Revenue Management: Data Surfing for Fun and Profit... Or at Least Revenue

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March 31, 2011
Revenue Management
Jon Inge - jon@joninge.com

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Revenue management systems used to be considered impossibly complex, hard to keep up with and hard to understand.  Now the marketplace itself has become that way, and it’s manual revenue management that’s become impossibly complex.  How are systems changing to help?

Revenue management has always been an integral part of hotel operations, even as simply as posting different rates for weekdays and weekends.  Early automated systems were certainly effective, comparing the current booking pace for different market segments against historic patterns, then recommending rate and/or length of stay adjustments that would encourage guests to book when it was most beneficial both to them and to the property’s goals.  However, it seemed that the best results came only for larger hotels that had guests in several distinct market segments, each with clearly identifiable stay patterns and price sensitivities that could be easily manipulated. 

Things are different.  Rates are held down from the recession and by the ease of price shopping, and market segments are harder to distinguish as travelers book through different channels depending on their needs for a particular trip.  The growing influence of peer reviews adds a new factor, and more impulsive buying habits give hotels less time to react to trends.  Three major travel disruptions in the past decade have reduced the usefulness of historic data; seasonal and day of week patterns still form the underlying groundwork for forecasting, but the variations in booking patterns for individual segments have become much harder to distinguish. 

The ease of comparative pricing and the difficulty of distinguishing between competing brands in the same quality segment have meant that shopping is often done first on the basis of price.  This makes it essential for hotels that aren’t competing on price alone–and who does, really–to distinguish themselves, not necessarily in the marketplace at large but certainly in the minds of the guests in their principal market segments. 

Every hotel must know its own value proposition (market leader, follower but good value, technology specialist, great resort location) and state it clearly and often, online and offline.  Only then can it target different market segments individually within that overall philosophy, offering specific rates and packages to each that are clearly worth their higher prices. 

Revenue management and marketing are thus now tied together closely, and it’s much more common for revenue managers to operate as part of a team that includes all major operating departments.  They can help marketing identify suitable segments to approach with specific offers – in fact Rainmaker’s system will suggest campaigns that can be run to fill gaps forecast in upcoming business – and which ones aren’t worth the effort.  Search engine optimization (SEO) is essential for making sure the property is easily found in searches by the right type of guests, but you have to know who you’re targeting; you don’t want to be at the top of every page of search results.

All of these factors have led to a new approach to revenue management, one that properties of every type and size can benefit from and in fact must use if they’re not to be left behind.  Older technologies and broader data reviews at weekly or monthly intervals mask a great number of subtle variations.  These may balance themselves out over the longer period, but the closer you analyze the wealth of booking and stay detail that systems now capture the more it becomes possible to identify many micro-market segments.  Each will have its own patterns and preferences as to booking channel, lead times and combinations of rates and activities that it finds appealing.  Micro-managing each is essential if money is not to be left on the table.

The result is a need for data awareness and management at a level far too complex to handle manually.  The current range of revenue management systems (RMSs) not only allow this detail to be identified in more depth, pulled from a wider range of sources and distribution channels, but also provide the means to manage it effectively in real time.  The systems have become wider, deeper and faster.

Wider
While base rates are still down after the recession (despite signs of recovery in occupancy) and travelers can compare them in an instant, people will still pay more for more perceived value.  Hotels have thus had to become better at identifying narrower market segments to target with justifiably higher prices in the form of special-interest offers and customized packages.  These niche travelers use an ever-proliferating number of Web sites to shop (including Facebook pages and Twitter) which makes it more complex to track them and to distribute rates and availability across the right channels to attract them. 

Though this niche marketing is effective and has the added advantage of making it harder to compare the prices with everyday rates, it makes it equally harder to track competitors’ rates.  This essential task requires much more care in selecting truly comparable hotels for a competitive set, as well as tracking more detail as to what is included in their rates and packages.  With travelers often checking a complete city, destination or region for availability rather than just a few hotels, it also requires casting a geographically wider net to follow trends on an equally broad scale. 

