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The Re-Opening Traveler Surge - Will They Book Direct?

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August 12, 2021
Revenue Strategy
Michael Goldrich

For the past year, as we were quarantining and sitting on our couches streaming Netflix, we didn’t dare let ourselves dream or get inspired about travel. We didn’t know if, or when, it would be safe or if we’d have to quarantine upon arrival. So instead of getting inspired, we just tuned out the itch to travel and looked to local options when it came to getting out of the house. The first trips we planned were to see loved ones, especially if they were within driving distance.

Before COVID-19, the typical looker to booker hotel guest’s buyer journey looked like this: Travel Inspiration/Awareness, Research/Consideration, Book/Decision, On Property, and Post-Stay. 

The journey flows across various channels providing the guest different levels of information that ultimately help them narrow their choices until they feel confident, they have the right destination and the right hotel with the right experience at the right price. This journey typically happens over an extended period of time. This past year, when very few traveled, the buyer’s journey had a new component: Inspiration/Awareness was preceded by “Stay Put/Stay Safe.” 

This additional entry created a new type of travel lifecycle. It instantly narrowed everything down and essentially muzzled travel until it became hyperlocal. In addition, the “Inspiration/Awareness” phase was effectively bypassed in favor of the “Research/Consideration” phase. Travelers wanted to know what was open and if their cancellation policy was flexible.

Fast-forward to the May 13th, 2021, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announcement relaxing the Stay Put/Stay Safe travel ultimatum in the United States. Travelers are now following the mantra “anywhere but home.” After getting the required family visit out of the way, everyone is ready to roam. 

If the buyer’s journey was hyperlocal during COVID-19, it’s now shifted to an almost competitive Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). Friends are sharing stories about how they just booked their trips for the long-awaited getaway. Key travel dates in coveted locations are getting booked quickly. Fear of missing out and being able to share that they, too, have their getaway trip booked has dramatically shortened the buyer’s journey. 

As potential travelers shift from the looking to considering to deciding phases of the guest journey, there’s usually a conversation to share details with their partner and get their verbal approval. This is the “Ask then Book” flow. After the booker receives the OK, typically, they’ll Google the hotel’s name and click one of the first links they see. Hotel marketing budgets are still a tiny percentage of what they were. But OTAs have the budget to buy the hotels’ brand names and usually have at least two of the paid sponsored spots. So most bookers will click on an OTA link. At this point, the hotel is less likely to secure a direct booking.

So, how do hotels capture direct bookings and not give them up to OTAs? 

We need to flip the looker/booker flow in the Research/Decision phases from “Ask to Book” to “Book then Tell.” 

There are two fundamental shifts here. One is empowering the looker to become a booker. Two is giving them all the information they need to make their partner comfortable that this was the best decision for the trip.

And if they do happen to hit resistance, it must be easy to go back and change the reservation. During the research phase, most travelers go to the hotel website to get a feel for the overall experience. This is the hotel’s best opportunity to capture the guest and directly convert their booking. That means the hotel has to capture this traveler – and their booking – before they leave the site. 

This means the hotel site needs to be constructed in a very sticky fashion that:

  • Answers all the booker’s questions 
  • Tailors personalized messages to them
  • Creates a sense of urgency that they need to book right there and then
  • Convinces them that they won’t see cheaper pricing elsewhere
  • Can bring them easily back to finish if they abandon the cart
  • Doesn’t penalize them for cancellation

What makes a hotel website sticky? First you need to understand what makes it not sticky. I would argue that most hotel websites are comparable based on the targeted segment: economy, midscale, upscale, or luxury. They all provide similar information (some better than others): rooms available, photo gallery, dining options, fitness center, local area, FAQs, offers, amenities, etc. Branding drives additional value, as do loyalty/rewards programs. This is now the new level playing field in which hotels operate. But this isn’t the sticky part of the website.

To be sticky, the site also needs to deliver extra value to the guest. It must go above and beyond other sites to provide information that’s relevant, valuable and influential to the looker. It has to be a one-stop-shop offering reviews and price comparisons. It should demonstrate credibility. This extra value is critically important as the buyer’s journey shrinks in terms of time spent on the site. 

The site should show relevant messages based on pages viewed, the guest’s device type, location, dates searched, trip duration, and referring website. If the guest abandons the booking engine, chase them with a gentle reminder email to return and finish the booking. That’s what makes the site sticky.

Instead of the buyer going through their journey and hopping from channel to channel and site to site, one visit to the hotel’s website should capture their full attention, gently funnel them to through the buyer’s journey, and ultimately capture the booking. 

The site creates extra value by not treating the individual the same as the others do. Some ways to do this include:

  • Smartly placed widgets that showcase aggregated multi-site reviews 
  • Placing pricing comparison widgets on the booking engine
  • Add a pop-up message to get them to reconsider when they try to leave the site 
  • Prominently display parking information if they’re within driving distance 
  • Share info on special shuttle services to the airport if they’re a flight away 
  • Display a length of stay discounted messaging if they’re planning to stay for more than four days 
  • Offer special pricing on a suite if they enter four guests into the search widget 
  • Track them down if they start a search but save it 
  • Send messages to let them know they don’t need to leave the site to book if they come from an OTA site, a review site or other external point of origin 
  • Create a sense of urgency with messages like: “There are x number of people looking at this hotel right now,” “Our availability is low on your dates – lock in a great price before it’s too late,” or “X people have already booked today.” 

As travelers rush to book their first big post-COVID-19 getaway trip, all these extra-value levels of personalization, customization, and urgency will help separate your hotel’s site from the competition, making it sticky and converting lookers to direct bookers.

Michael Goldrich is the global head of Digital Marketing for Club Quarters Hotels.

©2021 Hospitality Upgrade
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