For many years, hotels lost ground to online travel agents due in large part to the fact that OTAs just offered a better user experience and concentrated more resources on developing and marketing their digital products. OTAs outperformed hotels in technology and strategy, as the hospitality industry was no match for the technology sector when it came to creating tech solutions to more easily shop for and book rooms.
But the game is changing again, and hotels are winning back some of the digital turf gobbled up by those OTAs. One of the reasons is the availability of direct booking tools developed by companies like Vertical Booking USA, a Portland, Ore.-based global reservations technology provider looking to level the playing field.
Vertical Booking USA develops powerful technology solutions, including a central reservation system for global distribution, a booking engine with a spa and gift certificate platform, channel management programs, a destination management system, and a reservation call center application. The company offers hotels an array of digital firepower to take a bigger bite out of business that had typically gone directly to OTAs.
“The direct bookings are changing right now,” says Vertical Booking USA president and CEO Mark Lewis-Brown. “It’s a hard process because of how strong the OTAs are, especially given their marketing budgets.”
Third-party vendors aren’t going to pack up and go home. They’re constantly developing better and smarter ways to book rooms, but hotels have been able to catch up with the services Vertical Booking USA provides. The company’s CRS internet booking engine, for example, allows guests to book services and accessories in addition to their stay. After selecting their room and rate, guests can then choose extra services such as airport pickup, car rental, spa treatments, or tickets for destination tours. Add-on services can be ordered per single hotel or at the chain level, or by integrating services from external suppliers. Services may also be purchased à la carte, without actually booking a room.
Another function is its Synchro Channel Manager, which lets hotel operators manage electronic distribution on channels from a single control panel. It automatically syncs room rates and availability on all major travel websites. A key advantage here is that the technology guarantees rate and inventory parity across distribution channels, which is yet another way of leveraging control back to the hotels.
Vertical Booking USA’s central reservation system gives individual properties added control over their rates and inventory. Its global distribution system transmits room information to travel agents and travel sites, but gives hotels the ability to change rates and availability in real time.
The technology also has the ability to tap into the growing interest among younger travelers seeking experiences and packages.
“That’s something we have, and we see a lot of use for it now,” Lewis-Brown says. “It’s what the younger travelers are looking for. It’s more of an experience. And then, the remaining part of it is a lot of it is centered around the hotel and looking at what the travelers are doing, and trying to understand their movements and why they’re booking and why they’re not booking.”
“We went from having these booking engines that had all kinds of things going on, and now I think you’ll see the trend is easier-to-navigate design without a lot of different steps.”
All of these bells and whistles have given hotels more of an advantage in capturing direct bookings. But in technology, what’s new today is typically irrelevant tomorrow. So, Lewis-Brown is planning to make his products even simpler and more user-friendly. “How do you put all these tools into the booking engine, and at the same time, simplify it and streamline it? We went from having these booking engines that had all kinds of things going on, and now I think you’ll see the trend is easier-to-navigate design without a lot of different steps,” he says.
Ultimately, challengers to direct bookings will continue to emerge. “The companies that have the power, like Google and Amazon, are going to capture this area, the hospitality side,” Lewis-Brown says. “Google’s already started. With Amazon, we’re waiting to find out what they’re going to do—whether they’ll partner with somebody or do it directly. They’re a powerhouse. It makes sense for them. If they have the customer there, why not try to capture them for every aspect? Whatever you’re going to buy, whether it’s an airplane ticket or a phone cord, Amazon will do it. It’s scary but true.”