Despite a strong emphasis on price comparison, travelers are now often influenced by other guests’ experiences and recommendations as reported through social media.  Although hotels must respond at once to the individual comments (both positive and negative) on review sites, travelers place more reliance on the aggregate of all comments.  Many travel sites therefore now provide an overall popularity rating for each hotel to make this easier, and RMSs need to take these into account when forecasting demand.  They can either collect the ratings directly from the individual sites or through one of the many reputation management services (such as Revinate, SearchView, HotelProtect, ReviewPro, Review Analyst, TrustYou, eBuzz Connect, Chatter Guard and ReviewMetrix) that hotels use to track how they’re mentioned online.

Automated rate comparison reporting and distribution channel management tools have become essential, and many vendors now offer both.  Rate shopping reporting from vendors such as TRAVELCLICK®, Rubicon, RateTiger, RateGain and others has grown in depth and scope, and the data is increasingly being integrated into the RMS vendors’ products for ease of comparison.  Distribution management systems such as EzYield, RateTiger, SynXis, Availpro, HBSi and others cover an ever-widening landscape of channels, and are now often integrated with the RMSs that generate the changes to maximize the speed of implementation.

Deeper
Not only do RMSs need to look across a wider landscape of market segments and distribution channels, they need deeper knowledge of each in order to craft the most effective offers for them.  Relevant information includes each guest’s booking patterns (season, day of week, lead time, channel, etc.), preferences, experiences and spending habits.  Gathering this requires good interfaces with the multiple systems that contain this information–central reservations, hospitality management, social networks, guest history and so on–to extract, consolidate and analyze the data.

Tracking full revenue details from guests’ folios is especially important to identify the most profitable visitors, looking beyond their room rates to include all the other outlets and activities they like to enjoy and so might be offered in future.  The same applies to groups.  Sales and catering systems already track some ancillary revenue streams such as F&B and audio-visual rentals for group events.  Extending this beyond the group’s scheduled activities to include group members’ spending throughout the property during their stay can generate a highly valuable calculation of revenue per occupied group room, or ROGR.

Try looking deeper into it from other viewpoints, too.  RevPAR is the universal comparison standard, but what does the RevPAR look like sorted by room type?  How about by room attribute, such as view?  If the revenue for one room type is often below average, why?  Is it the preferred type for front desk agents to use when upgrading guests without increasing their rate?  Is it typically occupied by group members on a discounted rate? 

Another important data set to collect is unconstrained demand; how many rooms could have been sold but were turned away for lack of space?  Reservations systems should make it truly simple for agents to record the reason why any inquiry didn’t result in a booking (just shopping, rate too high, no rooms available of the right type or at all, etc.), and must provide suitably detailed and flexible reporting.  Internet booking engines can identify how many site visits were abandoned without a reservation, although this is much trickier to assign to specific reasons.  Nonetheless, monitoring which pages a visitor looked at before abandoning the site can provide excellent feedback toward making it a more effective booking tool.

Collecting and analyzing data is critical, but it’s only meaningful if it’s as accurate as possible.  This is a never-ending process of eliminating duplicate records, checking change-of-address databases, ensuring that each system contributing data defines it in the same way, and so on.  Such a database is the essential foundation of customer relationship management (CRM) and business intelligence (BI) efforts, and is equally valuable to RMS.  The three disciplines are increasingly interrelated, all working with different views of the same crucial database.  In fact, business intelligence specialist Datavision reports that several of its clients use its system as much for revenue management as for BI.

Faster
Isn’t everything, these days?  Lead times for booking are shorter than ever, either through uncertainty over business plans or to satisfy a spontaneous need for a break.  In a circular development, hotels desperate to fill rooms have often resorted to last-minute offers (hopefully well planned and targeted to specific segments, and not based on the cash-flow-trumps-profit approach) and so have taught travelers to expect them, leading to even shorter lead times.  Smartphones have even given us the ability to check availability and book rooms even from the sidewalk outside the hotel. 

