Expert’s Voice: How to keep direct guests and steer travellers away from OTAs

by | 10 Jan 2021 | Experts

Hospitality tech consultant and strategist Max Starkov discusses practical steps that hotels can take to avoid becoming overdependent on online travel agents (OTAs).

A recent study conducted by Expedia Group claimed travellers are 57% more likely to book a hotel via an OTA than before the pandemic, as a result of emerging traveller booking motivations such as:

  • To get the best nightly rate (69%)
  • To get the best room (40%)
  • To compare properties in one location (35%)

Other motivations include earning reward points (32%); one-stop shopping (28%); direct promotions (26%); and buying a bundled offer, such as a flight and hotel, in one transaction (25%).

Needless to say, this is a very self-serving study with less-than-stellar methodology (audience polled of only n=500 US consumers).

Unfortunately, there is some truth to Expedia’s claims and the hospitality industry is partly to blame for at least some of the emerging traveller booking motivations cited above. Here are some of the advantages the OTAs undoubtedly have in the post-crisis period and the tactics hoteliers can deploy to neutralise these advantages, hold on to their direct guests, and ultimately outsmart the OTAs.

1. Calamities make the OTAs stronger

Traditionally, the OTAs have emerged stronger after all of the previous crisis and calamities: 9/11, Sars, Mers, the recession, Zika, H1N1. The main reason is that travel suppliers – especially hoteliers – panic too easily, shut down their marketing efforts due to budget cuts, and run for help to the OTAs.

In post-calamity periods, hoteliers are more willing to work with the OTAs, to discount and provide the OTA with sales promotions (24- or 48-hour sale, etc) without promoting these same sales via the direct channel due to lack of marketing budget. All of this allows the OTAs to convince the travelling public that they can find the lowest rates on the OTA sites/apps – rates they cannot find elsewhere.

  • What can hoteliers do? Hoteliers should continue to maintain rate parity and invest in omnichannel marketing campaigns. All discounts or promotions you provide to the OTAs should also be promoted in the direct channel: Hotel website, content marketing, search engine marketing, online media, social media, customer relationship management (CRM) and loyalty marketing. Travel consumers are shopping around (45 digital interactions before making a hotel booking – Google Research 2019) and omnichannel marketing gives the hotel an equal to the OTAs’ chance to engage the travellers throughout the digital customer journey and its five phases (dreaming, planning, booking, experiencing and sharing phases), eventually acquire and retain them.

2. Covid19 accelerated the shift from offline to online

eMarketer reports that US ecommerce sales will reach US$794.50 billion this year, up 32.4% year-over-year. Ecommerce sales in Europe have exploded as well. The pandemic drastically accelerated the shift from offline to online commerce, a shift that will also impact how travel is being researched, planned and booked in the future.

Because of the shelter-at-home mandates around the world, the vast majority of the population – even late adopters – were forced to use online services to communicate, work and study remotely, search for news or information, purchase goods and services, order food, chat with friends and family, watch streaming services and entertain themselves.

This ‘online planning and purchasing education’ has created millions of converts and believers in online services, which will inevitably affect how they research, plan and book travel in the future. This new wave of online converts will benefit online travel players like the OTAs immensely at the expense of brick-and-mortar travel agencies and traditional tour operators and wholesalers.

  • How about hoteliers? This ‘forced’ conversion from offline to online can also greatly benefit smart hoteliers who continue to invest in digital marketing, cloud technology and applications, and ‘reach out’ to these newbie online travellers versus shutting down their marketing and technology budgets. Recently, I wrote an article outlining a hotelier’s action plan for maintaining online presence that does not require significant investments: Can hoteliers afford to ignore Google in the post-crisis era?

3. The OTAs now have a formidable reward membership base

Unlike the previous calamities, this time the OTAs have a significant new advantage: very robust reward programmes comparable in popularity to the loyalty programmes of the major hotel chains. Booking.com’s Genius programme has more than 100 million active members; Expedia Group and its three reward programmes (Expedia, Hotels.com and Orbitz) have approximately the same membership count.

The OTAs have been investing heavily in their reward programmes over the past three to four years with the hope of increasing repeat business, which is 10-15 times cheaper than acquiring new customers, and decreasing dependency on expensive performance marketing (read Google and metasearch players like Trivago and TripAdvisor). Before the current pandemic, the OTAs have been spending in excess of $11 billion a year on performance marketing.

Many of the current OTA initiatives – for example, the Expedia partner recovery programme – require hoteliers to provide special discounted rates to the OTA’s reward members if they want to benefit from the OTA’s recovery programme initiatives. All of this creates a vicious cycle where hoteliers are forced or enticed to provide lower rates and discounts to OTA reward members, which in turn increases the membership and further convinces the travelling public that the OTAs have the lowest rates and are the place to book their next trip.

  • What can hoteliers do? Focusing on your past guests and repeat business should become a top priority versus chasing new customers. Past guests and loyalty members are already familiar with the property, its location and product, the only thing now is to convince them that the property is safe to stay at. Past guests and repeat business will rule the next 24 months!

Hotel chains with loyalty programmes should not participate in OTA reward member discounts and should provide any discounts and promotions to their own loyalty members instead. Due to weak travel demand, loyalty member initiatives, such as loyalty marketing, CRM initiatives, upsells and cross-sells, should be top of mind for any branded hotelier as opposed to chasing new customers.

Independent hoteliers should focus on bringing back their past guests and creating a guest-recognition programme to reward any repeat guest. A simple programme based on giving free nights based on X number of roomnights stayed can go a long way today.

Hotels.com has 50 million members in its simple but very effective reward programme, which gives one free night with every ten nights stayed at any hotel. Independents should also strongly consider implementing a cloud CRM technology and create a CRM programme to increase repeat business, engage last and current guests, and turn them into future guests.

The big question is what else can hoteliers do in this environment of weak travel demand and severe budget cuts? I believe selling on value versus selling on price alone can compensate to a great extent the budget limitations and online dominance by the OTAs. Hoteliers must remember and relearn how to sell on value versus price alone!

The OTAs are the masters of selling on price, hoteliers have no chance outwitting or outspending them in their marketing efforts. But selling on value? This is where hoteliers can truly outwit the OTAs and provide real value to their customers.

Do you have cooking classes, weekend specials, coronavirus destressing packages, spa packages, family packages, activity packages, special occasion packages, wine tastings, F&B packages and promotions, work-from-hotel packages, etc that you can use to target your local, short-haul and drive-in feeder markets?

Especially now, it is not difficult to be creative and figure out what your customers want and need – they, like all of us, have been locked at home for most of the past seven months. We have all been there and you can easily come up with enticing packages and special offers based on what your guests would love to do and experience at your property and its surroundings in the current environment.

Remember, the OTAs have one huge disadvantage: in spite of all of their technology and marketing might, they do not know your hotel product and your destination like you do.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared on Hospitality Net.

Max Starkov

Max Starkov

Hospitality tech consultant and strategist

Max Starkov is an online travel industry expert. He also happens to be a consultant and digital strategist with 20 years of experience in hospitality and digital marketing. Until recently, he was founder and board director at NextGuest.

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