Partnering with an OTA can be both a beneficial and hindering experience to a hotel’s operations—the battle for driving customers to book directly is a competitive conflict that hotels have been fighting for years. However, hospitality businesses understand consumer behavior and the need to be featured on an OTA. Charlestowne Hotels, with properties that are mostly upper upscale, finds that customers begin their shopping process by using an OTA. Larry Spelts, Vice President of Business Development at Charlestowne Hotels, says, “If you’re not using an OTA, they’re not going to find you.”
A high amount of customers—around 85 percent—use hotel aggregators according to Spelts. After customers use the OTA to find a few hotels they’d like to book their stay with, they’ll visit the proprietary website, and that’s where hotels need to hook the customer. “They narrow it down to the one they think they like best and before they actually pull the trigger, they’ll go and read reviews, mostly TripAdvisor, and then they’ll book,” Spelts says, and the question then becomes, “How do we get them at the decision point to make a booking through the proprietary website?”
Hooking a customer to increase direct bookings requires three steps that Charlestowne uses for success. The hotel first needs to have an efficient proprietary website. Well-developed websites with great photography, easy-to-use booking engines, specific room descriptions with photographs and logical rate sequencing will draw customers towards direct bookings. Charlestowne does this specifically by using AB testing, where they try different layouts, book-now buttons, and change the colors of the proprietary website to see what’s most popular among consumers. After testing conversion rates, Charlestowne will see how many guests are booking with what features and keep these elements to draw customers away from OTAs.
Secondly, Charlestowne uses specific applications to show rate parity for available rooms between their hotels and competitors. Having comparative rates shows guests that they are getting the most bang for their buck booking direct. Spelts says, “It sounds counterintuitive because why would you tell them that they could book that same room anywhere else if you want them to book on your proprietary website? We just obsessively make sure that we have rate parity in all channels so that there’s no better rate anywhere.”
Incentivizing the customer lastly draws customers away from booking with OTAs. Although a hotel’s contract with a hotel aggregator requires that they can’t sell a room for lower than the OTA, hotels can offer incentives to make direct booking more enticing. “It might be free breakfast, free parking, eligibility for an upgrade based on availability upon arrival. Now we’re offering something that’s unique and gives the customer incentive to say, ‘Well, I can’t get this if I book on the OTA. I’m booking it here,’” Spelts says.
When an OTA books a customer, they guard that email address from the hotel and only offer the customer’s name and payment information. Getting the guest’s contact information is key to keeping guests returning through direct bookings. “There’s one thing that’s very important for hotels optimizing the maximum potential number of reservations booking direct rather than through an OTA and that’s getting the customer’s email address when they check in and putting them into your customer relationship management or what we refer to as CRM. In the future, you can make offers to and communicate with your old customers so that they stay with you.”
By driving customers directly to their sites, hotels can offer other unique benefits like advanced check-in through mobile devices. These kinds of benefits encourage customers to return to the proprietary website. Ultimately, Spelts says, “It’s very competitive—and you really have to stay out front of it.”