We were recently asked whether it’s possible to compete with Online Travel Agents, how you go about doing such a thing, and whether it’s possible to succeed without them. Read on for our guide to increasing direct bookings, and how to escape commissions and booking fees.
“We are a small outfit and manage all aspects of the business ourselves. Our big issue is the dominance of Airbnb and TripAdvisor who take a disproportionate fee, which puts guests off. However I doubt this is anything that you could affect.”
We get it. I don’t think a single one of our customers like OTA’s, they take a slice of your hard work and charge your guests on top. Plus they’re not particularly considerate, especially when it comes to some of their late notice cancellation policies… but can you genuinely go without?
Yes, yes you can. It takes time but is realistically possible with a little effort from your part. The answer? Offer everything they do, and more.
Don’t put up barriers
Stop only offering one method. Whether this is how someone can contact you or how you accept payments; you can not guarantee that you will always be there to answer the phone, and likewise, can’t expect every guest to want to pay via bank transfer. No two customers are the same and by adding restrictions, there’s a greater chance of driving a potential guest to a competitor or somewhere that can offer what they want.
We’re not saying that you shouldn’t accept phone calls or you shouldn’t accept bank transfers, quite the contrary. Just don’t have those as your only options. For instance, if you are only set up to receive enquiries during daylight hours and an insomniac wants to book in the middle of the night, but they can’t, well they probably won’t. The key here is to give your customers choice and you will convert more website visitors into paying guests.
Now this one is simple - just offer everything an OTA does. If you are trying to convince someone to use you, instead of the service that they already use, then it must at least offer the same functionality; as an individual is unlikely to switch to a service that offers less. All of the following would be typically expected when booking online:
Availability Calendars - Knowing what is available is an essential part of booking accommodation. For a guest, a website without a calendar means waiting. Time that may be used to check out your neighbours/competitors.
Online payments - There is an expectation of being able to pay online. If you were to go onto Amazon for instance, you wouldn’t dream of being able to send a cheque or pay by cash on delivery, why should your website be any different? Many users will have card details and alternative payment methods stored on their browsers and devices, allowing for quick and effortless purchasing. You should accommodate for this.
Cancellation Insurance - People can be wary if parting with large sums of money, especially if it’s just going into someone else’s bank account. Then on the other hand, accidents do happen, and no one can predict what will happen in the future. So offering a service where a Guest could get their money back, if something went wrong, might be enough to secure the sell in the first place. Of course this would involve no extra work from yourself, just a third party service offered at the checkout process.
Use modern technology
It’s great if you have a booking engine, but your website has to be good too. For it is all very well having the means for a guest to come direct, but they’ve actually got to be able to find you in the first instance! Almost everyone will be using a search engine to find you, which means you need to be utilising specific techniques that are favoured by the likes of Google. Whilst their ranking algorithms change frequently, these basic requirements will significantly help with your visibility, as well as improving a users experience.
Mobile friendly - Everyone owns smartphones nowadays and they make up for a large majority of online traffic; with more browsing happening on a small screen, than it does on a traditional desktop or laptop. So by not offering at least compatibility, let alone an optimised experience, will get users very frustrated. Common issues such as having to zoom to read, or buttons that are far too small to press, will all seriously hamper your sites user-friendliness. These factors are all taken into consideration by Google too and will lower your search ranking accordingly.
Secure encryption - Having a website that is safe and secure is vital in today's world. Not just to prevent fraudsters and malevolent behaviour, but to also comply with today's requirements. Whilst ‘SSL encryption’ isn’t a new thing, in mid 2018, it was deemed necessary by all web browsers, who now flag those who aren’t. So if your website isn’t using encrypted technology, then it shows, with the banner ‘Not Secure’ emblazoned across the screen. Dependant on a users set up or network, it’s even possible that some won’t be able to access an unencrypted page at all.
SEO - Search Engine Optimisation isn’t a technology as such, rather the collective term given to techniques used to improve visibility in a search engine. Those that invest time and effort into SEO are going to be ranked nearer to the top of a search, as opposed to those who do not. Whilst there is no golden handbook that says do this and you’ll succeed, Google does offer guidelines from time to time on the do’s and don’ts. In essence though, this will come down to some key areas: the skillset of the web developer, their resources/budget and experience in the industry.
