This month Hotel News ME talks to tech-savvy e-commerce gurus to find out how hotels are riding the wave of success from online bookings, to OTAs and social media platforms.
The role of ecommerce in hospitality can often be underplayed in the industry, what responsibilities fall under your job role?
Abbas: The role mainly involves driving traffic and creating incremental revenue to direct channels, which is the main focus at the moment with the OTA business being so dominant with the high commissions being paid from the hotels.
Some of the activities include creating different tactical campaigns, SEO and pay-per-click, and there are a lot of activities we do on a daily basis. Another thing I do, and it’s due to the nature of our job, is training and explaining to our stakeholders what I’m doing and what the benefits are.
Tom: Ultimately, the role goes beyond advertising and promotions and it leads back to generating actual revenue on the hotel’s web channels including social media. From a wider perspective, it isn’t just online but digital as it integrates offline media such as mobile, print, radio, TV and press.
Responsibilities cover: branding and promotion to improve the presence of the brand on the web; creating and implementing digital advertising campaigns, e.g. PPC, CPC, SMS; video marketing; preparing digital communications pertaining to the property including newsletters (HTMLs); and managing all social media channels, mobile marketing channels and third party sites, to name a few.
Additional responsibilities include: managing online marketing budgets including media buying; maximising press coverage on online publications and blogs; implementing strategies to increase the database of the hotel and planning targeted campaigns and online reputation management (ORM); managing hotel and restaurant listings on third party sites; tracking, evaluating and responding to reviews online; and conducting regular quality assurance audits to ensure parity on all online channels.
Scholles: It is correct to say that the role of e-commerce is often underestimated in the hospitality industry and I am in charge of a large number of different operations, including SEO to increase the visibility of the hotel in different search engines.
I am also in charge of SEM – search engine marketing – which is a tool like SEO used to increase the hotel’s visibility in search engines through public campaigns like pay per click. I also do remarketing, for example, we send emails and SMS blasts to our existing database to inform them of our current promotions, packages and offers.
Lastly, and most importantly I look after the website management of OTAs in terms of our visibility, I also do other smaller tasks in conjunction with the public relations department, including monitoring reviews on social media, responding and analysing them. And with regards to ecommerce, we are in charge of boosting the exposure of the property on social media to raise awareness and we aren’t just limited to Twitter and Facebook, but FourSquare, Zomato and TripAdvisor, which have to be looked after and managed also.
Schwetje: At Anantara the role of e-commerce is quite comprehensive and in addition to web related activities such Search Engine Optimisation and marketing, e-commerce is also responsible for electronic distribution. Subjects such as reputation management, social media, website management and optimisation as well as packaging, is collaboratively handled by working closely with the marketing team.
Sayed: That’s true as it can be underplayed, but inevitably e-commerce will be the vital pivot for the future of hospitality globally, take airlines for example, how many people nowadays go into a travel agent store to book a flight? Very few.
Responsibilities which fall under my remit range from anything and everything touching online space and mediums. From managing our Marriott.com websites content to OTA content and relationships, imagery and online marketing strategies just to name a few. What we have to understand now is that e-commerce is no longer the side-kick of the super hero, it’s now the main star, because of the central and integral role it plays in driving people to the hotel.
How would you say that ecommerce has changed in the industry?
Scholles: E-commerce has made the whole hospitality industry faster and increased the pace and the system. Traditionally, people used to visit a local travel agency, pick up a brochure, glance at the pictures, listen to the agent’s recommendations, check the prices and book. Nowadays, people just browse online checking prices, comparing hotels in the area and looking at other guest reviews.
Tom: A great tell-tale sign is the allocation of marketing spend between print media and digital media and we see that there is a shift in how marketing folks are choosing to assign their budgets. The fact is that the return-on-marketing-investment of digital campaigns can be much easier identified.
Also, because of digital media, the guest’s experience of the hotel starts from before he even books the hotel. Any guest can build their expectation of the hotel from the look and feel of the website, the quality of imagery and the prices they charge before they book or check-in. Guests can even become a member of a hotel loyalty programme at the click of a button and before they’ve even visited the hotel. From a hotel’s perspective, this is great for encouraging advocacy right from the start.
Abbas: Tremendously, I started in the field of e-commerce when things started picking up in the Middle East and If I compare now to 10 years back, especially here in our region, more and more consumers are going online with more confidence in purchasing goods over the Internet. If you look at digital advertising spends in the Middle East, it is growing at a rate of 35-40% each year.
Sayed: E-commerce is changing the face the industry. For example, just to look at the usage of mobile phones and the way everyone has adopted an online, tech mindset, especially the millennials. They are online natives who have skipped the whole desktop experience and have been spear heading the personal device industry. These are the very same people who are in line to be our next gen customers and they need to be served as they are used to being served. This is not going to be an evolution but a revolution for the online hospitality space.
Schwetje: E-commerce is bringing new business opportunities to the global travel and tourism industry hence why it is vital for a company to have someone dedicated to maximise opportunities. E-commerce is a progressive and developing area which changes rapidly on a daily basis, so you need to be on the ball in order to not miss-out on trends which potentially open up new opportunities for the company and generate more business.
