A new study from Barclays Corporate Banking has found that 37% of British holidaymakers plan to book their stays directly through hotel websites or self-accomodation providers this year compared to 17% in 2007 and 30% five years ago.

This contrasts with international travellers who apparently prefer to use travel agents, with just 17% booking direct with their accommodation provider.

Along with these findings, other research also suggests that certain hotels are experiencing a surge in direct bookings. Take Premier Inn, for instance, whose website accounted for 87% of all its bookings in 2016. That said, at other hotel chains, like Hilton, direct bookings are far lower as they struggle to compete with aggregator sites.

So, what can we learn from Premier Inn? And how can both UK and international hotels increase their direct bookings? Here’s just four factors that could make a difference.

Mobile optimisation

Google’s 2016 Travel Trends report suggests that 60% of searches for travel information come from mobile. Meanwhile, conversion rates have grown 88% on mobile travel sites. So in order to capture some of this search interest – and draw users away from online travel agencies – hotels need to ensure a good mobile UX across all channels and throughout every step of the journey.

This doesn't only mean in terms of the immediate booking process, either. 

Interestingly, hotel apps and mobile bookings are said to lead to greater levels of satisfaction compared to the same technology delivered by a third party or OTA. A survey from J.D. Power found that guests who book through an online travel agency or a mobile app not directly associated with a hotel are more likely to experience a problem and be less satisfied with their stay overall.

This suggests that a mobile strategy is not only important for first-time direct bookings, but to increase the likelihood of repeat direct bookings – as well as long-term loyalty. Features like mobile tickets and check-in can be hugely beneficial for increasing satisfaction and keeping consumers coming back.

Perks and benefits

In order to sway people away from the perceived cheaper and more flexible options provided by travel agents and aggregator sites, hotels and self-accommodation companies must provide clear incentives.

This usually comes in the form of discounts and offers for direct bookings – alongside even greater incentives for joining loyalty programmes. We’ve recently seen many large hotel chains heavily promote this as part of marketing campaigns, specifically Hilton and its ‘Stop Clicking Around’ ads.

As well as highlighting the benefits of being an HHonors member, the campaign also points consumers towards other perks such as free WiFi and arrival gifts.

It is this added value that really sets direct bookings apart from OTAs. But interestingly, it appears to be smaller or independent hotels who are largely capitalising on this, using unique incentives to entice consumers to book direct.

The small Hawaiian hotel chain, Aqua-Aston, offers a free $20 Starbucks gift card if guests book direct. Meanwhile, Hotel Amarano in California offers guests either a $25 credit to use at the hotel’s restaurants or to receive a room upgrade. These incentives are not particularly ground-breaking, but against a third-party site offering nothing much more than the standard cheapest tariff it's easy to see how it might improve conversions.

That being said, incentives don’t always have to involve personal gain. Last year, the Omni Hotels group launched the ‘Say goodnight to hunger’ campaign, which saw the hotel donate to Feeding America for every stay booked directly through the brand’s website. Each donation would provide dinner for a family of four for an entire week.

Not only did this clever strategy enable the hotel to increase the likelihood of direct bookings, but it also contributed to positive brand perception and a reputation as a company that cares about social good.

Personalisation

One way hotels can enhance incentives is to add personalisation, or any elements that will help to build a direct relationship between the company and consumer. Again, this can be done through loyalty programs, such as HHonors members being able to share preferences in order to customise their hotel stay. However, when it comes to direct bookings, this type of personalisation is most effective early on in the customer journey.

Data is a key enabler, of course, allowing hotels to track and monitor user behaviour. This means that if someone browses and abandons a site before booking, the hotel can re-target them with personalised and tailored messages. 

There is the argument that hotels should not dismiss OTAs entirely, as they can help to increase awareness and boost bookings (despite taking a commission). But often consumers tend to browse hotel websites in conjunction with OTAs. This perhaps means the focus should not always be on getting people to visit a site – but on keeping them there. Companies like HotelChamp use technology to do exactly this, using data to engage with potential guests and optimise sites accordingly. 

Human interaction

A final reason that consumers might be swayed towards direct bookings (both on and offline) is any kind of human interaction. Unlike OTAs, which usually involve communication via digital channels, hotels can benefit from reaching out to customers via the telephone.

Telephone communication remains desirable in the US, where 8% of people prefer to book their holidays over the phone versus 4% of other global travellers. Similarly, 15% of US consumers prefer to do it in person compared to 11% elsewhere. 

Hoteliers can capitalise on this through online customer service channels, making features like live chat highly visible on homepages. Not only does it offer a one-to-one connection to hotels (which is often absent on OTAs) but it also helps to dispel any queries or concerns which may lead to abandonment.

Click-to-call functionality on mobile is also key, helping to convert customers in the moment of browsing. This is because, in such a competitive market, an immediate answer could potentially mean the difference between a direct or abandoned booking.

Related reading:

Nikki Gilliland

Published 21 July, 2017 by Nikki Gilliland @ Econsultancy

Nikki is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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