Distributing a set of rates and availability across multiple channels while ensuring rate parity across them all also demands speed.  With booking channels running into the hundreds and with shoppers running rate comparisons all the time, it’s simply not possible for hotels to update rates and availability across all relevant channels manually. 

More than anything else, though, the increasingly fragmented market and shorter lead times mean that revenue management has had to become a much more dynamic process, with a stronger emphasis on monitoring real-time behavior than on historical comparisons.  Hoteliers need to see, in real time, how every micro-segment of their market responds to the various rates and offers they distribute to different channels, as well as to changes in competitors’ rates and offers. 

They then need to react rapidly by switching inventory from offer to offer, channel to channel and segment to segment to emphasize those showing the most popularity, a task that cannot be done manually with enough speed and accuracy to be effective.  RMSs are now configured to make these redistributions automatically in response to trends detected, and  highlight unusual changes–or rates of change–that might need to be checked manually.

The Human Factor
This brings up the need for balance between automation and human intervention.  With earlier systems, hotel managers would sometimes feel that the system’s forecasts were counter-intuitive and would override them.  Trusting one’s gut based on years of experience wasn’t unusual, despite the best efforts of the vendors to help users have faith in the systems’ analyses.

Today the situation is almost completely reversed.  Managers, especially those in more limited-service properties with lean staffing, recognize that they can’t keep up with the depth and breadth of detail involved and the need to keep on top of market movements in multiple segments as bookings come in 24/7 from around the world.  They’ve come to accept that technology will do this far more capably, accurately and quickly than they could, and that their time and experience are better spent on setting strategy and investigating exceptions.  To this end, many systems present their recommendations and results in the form of graphic dashboards to make it easier to spot alert conditions.

Balance is still required.  The systems aren’t infallible, and they don’t know when local factors change until they see shifts on booking patterns. Even then they don’t know that a new conference center opened nearby, or that a water leak has closed a competitor’s property.  This same reasoning applies to effective centralized or regional revenue management by hotel chains.  Having experts set strategy at these levels brings great experience to bear and leverages national trends and chain standards well, but there’s still a need for manual input on local factors invisible at the higher levels.  Most vendors and some independent companies offer consulting services to help limited-staff properties with regular reviews of the systems settings and recommendations, and keep things generally on track.

Managers’ experience is still invaluable in checking rate recommendations that don’t feel right.  The systems let them define exception conditions that will trigger an alert and provide drill-down to check the underlying assumptions at a level of detail that simply wasn’t practical before.  Checking the accuracy of the system’s forecasts against actual bookings is also a management task; any forecast percentage error in double digits means that something’s off track.  Trusting the system, validating its results and fine-tuning it based on experience brings out the best in both manager and technology. 

Management judgment also comes into play in interpreting reputation management scores when setting rates.  If they’re consistently all five-star, perhaps the hotel is not charging enough.  If they’re always three-star or less, something’s definitely amiss; the property may be old or aimed at the wrong market segment, but there’s clearly a disconnect with the guests’ expectations.  Hotels need to be in tune with how guests actually position the property, not their own wishes for it.  Post-stay surveys can help with this, as can asking guests at check-out where they would have looked to stay if the hotel had been sold out.

Speaking of guest interaction, many properties don’t make good use of the front desk up-sell opportunities presented by guests who book through merchant model or opaque sites.  Although these guests are clearly price-conscious, they’ve already paid for the room in advance when they arrive to check in and are much more likely to consider the relatively minor cost of upgrading to a better quality room or package.

