Facebook launched its City Guides feature last month, giving even more credibility to the idea that mobile devices’ importance to hotel distribution will only grow. Facebook’s new offering in particular is intriguing because of its location-specific content for travelers, its massive user base and, most importantly, a “book now” feature for hotels that already had booking functionality on their brand pages.
While these benefits undoubtedly appeal to hotels, I would temper the industry’s enthusiasm for Facebook City Guides by pointing out that it will be just one of many options for pursuing a mobile-booking strategy. At least for the moment, hotels are not going to find a single “killer app.” There are too many innovators in this arena — from Google and Facebook, to TripAdvisor, to the online travel agencies — for there to be a category killer any time soon.
That’s not necessarily a bad problem to have. The most prudent strategy for mobile booking is to continually evaluate all these emerging products. Every hotel will have a different optimal cost of acquisition and return on advertising spend.
Once the platform with the best mix of those costs is identified, a hotel can align marketing and pricing strategies to drive more traffic to that platform.
However this space shakes out will also have an impact on hotels’ decisions regarding loyalty programs, development of their own mobile apps, or their balance of direct bookings to partnerships with third parties.
Which Buttons to Push?
City Guides makes Facebook a more interesting distribution partner, but it’s premature to say it makes this network the strongest play in your hotel’s mobile-distribution strategy. Google is still significantly more influential with mobile search, and if it adds a book now feature to its Trips application — which can only be a matter of time — we’ll see Google and Facebook escalating the arms race in mobile for a long time.
What does appear certain is that hotels are still at the start of a big trend emerging in distribution. They have the opportunity to be more strategic in the way they partner with Facebook, Google or TripAdvisor for mobile bookings than they were two decades ago when OTAs emerged to develop the digital-booking space.
We can’t know when any of those platforms becomes a full-blown booking channel, but each definitely has its strengths as a marketing channel for acquiring new guests. As such, a hotel’s strategy should be to use these platforms to get in front of new guests. If commissions are favorable, drive reservations via that outside platform — or, even better, get referral traffic to your hotel’s own channels for direct bookings.
How Hotels Make the Right Call
Where does this leave proprietary mobile apps? Largely, that depends on the size of the hotel looking to develop an app and on the value it can add. For larger brands, an app makes sense, especially when tied to massive loyalty programs. Recently, Hilton and Red Lion added value to their apps by scaling the Digital Key feature and integrating with Concur, respectively.
But for smaller brands or independents, devoting resources to building an app might not be necessary. The better mobile strategy would be to check off the basics and continue to optimize on them.
That means having a website that’s responsive to mobile browsers. When working with market managers at Facebook, Google or the OTAs, hotels should make sure they have content that works well on those partners’ mobile platforms. These applications would be fantastic vehicles for retargeting potential customers who might have looked at a hotel’s website but exited without booking.
An upstart chain could still go deeper into a more sophisticated mobile strategy, of course. But it should have a well-defined customer niche and a clear vision for how a native app would drive engagement with those guests.
For the majority of hotels unable to invest in mobile to that level, there will be no shortage of solutions from Google, Facebook and others to call upon.
Patrick Bosworth is CEO and a co-founder of Duetto, a hotel Revenue Strategy technology company based in San Francisco.