As an increasing number of guests make hotel room bookings online, third-party websites such as Laterooms.com, Activehotels.com and Lastminute.com have become vital channels to the market for UK hoteliers.
But, according to industry experts, a large proportion of hoteliers are not making the most of these websites. Caterer asked these experts to offer tips on how hoteliers can make their online propositions more attractive, and how they can ensure that they appear higher on third-party website search rankings.
Get the right picture It's sounds obvious, but ensuring that your property is shown in the best possible light through eye-catching photography is essential.
In fact, Martin Philips, director of Recommended Hotels, an online management company for independent hotels, claims that one hotel upped its bookings by 300% as a result of improving the pictures it featured on third-party sites.
"While hiring a professional photographer may seem expensive at the time, it is well worth the investment," he says. "Try and pick a sunny day for the photo shoot, as that makes a difference, but any professional photographer worth his salt will know how to lighten the picture and tinge the sky blue."
Most sites now allow multiple photographs to be featured, so ensure that you take advantage. Include pictures of individual rooms, scenic views around the property and pictures of guests enjoying themselves in the bar or restaurant. Above all, make them appealing.
"It's amazing how many hotel photographs are dull and unexciting," says Chris Allen, chief executive of Laterooms.com. "Hoteliers need to think of the picture they are creating for the customer."
Ensure availability Guaranteeing, as best you can, that your rooms will be available when requested is another exercise that will see you do well in the search rankings of third-party agent sites.
Knowing just how many rooms to set aside for a certain site, and when to close them, will come from careful analysis of your selling patterns and knowing how many sales you are making through the different sites and channels.
At the Beales Hotels group, managing director Andrew Beale suggests hotels extend their booking cut-off time to cater for a growing number of last-minute bookers. He says a number of third-party sites offer a selection of cut-off times - Activehotels.com, for example, accepts same-day bookings as late as 10pm.
Beale says that he chooses to hold his rooms available until 6pm. He says: "People booking hotel rooms online, especially business travellers, have sussed the system and the trend is towards people waiting until the last minute to book a room, so they can get a deal. By making our stock available until later, we are more likely to pick up some of this trade."
Encourage guest comments Philips at Recommended Hotels calculates that Activehotels alone has about one million guest comments on its site, and that, increasingly, potential guests use the opinions of their peers as an important factor in their decision to book or not.
Activehotels now also posts negative comments and, according to spokeswoman Mandy Zakhour, a property that receives a number of bad reviews over time will be contacted by the content team to see what improvements can be made.
But hoteliers who are confident of their product should have nothing to fear. With only 5% of guests actually bothering to post a comment, Philips recommends that hoteliers actively encourage guests to fill out the form when it arrives. In the case of Activehotels, guests receive an e-mail requesting a comment three days after their stay.
Philips suggests: "Say something like, ‘I believe you will be receiving a request for a comment on your return. If you have enjoyed your stay, it would be very helpful if you took a few minutes to give your feedback'."
Google searches also pick on sites that have a regular influx of new comments, which can only help your property to reach the attention of a greater number of users.
Offer promotions Hotels should get involved in the various promotions offered by sites to win more custom, says Alistair Blackman of Lastminute.com.
For example, Lastminute has a promotion called Top Secret Hotels, through which hotels can anonymously offer discounted rates, which allows them to protect their brand while customers get a chance to buy a cut-price stay in a mystery location.
Allen at Laterooms.com advises hoteliers to use their own special offers. "Sometimes, it's the little extras that clinch a sale," he says. "Hotels could offer the first pint in the bar free, a half-bottle of wine with a meal or a discount at local restaurants. All these are perceived as high value for the customer but are low cost for the hotelier."
Stay current Traditionally, hoteliers have posted a description of their property on the web and just left it there. Now that third-party agents offer hotels the ability to update the site themselves, they should take full advantage of it, says Philips.
He suggests: "If you have a special event or sporting occasion near you - for example, the Ascot races or the Ryder Cup golf - then update the website to say your property is suitably located."
Date-sensitive promotions such as St Valentine's Day weekends or Easter breaks should also be included. "Get into the habit of updating your text once a month," Philips says.
Pay attention to other information on your page, such as what amenities and facilities the hotel offers. Zakhour at Activehotels says that one property forgot to update its site when its swimming pool was closed, resulting in a number of bad reviews from guests expecting to take a swim.
Pay promptly Third-party sites are in the business of promoting the properties that make them the most money, and a simple way to stay in their good books is to ensure you pay their commission promptly.
"If a competitor is paying by direct debit and you are only paying after 30 days, the third-party site is likely to look more favourably on your competitor," warns Philips. "They aren't going to promote a hotel that is taking its time to pay them."
Be competitive Ensuring you offer a virtual agent your best rates is another way to improve your ranking.
"If hotels are offering other online providers better rates than they offer us, then we will put them down our list because we, in turn, are not offering our customer the best deals," says Zakhour at Activehotels.com.
For those that do post their best rate on Active, a "best price guaranteed logo" appears next to the picture of their property - in effect, telling users that there is no point shopping around.
Philips recommends that hoteliers offer price parity across all websites, so as not to alienate any of the sites they may be using. He also suggests that hoteliers keep a keen eye on other similar hotels in their area to ensure their prices are competitive.
At Laterooms.com - which always shows rates per room for the next three days, to show fluctuations between peak and low periods - Chris Allen suggests hotels can encourage business by lowering rates on nights when a full occupancy is not guaranteed.
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