Many properties use Smith Travel Research’s daily reports to check how their rate  and occupancy shares measure up against their comp set, but these don’t tell the whole story.  Most hotels will have these two factors in balance–within 10 percent of each other–but a hotel that’s dominant in its market should always have all factors above 100 percent.  How well it’s doing is then determined by how much and how consistently it exceeds the average.  The recession showed the drawback of these figures in that they only report revenue, not profitability.  Many rate cuts have been justified on the basis of “we’re still on a level with our comp set,” when in fact no one’s making any money and they’re all chasing each other downhill. 

Other ratios are sometimes suggested as more meaningful approaches, such as RevPAG (revenue per available guest) and GOPPAR (gross operating profit per available room), but it’s hard to base comparisons on them.  A city center property may not know how many guests it really has including locals who use their facilities but aren’t staying there, and not enough hotels are willing to report their bottom-line costs in enough detail to make GOPPAR a meaningful comparison within a comp set.  At least for now, it’s more effective to focus on the separate disciplines of increasing revenue and tightening cost controls.

Managing a hotel is still a human task, requiring judgement calls and policy decisions that can only be made by people.  As mentioned earlier, every property has its own distinct value proposition; management must always direct operations and marketing to this focus, setting a revenue management system’s goals and interpreting comparison data accordingly.  As always, it’s up to general managers and senior staff to set the culture.  Strong and frequently expressed belief in the value of the systems encourage their best and most effective use, and are essential to building trust in their recommendations.

Systems Directions
One result of these trends in revenue management is that the three main systems focusing on specific areas of the overall operation–rate reporting, channel management and revenue management itself–are expanding their functionality and often overlapping.  Channel distribution managers such as RateTiger and EzYield have added other modules for competitive rate reporting, social reputation feedback and even forecasting.  Micros Systems, which used to sell its Opus RMS as an add-on to its Opera suite, rewrote it into a completely new application that’s an integral part of the Opera suite’s database, making its interaction with the PMS as real-time as you can get.  RevPAR Guru, a relatively recent arrival, wrote its application from the start to include as many RMS functions as possible. 

The revenue management system vendors–Maxim, IDeaS, EzRMS, Amadeus RMS, Rainmaker, Xotels, to name a few– have all expanded their systems functionally considerably over the years, and all are available on a remotely hosted SaaS basis for simplest implementation.  Most now use graphic displays to present their data and recommendations in easy-to-understand formats and are easier to implement.  By analyzing all historic profile and folio detail they can suggest possible segments, trends and alert conditions that are specifically relevant to the property as a basis for system configuration. 

Effective integration with hospitality management and central reservations systems has always required them to be able to accept hurdle rates from the RMSs, i.e. prices below which they will not accept business.  Recent trends toward these systems using derived rates (e.g., BAR less 10 percent rather than individually defined amounts for each market segment, room type and date) have made it much easier to manage the RMSs recommendations and make sure that none are overlooked.

Mobile technology seems to be affecting every part of the industry lately, and RMSs are no exception.  Though the screen format is too small to serve as anything like a primary workstation, eRevMax has released versions of its RateTiger suite for iPhone and BlackBerry smartphones that let managers make quick updates to rate and room availability away from the office.

Not only are systems covering more areas of the discipline, vendors are forming more partnerships with each other to integrate their systems capabilities.  This helps accuracy and speed of reaction by aligning multiple systems toward the same, known goals, and helps hoteliers by reducing the number of different vendors and system sets with which they are dealing.  It’s hard to tell whether this will lead to more vendor consolidation through takeovers and mergers or whether just to more formal partnerships with well defined standard system interfaces, but from an operator’s viewpoint fewer, more capable vendors are better than several working to their own agendas.

The Wider View
We’re into the third phase of revenue manager expertise.  The first were essentially reservations managers, aware of general booking patterns and making adjustments manually.  Next came the detail-oriented number-crunchers, often working in isolation to compare pace against forecasts and tweak availability and rates accordingly.  Now successful revenue managers are much more rounded.  They still need to understand the data and analysis – even more so in today’s micro-granular market – but they must also take a wider view, working in a team with marketing and operations managers to make the best placements in the right places at the most effective times. 

