Some of the initial travel statistics as we all emerge from lockdown are not the most optimistic for booking direct, as Airbnb and Booking have been shown to be leaders in search share in many key European markets. However, I still have hope that this global crisis can help to lead more customers coming directly to you instead of through an OTA. Instead of writing in lengthy abstract prose as to why, I’d like to share my own story from way back in early spring.
During the initial panic in early March after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, many travelers with standing reservations endured horrible customer experiences as they tried to cancel their reservations for a full refund or get some form of credit. I was a part of this cohort, and those sentiments might outlast the virus itself and will influence which channels customers select once travel fully resumes.
From my own accounts, I can vividly recall the dastardly annoying slog of trying to get the airfare shifted for a postponed tradeshow, which I had booked through an OTA only because it was easier than going through multiple websites for each leg of the trip. Not only were refunds not permitted on this OTA, but the crediting process was absolutely miserable; the phone line was constantly busy and the website portal got stuck every time I tried to request the change.
Never again will I book any flight through a third party. I’d rather spend an extra half hour going through all the airlines’ branded websites just for the guarantee of being treated properly in case any other type of tumultuous event like the coronavirus happens.
As it concerns any hotel website, one mantra I like to apply to these situations is, ‘the more personal, the more universal.’ That is, if I endured this torture, then undoubtedly numerous other travelers did as well. And like me, many remain so angered at the OTAs that it will influence how we book in the future. This sentiment might be yet one more emerging behavioral shift following the outbreak, but importantly for you is how you position your hotel appropriately.
First off is to have a very clear and concise cancellation policy. This may require some tweaks to the non-refundable best available rate for each room category, but it is nevertheless worthwhile to state this clearly on your website and booking engine instead of trying to bury it.
One of the reasons for my foul mood during this ordeal was the waiting. Based on this, a prudent hotelier would work to dispel any such anxiety for future bookings by also clearly stating that calling or emailing the hotel gives a guest direct access to a live reservationist who can complete any refund or credit on the spot. In order to offer such a service, though, hotels must ensure they have adequate phone coverage as well as seamless back-end coordination for any requests coming through email, text and all social channels.
Moving away from defensive measures, now is the time to double-down on the value-added benefits of booking direct. Be it a complimentary perk like a same-day room upgrade when available or an in-room arrival amenity for all returning guests, such loyalty rewards must be fully exploited during this great reshuffling.
Treat it as a creative exercise with your front office team to see what fun perks you can come up with. Aside from the lack of commissions, one of the top advantages of having guests come to you directly is that you have more pervasive data in your CRM or PMS, meaning in this case that you can even A/B test different free amenities to see which ones convert more frequently or result in more upsells.
To close with one more anecdotal remark, I’ve heard from several hotels that voice channels are returning in popularity, but that prior to completing the reservation, guests are staying on the line longer and are keenly interested in the property’s new viral safety features. This should in itself hint at how direct bookings may increase in prominence, but only if you properly support it.