Hotels’ fight against OTAs – now it’s personal

Effective use of customer knowledge is the key to more direct bookings, says Hotelchamp’s Kristian Valk.

Traditional travel agents – the kind of establishments that used to populate every high street in the country – very quickly disappeared when the digital revolution happened and access to the world wide web came to the majority of homes. In their place, a new kind of travel agency – known as online travel agents or OTAs – appeared, growing into industry giants seemingly overnight.

Now, everyone can find details of just about every resort, hotel and destination from the comfort of their own living room through the likes of and Expedia. And while this might seem like a godsend for hoteliers, whose exposure has gone through the roof, it’s also had some damaging effects too.

With many hotels now seeing a large percentage of their bookings made through OTAs, they end up paying a great deal of money in fees, eating into their profit margin. However, the risk of removing themselves from OTA websites is too great to contemplate. Their independence has been stripped away from them, and they desperately need to re-establish the connection with people who are – let’s face it – their own customers.

Increasing the number of bookings that they receive directly – not through OTAs – is the way for these hoteliers to reassert themselves and boost their bottom line. While their hands may be tied in terms of rate parity laws, which stop them offering a lower price on their own site than on the OTA websites, they do have one trump card still to play.

This is where it gets personal. In an age where Amazon suggests items that you might like to buy, Netflix teases you with new shows that fit your tastes, and Spotify curates tracks and artists based on what you’ve previously listened to, consumers are increasingly becoming used to highly personalised services. And when it comes to customer knowledge, the hoteliers very much have the upper hand. No-one knows more about the guest staying under a hotel’s roof than the hotel itself.

However, the path to creating a highly personalised service isn’t straightforward. One of the first things hoteliers need to get a grip of is all the data points that are being generated about each customer during their stay. Some of these data points can be tracked more easily than others, but let’s focus initially on the website.

We’ve already established that many of a hotel’s bookings are made through OTAs rather than directly, but this doesn’t mean that guests don’t look at the hotel’s own website. In fact, it’s very common for consumers to take a look at the hotel site to check out the images, facilities and even just to reassure themselves that it actually exists.

This is the hotel’s chance to make a positive impact on the potential guest. A well-designed website with simple navigation that makes it easy to find the relevant information quickly will be appreciated. High quality images of the rooms, facilities and amenities will also go down well. But this is also a golden opportunity for hotels to tempt the guest into booking direct – rather than returning to the OTA and making the booking there – and establishing this personal relationship.

It is possible to work around rate parity laws with special offers on the website. For example, a scrolling carousel of images could be accompanied by text that entices visitors to the website to enter their email address in order to qualify for a special discount if the booking is made within a certain period. Once the email address is collected, the hotel can send a special voucher, only redeemable on its own site to the guest. As a bonus, the email address can also be used for future promotions – of course, only if the guest explicitly agrees to this.

But even if the booking does come through an OTA, there is a lot of data that can still be mined by the hotel. What country does the guest come from? Are the dates of the stay significant – such as Christmas, New Year or the beginning of the school holidays, for example? How big is the party and what is their relationship to one another?

Putting a system in place that is capable of capturing this data is one thing, but looking for the patterns and reacting accordingly is quite another. For instance, guests making Christmas bookings may want a special meal on the 25th of December (perhaps the 24th if they come from Scandinavia) and if there are children in the party then Santa might pay a visit too. It’s these types of personal touches that customers really appreciate, potentially leading to repeat business.

There are other hurdles to collecting the data required to create a highly personalised service, of course. Not all of it is as easy to capture digitally as the information that comes from the booking – for example, how the guest arrived at the hotel, what facilities they use during their stay, and whether they use the in-house dining service.

The major challenge with offering highly personalised services is the many different types of hotel guest there are to cater for. You can’t just think in terms of business or leisure – there are many other factors to consider. And some guests may not offer many opportunities for upselling, so hoteliers need to think about how they identify the guests that are potentially high value.

Very often, these high-value guests are the ones who book direct, so hoteliers should go out of their way to reward them. As the fee that would have potentially gone to the OTA has been recouped, they could consider using at least part of that fee to offer the guest a special gift – breakfast in their room on the house, or a free bottle of champagne perhaps, depending on their taste. Again, these personalised touches inspire loyalty, and make the guest feel truly appreciated.

Hotels need to make better use of the data they have to form a more direct and more delightful relationship with guests. It’s time their fight against OTAs got personal.

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