More than ever before, the art of revenue management requires balancing automated data collection and analysis with skilled managers, who stay on top of local trends and rapid changes in consumer buying behavior and who drive the systems with a clear knowledge of their own value proposition.  The power and dynamic response of modern revenue management systems give managers the time they need to focus on the bigger picture and to set the proper strategy for current industry trends and peer activity.  As a result, they’ve become an indispensable tool for properties of every size and type.

Jon Inge is an independent consultant specializing in technology at the property level. He can be reached at jon@joninge.com or by phone at (206) 546-0966.

©2011 Hospitality Upgrade
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Gaining an Edge at Gaylord

Gaylord Hotels have long had a reputation for getting the absolute most out of its property technology, starting back when Opryland had only 600 rooms (it now has over 2,8oo).  What’s the company's approach to revenue management?

Vice President of Revenue Management Jack Easdale said, “We’ve seen the advantages of integrating revenue management with both the full management team and the other property management systems for many years.” Easdale is based at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Conference Center on Grapevine Lake, near Dallas-Fort Worth airport.  “With our volume of group and convention business, it’s invaluable to have the revenue management system (IDeaS) tightly integrated with the sales and catering application (Daylight) to get instant feedback on optimizing group blocks.  It’s also speaking to our property management system (Agilysys’ LMS) and with EZYield’s channel distribution.”

How has the management approach changed over the past few years? “We’ve always had a centralized RM for a consistent brand strategy and recently reorganized to include a vice president at each property responsible for total hotel RevPAR including meeting space optimization and ancillary spend,” said Easdale.  “The biggest change is that we’ve moved many non-selling roles such as space management and leads distribution out of sales and into revenue management. This permits sales to focus on finding qualified leads and converting them at the right price, and a true partnering with RM to find the inventory and the space the client needs, at the right price for the market given our unique value proposition.”

Gaylord goes back a long way.  Is historical data as important as it used to be?  “Absolutely. The most desired patterns in group business may have run slightly lower occupancies or ADRs in 2009-2010, but they were still the most desired patterns. The demand distribution curve may have shrunk, but it maintained the same shape.

“Knowledge is power. Revenue management is both a science and an art, of course, but without technology a lot of the science is removed and gut feel and instinct prevail. This can be very dangerous. Technology allows us to pull data from our system in real-time, make educated, strategic decisions on the fly, and do so in a highly accurate manner. Coming from a revenue management old-school practitioner like me who manually yielded hotels for years,?RMS is certainly the way to go.”
 
 
 

Success in the Sun at Santa Fe

Santa Fe’s artistic atmosphere is known for producing original, independent thinking, and the Hotel Santa Fe, the city’s only Native American owned hotel, is a good example.  When it was looking for tools to help it recover from the recession, revenue management systems were high on the list, but only if they would allow the management to make their own individual judgments on its recommendations.

“We’re very dependent on electronic bookings,” said Paul Margetson, Managing Director of the property and its three sister operations, The Hacienda, Las Palomas Inn and the Inn on the Paseo, an 18-room B&B.  “The Hotel receives 29 percent of its reservations that way, and the B&B as many as 62 percent.  It was clear that we needed some automated help in staying on top of our several distribution channels and staying very aware of shifts in booking trends.  Being a day or two behind on what was happening wasn’t good enough; we needed to be right on top of developments.

“We found a good match with the system we selected (RevPAR Guru), which we implemented 18 months ago, integrated with our PAR Springer-Miller Host PMS.  One revenue manager looks after all four locations; she was impossibly busy trying to work manually, and now really appreciates being able to review the system’s recommendations, make any manual adjustments these unique properties need and then get the rates out there immediately and consistently.

“Results have been very encouraging.  Given the general improvement in business lately it’s hard to say just how much has been due to the technology, but we’re seeing a 20 percent to 25 percent improvement in revenue from electronic bookings over last year.  We can’t imagine working without a system now, and have just signed up for another year.”

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