With the evolution of the new ‘connected customer’ have online sites such as Trip Advisor increased the importance of reputation management and damage control?
Abbas: Everyone is connected nowadays and it is so easy to share experiences within seconds with the capacity to go viral within minutes. Online reviews can turn things upside down for the reputation of a company. Therefore nowadays most of the big players in the hospitality industry have set guidelines and policies to handle their reputation management online.
Tom: We would not say that there has been an increase purely because the hospitality business has always thrived on the intangible. A long time ago we stopped selling products and started selling experiences, which means that we started to value word-of-mouth before the advent of review websites. Any hotel will tell you that there is at least one point of feedback collection whether it be a printed survey form or an auto-generated email sent to a guest after their stay. Therefore, this makes online review sites yet another form of feedback collection.
The difference is that the world is able to see it, which works in our favour because then the world is also able to see our response to the guest. It gives us a chance to recover any service that was lost and strengthen the loyalty that was built. At Rotana, we adopt a practice of responding to all guests’ feedback, whether through online reviews or personally, within 72 hours.
Schwetje: Many companies see social media as a threat however I believe it needs to be seen as an opportunity, as it helps identify eventual gaps within the organisation. Reputation management is time consuming but definitely worthwhile as it enables hotels to drive performance and the customer experience.
Scholles: Absolutely, people can go onto a number of different review sites and view detailed guest experiences, which ultimately influence their decision and with these online platforms we can use positive reviews to assist guests in making their bookings. Nevertheless, negative reviews have to be managed properly, responses must be professional and responded to in a short period of time.
Previously, people were limited on how they could share their experiences, but nowadays the likes of TripAdvisor allow people to spread the word electronically, sharing their reviews and thoughts with hundreds of thousands of readers around the world within minutes. Online sites can have a much bigger impact on a hotel’s reputation than people think, and the importance of these sites are growing tremendously.
Sayed: As a case of best practice all review sites need to be monitored and all bad or issue reviews need to be responded to as it is paramount to be viewed as an engaging entity as opposed to an inactive forum on the internet.
In many ways review sites are a good representation of what your property offers and they also facilitate good indicators for areas of improvements. On the other hand, the general public and seasoned travellers are becoming desensitised to review sites and are more so taking recommendations from social media platforms. This is going to be next in line for reviews and if hotels aren’t looking at social media for micro reviews then they should be.
What are some of the key factors to consider when planning a digital strategy?
Sayed: I would say that there are two main factors when planning a strategy; firstly, are you prepared with your current infrastructure, deployment and technological systems? Two, what is your aim? You need to have very specific goals in place to be able to hit your targets.
Many companies fail on step one and are not fully prepared for the long-term commitment of the infrastructure surrounding them to make plans successful. For example, you want a mobile site, great! But are you ready to invest money every time there is a new update required? The digital space is no longer a one-time affair of the past when you created a website to ‘set it and forget it’, now these sites are digital living breathing entities which need to be managed.
Tom: Key factors include, accessibility – how the potential guest will find you. Target market – accurately targeting the people you’re looking for and when. Measure – how you will track the success and return-on-marketing-investment (ROMI). Aim – defining what success looks like at the end of the campaign. Budget – not just how much you want to spend but how you wish to deploy it whether in part or as a whole. Call to action – defining the pages a click will land on, how many clicks before they make a booking, checking all links thoroughly, seeing the upstream and downstream of when a customer surfs the page.
Abbas: Be customer centric. Choose your target market carefully so you can customise your message accordingly and always include your mobile strategy in your plans; mobile marketing is crucial in today’s digital world. Set your KPIs and your expected returns and ensure all the activities can be tracked easily.
Schwetje: Our digital strategy is dictated by what we are hoping to achieve. We consider what we want the end result to look like and then work backwards. Often in e-commerce many actions appear as non-revenue related, but in fact there is a correlation. The overall digital strategy has to support the overall goals of the property. One of the strengths of e-commerce is the immediacy of the channels and also strong evaluation capabilities in terms of measuring success and ROI. There is no guess work.
Scholles: We have to know who our customers are, where they come from, what they are looking for and how old they are as it is crucial to understand your audience. Based on that, we can set up our digital strategy to reach the right group of people through the use of proper tools. If our main visitors are young, dynamic business-oriented travellers then they can easily be reached through social media and online marketing, so we have to focus more on OTAs and TripAdvisor as they focus on these channels before making a decision. Being mobile friendly is also very important in targeting the younger generation.
How do you push certain brands through digital platforms?
Abbas: I think the biggest channel we use to push forward our brands is social media. As it’s very content driven, and involves a lot of storytelling, it is easier to create the brand image in a consumer’s mind on social media.
We have a very strong social media presence pushing our different brands on multiple channels mainly on Facebook, Instagram and twitter. Also both brands Radisson Blu and Park Inn by Radisson have two great blogs that we push content based on travellers’ experiences on a daily basis.
Scholles: We are mainly focusing on promoting our 10 food and beverage outlets and so we use specific channels for that including Zomato, Foursquare which is free to use, and RoundMenu as it promotes the brand and brings it closer to our target audience.
