OK, let’s make this nice and clear from the start and set the scene properly. I don’t intend to bash our friends and partners, the Online Travel Agents, here. We do need each other, which means we should take a position together that works for everyone, including the customer. It doesn’t have to be a battle, although I’ll admit that it sometimes feels like it in today’s world.
Owning the customer… what does that mean? Will we ever really own the customer in a complex online, mobile and distributed world of today? Maybe not every customer. However, there are plenty of things you can do to carve out a slice of your market and wrap your arms around them nice and tight, so they feel loved and somewhat more likely to look you up the next time they’re in the area.
So, where do we start to try and understand this objective? How do we develop a strategy to deliver this goal by whatever measure is right for your business? Where are the lines being drawn? And how much are you going to have to invest to make a difference?
The first clue is in the title… you have to be where the customer is looking This might be a bit easier for the big international brands and consortia (where scale and coverage with significant marketing budgets and long-earned brand awareness) might help get customers through the front door or, at least, finding them on Google more often.
On a local level, smaller brands and individual hotels can cut through successfully with the right media or PR activity. However, let’s face it, hotel search starts overwhelmingly on Google and a handful of very successful online travel platforms. These are highly optimised, well-marketed, with gigantic budgets and customer-centric platforms which just make it easy for the customer to find what they want.
How are you going to compete with that? The truth is, you don’t really have to compete with it. You can shut your eyes, stay off the big travel sites and ignore 50% of the total hotel market for almost any destination on the planet! You can do it your own way, spend all your money on your website and SEO trying hard to get to page six of Google where no-one looks anymore.
You could spend a fortune on advertising in a newspaper or magazine to improve brand awareness so 0.1% of readers might search for your brand online one day.
Or, you could just embrace Google, pay-per-click and online agents as an amazing customer acquisition channel with a reach far beyond your otherwise tiny budget and with a clear cost of sale or return on investment which will bring you genuine new customers who simply might not otherwise know you ever existed. So is this a fight you think you can win? Or, should you be thinking beyond the commission and focus on lifetime value to truly ‘own the customer?’
If you accept that the customer will always be looking in places other than your own website, whether at the beginning or somewhere along the booking journey, then you should be thinking about building your brand or hotel message consistently across all the channels.
What do you want the customer to know about you regardless of where they are looking? What are your unique selling points, features, benefits, facilities and services? Consistency is absolutely key here to drive conversion. Ultimately, whether the customer is booking on your own site or somewhere else, if you want to drive lookers to bookers, your message must be strong and clear in every marketing channel.
Going beyond consistent marketing, by now you should be thinking about what you can do to capture attention on your own site and keep them there. Here’s where the fun starts; you have to distinguish what you offer and why it’s worth staying on the direct site rather than checking elsewhere.
The service, personalised products and original customer experience have become the real differentiators against third-party booking channels. Hotel innovation must consider how to bring something to the customer that they can only get by booking with you directly. Hotels are coming up with some great ideas to add value, such as choose your own room, welcome packs, amenities or breakfasts, for example.
More creatively, there could be paid-for services or experiences wrapped into a hotel’s personalised package and only bookable direct, like in-room gifts, late checkout or tickets to local attractions.
Loyalty programmes and experiences are the ultimate platforms to shape how the customer might book with you today, and, even more importantly, tomorrow! What are you able to offer the guest who not only books direct with you, but comes back again and again?
All the big international brands are building enormous loyalty programmes with significant budgets and a huge brand audience. We’ve seen many of these refreshed over the last year or two as the competition evolves. Of course, the hotel groups are all competing with each other, but they’re also competing with the marketplace and how the customer books in the future.
You don’t need deep pockets to develop your own customer loyalty strategy. A robust PMS and database is going to be quickly valuable because you don’t want to get this wrong. Once you are managing the data, you can start to show recognition for higher spending and regular guests for the value of their business to you and give them a reason to stay with you for longer or more often.
Owning the customer is not just about the way they book and separating your brand from the other travel sites and portals. The B2B sector works differently from the leisure and consumer market. Pricing, terms and conditions and engagement are all different too.
If you’re chasing the business market through a sales account management team, then you had better make sure that the sales team are true brand ambassadors able to open new doors, negotiate loyalty and build brand advocacy.
You need a different plan to reach the business guest. While the product and audiences obviously overlap, there is a longer-term consideration to the buying process and face-to-face engagement is a crucial piece of this puzzle.
And so finally we come to price… Yikes… do we really have to go there? I guess I cannot ignore this… Who fully understands the parity puzzle and the subtle nuances in contracts, closed user groups and marketing promotions? In parity lies integrity.
However, it is a two-way street. If you want to work with your distribution partners, then find a way to co-exist and do the right thing. Price will usually be part of the customer’s decision, so make sure you’re the one who owns it.
As I wrap up, we’ve not even begun to talk about reputation. Your ability to deliver is completely transparent in the online survey these days. I’ve previously written much about the importance and central focus for us at Roomzzz on living and breathing the customer experience.
Suffice to say, ‘owning the customer’ should start and finish with delivering your brand promise and showing your customers that you truly care about their stay. You need to own the customer journey from the moment they discover you, to the moment they depart, and until next time.
Robert Alley, COO of aparthotel brand, Roomzzz