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Multistep Booking Engines: Engineering a Successful Formula for Bookings

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October 26, 2006
Mike Kistner

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© 2006 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

To book or not to book? That is the question for the traveler on your site. Does he or she make that click to bring that in-demand head to your bed? Or does he or she continue to another site better suited to his or her online preferences?

Debate abounds around one-screen versus multistep in the booking process, and whether presentation through HTML or Flash is better for your bottom line. But, the first point to understand is the importance of content. Without the right information, you can’t expect end-users to make informed booking decisions regardless of delivery or presentation. Are your rates delivered directly from a central reservation system (CRS)? Do you provide custom Web descriptions for rates? Do you have multilingual support? Is property content pulled directly from the online distribution database? It cannot be emphasized enough, at the end of the day content will determine the success of your site.

As a supplier, there are two additional areas to consider in determining the best process and presentation for your booking engine: ease of use for the consumer, and ease of measurement for you. You need the customer’s “buy-in,” and you need to measure how their actions (browsing, booking, discovering or exiting) affect your performance.

As e-commerce has evolved, both in and outside of the hospitality industry, shoppers and suppliers have embraced the multistep process. For hotels, it allows you to carefully implement trust-building features at the point of sale (site security, privacy, best rate guarantee), which influence decision making and ultimately boost conversion rates. The norm in the industry for more than 11 years, multistep has helped bring U.S. Web users to an acceptable level of comfort, evidenced by the 2005 $62 billion online travel market in 2005. While one screen, which utilizes Flash, is also used, e-commerce top performers consistently opt for multistep. In the travel and hospitality industry, this includes hotels like Marriott or intermediaries like Expedia, which will book more than $12 billion this year. The list also extends to all major hotel brands, airlines, car rental companies and third-party online intermediaries.

Customers have also demonstrated a preference for HTML over Flash. Most Internet users are familiar with HTML as the programming language of the Internet, but Flash, though aesthetically appealing, is still unknown and obscure to many. Again, since e-commerce security is already a major concern, the need to deliver information in a mode comfortable and familiar to shoppers is imperative.

With presentation, a preference has emerged for information displayed in installments (as in multistep) and a format that is easier on the eye than one screen, which can be overly busy. In one screen, where layouts can be confusing, information is displayed in one concentrated chunk that works against providing immediate visual access to important content on the page. For example:
  • Fonts can be too small or difficult to read, a hindrance to seniors or baby boomers; 
  • Room descriptions are too “skinny,” requiring scrolling; and 
  • Despite the rich media display, images have been dubbed too small or unappealing to incite booking.
These points also contribute to confusion over the point of entry for payment information, which can be daunting for novice users. Of course, in an era where loyalty to your brand and your site is a key incremental growth strategy, this is the last place you want an end-user to be tenuous.
With the right content and a rich enough one-screen Flash presentation, you, the supplier, may still feel confident in your site’s ability to compete. Until you consider that users may not have access to your content at all because Flash images will often be blocked by pop-up blockers or in corporate firewalls (say goodbye to that employee booking at work). Or, that one-screen booking pages are time consuming to download on a 56K dial-up connection, which eliminates the 58 percent of households in the U.S. that don’t have broadband. If you can’t even get your consumer to the point of booking, then how can you possibly convert the sale, much less measure your performance?
Because, you do have to measure your performance. Without a measure of ROI, it’s impossible to determine areas on your site that need to be improved, duplicated or maximized. And currently, all of the Web analytics applications have difficulty tracking visits and bookings via the one-screen reservation process using Flash. Conversely, booking engines utilizing multistep are easy to monitor and report based on your data preferences.
According to PhoCusWright, 46 percent of online travel buyers purchasing hotels stay at the supplier Web site, meaning your greatest opportunity to convert is where you have the greatest control of your brand and your booking. In selecting your booking engine, take advantage of emerging technologies, but remember they will only increase revenue if they are in line with your users’ site expectations and Web preferences, as well as your organization’s monitoring capabilities.
And remember, content is king. Only when you’ve made the most of your online investment by providing the right content with good design will you ensure your booking engine results in a simple answer: To book.

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