Last week, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) launched the “Search Smarter” awareness campaign. Targeted directly at consumers, Search Smarter aims to help travelers avoid lost reservations, additional fees, and potentially ruined vacations caused by booking through a fraudulent website. Search Smarter was developed in response to a consumer poll that AHLA conducted in April, showing the that the number of people reporting bad bookings has quadrupled since 2015, jumping from 6 percent of consumers to 22 percent. That 22 percent represents 55 million bad hotel bookings per year, translating to a monetary loss of about $3.9 billion. LODGING spoke with AHLA’s vice president of government affairs, Maryam Cope, to learn more about the campaign, as well as what hoteliers can do to help spread the word.
What was the impetus behind AHLA’s consumer-focused booking scams campaign?
Bad bookings have been an issue for travelers for quite some time. When our most recent consumer poll indicated that the number of bad bookings had jumped dramatically, we decided we need to take steps to ensure that consumers understand why this is happening. Additionally, the consumer poll showed a lot of confusion around the larger OTAs and their marketing practices, mostly when it came to how many rooms were left and what the discounts meant. So, between those two issues, we felt like a direct-to-consumer campaign was really important in making sure that consumers have all the information about what to watch out for when they’re booking online. And to clarify, we’re not against booking online in general. The hotel industry is tremendously supportive of online booking. We’ve seen a lot of success around it. We want our customers to be able to access hotel rooms online through whatever means is most convenient is for them. We just don’t want them to get duped during that process.
How are you ensuring it reaches the most eyes?
It’s a multi-track initiative. First, we’re starting to reach out to different third-party validator groups like the Better Business Bureau and AARP to raise awareness. We’re also doing a big push with consumer reporters and consumer press, basically reaching more outside of the hotel industry groups that we typically interact with. And, finally, we’re reaching out to members of Congress, the FTC, and other relevant government agencies to raise awareness with them and make sure they understand the potential consequences of these issues. Transparency and consumer choice are of the utmost importance to our hotels and we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to educate policy makers and customers alike.
We’re also really committed to our social channels. AHLA has a great platform through our website and our Facebook pages. We also have a dedicated webpage, which prominently features a list of consumer tips that people can reference if they’re unsure whether a certain website fraudulent.
Why was now the right time to launch the campaign?
Summer travel season has really kicked off and people are in the process of booking their summer vacations. Now is the perfect time to launch the campaign, because as bookings go up, inevitably, complaints stream into AHLA from front desk staff and general managers about booking scams. It’s better to preemptively provide that information to customers so they know exactly what they’re looking at and they’re aware that if they see something that is just not right, they can report it to regulators.
Additionally, this isn’t just a summer initiative. We’re also going to be planning activity around this issue before the winter travel season to coincide with when people are booking holiday trips. This campaign is not a one-time initiative. AHLA is really committed to this cause over the long haul.
How will you measure its impact?
We’ll probably do another consumer poll next year. We’ve been doing consumer polling consistently as part of the new AHLA to make sure we know what’s going on with customers. And, of course, we’re going to continue to push legislation related to online booking scams through the House and the Senate, as well as raise awareness with the FTC.
Is there anything hoteliers can do to help spread this message?
AHLA has materials that hoteliers can keep at the front desk that direct guests to contact AHLA directly if they have a problem with a deceptive third-party website. It’s imperative that front desk staff know where people can report this problem. The materials include an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) that they can reach out to and ensure a fraudulent booking gets reported to the right person.
Hoteliers can also contact their legislative representatives and tell them to co-sponsor the Stop Online Booking Scams Act. That’s very important because a lot of these members of Congress don’t know what’s happening at the front desk of a hotel. There’s a little bit of a disconnect there between what people are experiencing during their travels to someone’s district, and what the congressmen and women may know. This problem has gotten out of hand and we need to put a stop to it. Additionally, it’s a very strong bi-partisan issue. Both Republicans and Democrats are already behind this bill and it’s a testament to the fact that when they understand the problem and how difficult it is for both the customer and the business, they want to take steps to protect their constituents.