Struggling to get found?
If you have a modern website, with booking system, that is compatible with today's devices and compliant with the latest demands - then you should have the basis of a good website. Yet it’s not always that straightforward and not necessarily enough to get lots of visits and bookings.
Now Google actually reward sites that it deems as ‘active’, ranking those who regularly add new pages in favour of those who don’t. So adding new pages to your website is a great idea and will also help convert those who are browsing. Below are a few suggestions, for the types of pages you can create to grow your sitemap:
Blog Articles - Regularly adding a few paragraphs with a picture or two can be a great way to engage with your audience. You may want to recommend an upcoming event, or add a review of the new pub that has opened down the road. Blogs can essentially be whatever you want. A way of starting a conversation and boasting what your Properties have to offer, all whilst demonstrating that you take your business seriously. Interested? Take a look at our guide here.
Holiday Ideas - You may cater for all types of holiday goer, or you may specialise for the one particular type of guest. Either way, your website should have pages tailored for each. For when a family wants to bring their dog along and searches for ‘Dog friendly cottage in Somerset’ or your holiday property is based near Dartmoor so you create the page ‘Accommodation for hikers in Dartmoor’... etc. There is endless potential and each new additional page that you add, will increase the footprint of your website, as well as increasing the chances of you showing in a search and your general online presence. Find out more here.
But don’t just stop there, go that extra mile. Make guests want to come to you because what you offer is better. Why not consider what the OTA’s can’t provide, but you can. Make your offering more appealing, and it worth someones while to book direct.
Cater for everyone by accepting alternative payment methods such as Bank transfer and cheque. (Something that most OTA’s don’t)
How about rewarding those who used your own website, or social media channels, by giving them a discount or a reduced rate?
Or simply by just offering a personal touch - something that a huge corporation will be hard stretched to match.
What about the OTA’s?
How about thinking of Online Travel Agents as an introductory service. Yes they have a large presence, massive marketing budgets, do TV advertising etc. and yes they are the first place a lot of people think of when looking to find somewhere. But do not assume that your potential customer actually wants to book with the agent. If given the choice, it is likely they would want to book direct, there are just often barriers in the way.
Admittedly, not every guest will look for an independents site and some will still book through an OTA. So it’s up to you to first make sure their experience is second to none whilst they are staying with you, and then if this guest does decide to book again, that they do so directly. It would be such a shame and far too easy for them to rebook through their original route. By taking some of these actions, you can help make sure that you are not forgotten and can easily remarket to your client base in the future:
Social Media - Requesting a simple like or follow on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram isn’t much of an ask but may provide a lot of opportunities. It will allow you to share recent goings on with your previously stayed guests and make them wish they could come back again at different times of the year. Uploading photos of interest through the year, such as a summer sunset or your Christmas decor will help achieve this.
Subscribers - Acquiring previously stayed guests’ emails, offers great potential. This will allow you to send out mailshots to promote new additions and special offers. If you are unfortunate enough to have a late cancellation, there’s no harm in asking those who have stayed before. Likewise, your existing clients are a great place to start when approaching a new season, offering them next years availability in advance.
Almost every suggestion so far has been free (or at least free for a user of the SCRUMPY platform.) Yet, spending a little can also have its advantages, and you may be surprised at how easy it can be to compete with an OTA. Google Ads offer a highly effective way of targeting specific types of searches, where you only pay if you're successful. So it’s a low risk way of getting your website getting clicks.
What’s great is if you’re competing against others, the Auction that decides who wins, doesn’t just take into consideration the person who pays the most, as it’s actually based on relevancy. So if your website includes the information that best matches the search terms, then you can come out on top. If your interested in how Google Ads can help get your site visits, then take a look at our guide.
We’re a small team based in Somerset, and we provide websites with software for Property Owners. Working closely with our customers, listening to their feedback and suggestions, has given us a great insight and unrivalled knowledge of the self catering industry.
This has been combined in our feature packed platform for holiday let management - SCRUMPY. Empowering over 250 Owners to easily promote and control their Properties from one place. Our software encompasses everything you could possibly need to run and promote your business, all accessible from your own website.
If you would like to talk about how we can supply you the means to offer direct bookings, or wanted to see the SCRUMPY platform in action, then get in touch.