In terms of engaging people with our rooms, the most important platforms are definitely OTAs. It is important to have popularity, which gives you good exposure on review sites. For example, the more popular you are on TripAdvisor, the more it will impact your rating. It can all be driven through paid advertisements on different sites or by simply being actively engaging with guests.
Schwetje: Digital is massive and it’s all about the content with special emphasis on the images to ensure that there is recognition value. Consideration of the audience on each channel is key to ensuring valuable marketing funds are not wasted. It is really taking into account the traditional five Ps of marketing and translating those into the digital arena.
Tom: When a guest has checked in to stay with us, we understand that WiFi is something 90% of our guests use and so we ensure to highlight our promotions relevant to in-house guests on the sign-in page since we know that it will be looked at and this has proven to be more effective than featuring our promotions on an in-house TV channel.
Sayed: At Marriott we are lucky to have powerful online sites with all of our brands functioning under one umbrella. We are already integrated digitally, via mobile optimised sites and apps on all devices.
How do you convert OTA clients into direct bookings?
Scholles: This is something that we are currently working on and we are attracting our guests to book directly by advertising special offers and adding value with benefits such as late check-out and special in-room amenities. We are also utilising regular direct electronic mail to our existing customer database to make them aware of special promotions and offers, which can be received only when booking directly.
Sayed: We offer our customers great benefits when signing up to our loyalty programs and OTAs have long been viewed as a source for cheaper room-rates, and this isn’t always true especially for us as at Marriott as we are striving to have the most competitive rates available on our own website channels so that the best available rate is the same no matter where you book it on the internet.
Tom: We respect our relationships with our online partners and the value that they bring to our business. This is why we work hand in hand with them, not to take clientele away from them but to provide them with opportunities to further sell our hotel online to their pool of clients.
Schwetje: OTAs are a very valuable channel for us at our Anantara Abu Dhabi properties, generating 20% of our overall revenue. The OTAs invest heavily in their own digital marketing, so we would never have the funds to compete on the same level with them. We do have our own strategies in place to engage with our OTA clients post-stay, keeping our packages and special offers enticing is one method to engage, but also identifying this guest as having booked through an OTA and inviting them back with special privileges.
Abbas: Loyalty marketing is key in converting OTA clients to book via our websites. And it is about using the database that we have to communicate with those customers and maintain that relationship with key messages tailored to different segments. Another key thing is to let them know about the benefits they will get on our direct channels.
How do you select which OTAs to work with?
Tom: The first key factor is prominence of the OTA in the region and where you are expecting the major market share. What’s equally important is the relationship that you strike up with them in terms of partnership terms and rates.
Once a deal is struck, there is need for continuous assessment of production against your goals. It is also important to assess how the OTA’s website works for guests and for the hotel to manage its page or profile. For instance, if a website is easy to use, understand, navigate and book, it is likely to be popular with guests. Last but not least, looking at the rise in mobile marketing, sizeable consideration must be given to OTAs who optimise their sites for mobile devices and preferably have a mobile app too.
Sayed: Marriott is selective on this front as we only work with partners who can produce the volumes that will be mutually beneficial for both parties. And it’s become apparent that if you play with the bigger partners, the smaller ones will either end up merging or being bought out. So for us there are two big players in the market, Priceline and Expedia, but we do occasionally partner with smaller OTAs depending on our market needs.
Scholles: It depends on the brand and target audience. For example, if you are the most luxurious hotel in the Maldives, you will use an exclusive OTA to advertise on, and as a brand promise you can’t work with any others. In our case, we use the main OTAs, which give us the highest level of exposure amongst our target audience.
Schwetje: Each OTA has specific target markets, hence if we contract a new partner it should ideally not dilute business from an existing one. Another criteria is that each OTA is compatible with our channel manager, which is SiteMinder, in order to guarantee seamless distribution. Having said that, we do work with some OTAs who are not on systems compatible with SiteMinder, but can offer access to the niche markets we want to tap into.
What would you say are some of the challenges in maintaining OTAs?
Tom: I would say that the challenges are more on the hotel’s side than on the part of the OTA. On a daily basis, new hotels are added to the listings and new offers are run. If the hotel’s team doesn’t keep an eye out, it could move down the listing or appear less popular, so due time has to be allocated to constantly monitor the hotel’s position against its competitors on these sites.
Monitoring the hotel’s reviews is also important, which if neglected can cause the hotel to slide on the popularity scale too. OTAs that allow a management response should be monitored even more so that the guest is responded to in a timely fashion.
Lastly, refreshing the hotel’s page either with new content or images is important because this too, could affect the hotel’s profile on the site.
Sayed: In my personal view I’d say it is connectivity. It is always a challenge to ensure that the two systems are always talking to each other.
Scholles: The main challenge is definitely the high commission that OTAs charge, and it has dramatically increased over the past few years due to the growing popularity of online bookings among clients.
Schwetje: Cancellation policies are the biggest challenge, there is inflexibility in terms of changing cancellation policies to ensure materialisation. For example, a year round cancellation policy in general would be different to what you would implement for the festive season. The OTAs make it quite difficult to set different cancellation terms for those particular periods.