This article was contributed by Blessy Townes, Vice President & Head of Digital at Discovery Hospitality.
Blessy is a founding member of the Hotel Heroes panel - a group of trusted experts sharing their experience and knowledge with the aim of educating and empowering the hotel industry.
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Since the turn of the century, the Direct Booking Movement has had quite a journey. In the previous years, hotels used the online space to boost their business's visibility and increase their reach - often through the help of online travel agents. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) was a fairly new concept within hospitality, while Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising was often seen as an unnecessary expense.
But the hotel industry thinks a lot differently today than it did five years ago. With the arrival of internet-savvy travelers and the rise of mobile devices, hotels now face a new challenge, and must stay on top of innovation to remain visible within the online marketplace. That's when a shift occurred, and the balance between the direct and OTA channels fundamentally changed.
How did the rise of digital change the game for hotels?
The evolution of eCommerce brought a new understanding of what a conversion-driving hotel website should be like. Firstly, it meant providing a personal, seamless user experience. Secondly, it brought about SEO copywriting - a basic requirement for any hotel wanting to do well on search engines. Thirdly, social media and online influencers became a commodity, and the likes of web agencies and third-party partners started to help hotels with their digital campaigns. Most importantly, the opportunities of new-age eCommerce changed the hotel industry's mindset - they no longer needed to rely on OTAs and pay high commissions to reach untapped audiences and fill their rooms.
Why do we need the Direct Booking Movement?
Growing OTA commissions have always been a problem, whether you're a major global brand or small independent hotel. However, the changing landscape has presented an additional challenge in building meaningful direct relationships with guests online. Third-party channels have taken away a hotel's complete control over curating the best possible guest experience, and hoteliers have had to get creative to seize the initiative. These two factors have led to a tremendous growth within the Direct Booking Movement.
Today, an engaging and innovative direct booking strategy is crucial for a hotel's digital marketing plan, and is the new 'normal' for any hotel that wants to get more high-value guests at a lesser cost. Thankfully, the rise of vendors offering website conversion tools, cost-efficient advertising strategies and affordable artificial intelligence all are helping digital marketers make their direct booking campaigns more successful than ever before.
How did Discovery Hospitality achieve success in driving more direct?
Discovery Hospitality started its digital transformation (and direct booking journey) in 2014 when it established a digital marketing department. The team was tasked with increasing overall web visibility and social media engagement. But their top objective was to grow bookings and revenue from their hotels' direct channels.
In the beginning, Discover Hospitality struggled with a poor website experience, tricky booking engine navigation and an overall unsatisfying user experience. Some of the company's hotels suffered from low search visibility online and weak brand awareness due to inadequate budgets and resources.
Over time, direct booking strategies became the centre of Discovery Hospitality’s digital transformation. My team started with designing a digital roadmap with the customer journey in mind, and during the first stage of the journey we decided to focus on:
- Relaunching the website, while greatly improving the user experience and reducing friction;
- Our acquisition strategy - not only increasing the number of customers we were attracting to our direct channel, but bringing in ones who are the most likely to book;
- Social media storytelling, content curation and our brand story;
- Changing the company's mindset, and transitioning into the modern hospitality era (from traditional to digital).
These changes grew our direct booking revenue by 735%.
In the second stage of our development, we looked at:
- We made our websites mobile-friendly in response to Google’s major algorithm change in search results;
- We created additional booking channels (including click to call, live chat, support tickets, etc.);
- We revitalized our guest loyalty program, giving real incentive to repeat visitors;
- We launched our direct booking and remarketing campaigns.
In response, our online bookings doubled in 2016 and 2017.
Finally, we strengthened our on-page engagement, customer retention, and traffic acquisition strategies with artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Today, our growth in revenue from direct booking channels in one year is at 51% - double that of our growth from OTAs in the same time period. This translated to a 37% share of revenue, and an ROI of over 100:1!
What's next for the Direct Booking Movement?
The hospitality industry is still catching up with digital trends - especially in terms of conversion attribution. But, compared to recent years, we're already looking at an overall growth of direct business as a result of delivering excellent guest experiences online.
It's inspiring to see hotels of all sizes outperform OTAs, despite the eCommerce giants' budgets and technologies. As long as the hotelier community comes together to share best practices, and technology continues to assist hotels in lowering the cost per acquisition, the Direct Booking Movement will continue to empower hotels to win the war against the OTAs.
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