For years now, hotels have been fighting desperately to win back market share from third parties such as Online Travel Agencies and thus reduce the cost of customer acquisition. Huge sums are spent on strategic initiatives such as ad campaigns, updating guest loyalty programs, improving organic and paid SEO, making sure the website tells the hotel's story, and ensuring a smooth journey from looking-to-booking.
All of this increases the likelihood that a prospective, web-surfing guest may engage with the hotel directly. In military terms, I would say it is sort of like aerial strafing because the "ammo" has a mostly random chance of hitting its target.
However, too many hotel leaders are overlooking the real means by which battles are won, and history buffs know that wars are won one battle at a time.
In the hotel distribution space, the most important opportunities to encourage guests to book directly, and to re-book future stays, occur through human interactions. Whether by phone, chat, email, or in-person, it is the people that make the difference.
For too long, our industry has obsessed on digital marketing and distribution at the expense of focusing on human engagement. Perhaps this is because digital encounters make it easier to empirically measure and report back KPI's to the boss or board of directors, whereas the very nature of human encounters between staff and guests lends itself to anecdotal evidence.
The good news is that emerging tech has made it increasingly easier to measure these human conversations. For example, there are a number of cloud-based phone providers that offer call recordings, allowing managers to coach-up their team. A few of these phone systems allow agents to track "disposition codes," and for resorts and luxury hotels, to turn inbound calls into transient leads worthy of follow-up. Engaged leaders can also peruse chat-logs and email exchanges between staff and prospective guests.
Now, all of this takes a bit more time than glancing at a Google Analytics report or website conversion data. Yet marketing and operations leaders who are willing to do so will find a plethora of training and coaching opportunities to mentor staff. My company, Kennedy Training Network, provides not only training and mystery shopping but also remote call scoring of real-world calls. We often identify opportunities for staff to get guests to book directly this time, and/or to encourage them to book directly next time. Here are some training tips from our programs and services.
Encourage Website Visitors to Call Direct
- Post your hotel's phone number prominently instead of burying it on the "contact us page."
- Use a local, well-known area code vs. an 800 number.
- If you use a vanity number, spell it out below and make it click-to-call on mobile.
- Right above or below the number, post copy reading: "Call Now to Book Direct"
- Train your team that while chat is wonderful for answering quick questions, they should look for opportunities to offer to call the guest directly right now to complete their booking.
- When guests start to ask questions such as "what's the difference between those room types?" or other specific, detailed questions, respond by saying "If you like I can call you right now to assist!"
- Remind your staff that chatting with guests is not like texting friends. They need to re-humanize the medium by reacting to what the chat sender mentions. Example: "I'm planning a honeymoon. Does this room type guarantee a king-size bed?" Instead of "Yes, always," be sure to add "Wow, congratulations! Yes indeed. Also, if you book directly with us, I can make a note of your special occasion and pass that on. Can I call you now to complete this booking?"
- Similar to chat, prospective guests will often email the hotel with questions about rates, room types, and special requests. Staff should always personalize the responses.
- End with a sentence such as "We would love to assist you personally with completing your booking with us directly. You can reach our in-house team at (number) during (hours), or email back with a good number and time so I can call you directly."
- Today's reservations inquiry calls are disguised as "I just have a quick question about..."
- Train your team that after they first answer a question, to then say: "Now that I've answered your question, may I ask what dates/room types you are looking at?"
- Oftentimes callers simply ask about specific room types and rates. This is because many OTAs display the room type by different names and/ or rate options than the hotel website. Again, after answering questions, they should offer to check dates/rates right now.
- When callers are obviously comparing rates they see online, train your team to ask "May I ask what website you are at?"
- It is also important to coach your team on how to sell the advantages of booking directly. Typically, most hotels embrace rate parity strategy, so the rate will be the same. If the caller is an OTA loyalty member, the rate they see may be a few dollars less, but this slight difference can be overcome when agents sell the benefits of booking directly right now.
- Of course, it is also important to engage in reservations sales training and to use mystery shopping on an ongoing basis to help your staff not only convert calls but also to upsell higher-rated accommodations and cross-sell services.
- Consider offering a simple, straight-forward incentive such as $1 or $3 per booking for whoever converts it. If you do the math on this it always makes sense. This is obviously less than any OTA commission, not to mention the labor costs for a channel manager to review the OTA bookings as they come into your system. Even CRS fees for direct website bookings may exceed this amount. To top it off, even those who are looking at your hotel on an OTA may pick a different hotel, and you don't get anything. Better to incentivize staff to convert that call right now.
- The best channel conversion tool is your front desk staff. Train them to engage guests during registration, or if guests use self-check-in, to engage guests as they wait for their Door-Dash, Uber ride, or when they stop by to pay for the soda from the grab-and-go.
- Ask guests why they booked through the OTA and then train the staff to mention advantages. "We always have the same rates when you book directly and then we can make a note of any special requests you might have as far as location or view."
- Politely ask for email addresses at registration, using verbiage that encourages guests to provide it.
- For luxury hotels and resorts, use personalized video email messages to welcome guests and/or to send a fond farewell at departure. Doing so takes no longer than the old-fashioned "guest welcome calls" that hotels used to do, which I personally find to be disruptive, as they always seem to come in at the wrong time for me such as when I've just phoned my wife or started unpacking.