditions came into play, with flexible booking policies notably free cancellation, becoming the most sought-after criteria.
Popular and successful online platforms such as booking.com, hotels.com or expedia.com have successfully pulled away brand loyalty from hotel brands and reallocated this degree of loyalty to their own online platforms. Typically, travelers will not be able to tell you whether they typically book their accommodation at Hotel brand X or Y, but on the global booking platforms where they undertake research to find the best possible deal. This has today resulted in a widespread lack of loyalty to a hotel or to any hotel brand. It is in fact estimated that over 80% of all leisure travelers have no pre-conceived accommodation provider at the start of the planning phase for a vacation.
However, hotels today can try to fight back to claim back loyalty that is rightfully theirs. While online booking platforms will always give a quick access to market, hotels should not neglect to engage directly with their existing guests and potential new guests, to build or regain a level of loyalty and trust that can be a basis to drive business to their property in lieu of simply a better, or cheaper room rate. A paradigm shift needs to take place in which the original players of the tourism sector must now re-assert their position through their image and, more particularly, through loyal customer engagement and support.
Good direct marketing and a better control of your communication and distribution channels will enable you to focus on promoting your hotel and to call on your guests to act. It will be your first important stage of engagement as your guests then ask to receive further information, register their interest, visit your website, engage in a chat, or even go straight to making a booking. One fundamental factor that hoteliers tend to often overlook is that the guest experience is not just the stay: it starts during the research before the booking phase and continues way after the guest leaves your hotel. Therefore, you need to be able to exert control over the platforms where research is conducted and where guests turn to for support.
A well-planned direct marketing campaign gives you the opportunity to promote your products and services directly to guests who are your own customers, and not the customers of the OTA. A good direct marketing campaign will:
- help you to reach out to customers and to build relationships with them
- test the appeal of your hotel and your marketing messages to the selected target market
- allows you to track response
- provide customers with compelling content to intensify engagement
- enhance sales volumes at the lowest possible cost
A successful direct marketing campaign needs to be built around innovation, the use of technology and customer engagement. These three factors will provide reach in the market to attract new customers, and possibly re-engage old customers.
A first step is to take a good look at the data you have been accumulating for years, which has possibly been left lying idle. This data includes contact data of guests who at some point in the past chose to stay at your property and may be tempted to consider your hotel again. The correct use of the data you possess, and the use of technology will allow you to deliver dedicated content to your customers. It offers you the possibility to engage with potential customers by communicating with them individually. Furthermore, do not look at these former guests simply as a prospective repeat stay, but also acknowledge the potential of them becoming promoters of your property. Positive word-of-mouth marketing continues to be very valid today and when this shifts to online the impact can be more impactful than any paid campaign.
It is important to personalize your communication through targeted emails and, in the process, establish a more personal relationship with your customers and encourage them to make a return visit, or even better, to convince them to repeatedly recommend your hotel to their friends, family or to any contacts they may share experiences with on social media . To many people there is nothing more valuable than a recommendation received from someone you trust. Personal recommendations are worth their weight in gold and they must be encouraged.
You also need to ensure that you constantly address your issues and deliver the right message. In the competitive world of the hospitality industry, customer experience is essential in gaining and maintaining loyalty. Online customer testimonials on review websites are an invaluable source of live information and you need to be sensitive to these reviews when putting together your marketing and sales messages. A degree of “spying” on the reviews that your competing hotels are getting may help you improve your product offer as you are able to learn more about the sentiments in the market. This will provide you with a wealth of information about preferences, trends and other factors that will lead to additional future conversions.
Ultimately creating interest from a wide base of potential guests must not then be lost through failure to convert these to confirmed sales. All too often, the call to action is disrupted along the way or you raise expectations that are then left unfulfilled by a poor or unresponsive website or through slow support and response. The hotel website needs to shine and aspire to be the best and brightest on the web to convince the guest. It needs to show your hotel in all its glory and no expense must be spared to have a modern and responsive website with excellent photography and video. A life chat function will do wonders to reassure guests that they are making the right decision to book to stay at your hotel. Lastly, with our younger, future guests spending more time researching and purchasing on handheld mobile devices, one should not let the development of a responsive website remain a concept but rather requires to be actioned into reality.
Founder – JG Tourism Solutions
Joseph Galea has over 30 years’ experience in Destination Marketing for the Maltese Islands. He was based in Frankfurt for over 20 years and represented Malta in many of the markets in Europe and beyond, as Director of International Marketing with the Malta Tourism Authority, when he spearheaded a revolution in the way the islands were marketed and promoted, leading to a yet uninterrupted cycle of sustained and continued growth in the industry in Malta
In August 2014 he moved into aviation and after two years as Deputy Chief Commercial Officer he took over the CEO position in an acting capacity at the islands’ flag carrier Air Malta, in 2016. During his tenure as CEO the airline registered a remarkable turnaround and in the financial year ending March 2018 the airline registered its first operational profit in nearly twenty years.
As from October 2018 Joseph branched into private consultancy in International Tourism and Aviation, taking advantage of his vast global experience gained over the years in these two industries. Today his clients include airlines, destination management companies, international meetings and conference events, convention centre, and hotels.