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Meta Search Marketing: The New Revenue Frontier in Hospitality.
By Max Starkov and Tara Dyer
Monday, 29th July 2013
 

Meta search in travel and hospitality has been around since the early 2000s; one of the earliest examples was Sidestep.com, now part of Kayak.com, which was acquired by Priceline earlier this year. In Europe, one such example is Trivago.com. WeGo.com is one such example in Asia Pacific.

Meta search marketing in hospitality is online advertising that requires real-time room availability and pricing feed. This new “hybrid” digital marketing format, the result of the convergence of hotel online distribution and online advertising, requires:

  • Real-time hotel inventory availability + pricing
  • Marketing campaign, budget and bid management by property
Meta search marketing is already branching out beyond the typical rate comparison sites. Google Dynamic Text Retargeting Ads are one such example, available only to properties participating in the Google Hotel Finder meta search program.

Based on the meta search marketing concept, here at HeBS Digital we are already working on several game-changing “hybrid” digital marketing initiatives, utilizing real-time hotel inventory availability and pricing fees, such as Dynamic Rate Google AdWords and display advertising with real-time pricing, email marketing with dynamic rates, hotel desktop and mobile site dynamic rate promotions, etc.

Meta Search Popularity is Exploding

Today we are witnessing an explosion of meta search travel sites and features, facilitated by advancements in digital technology and advertisers’ perceptions of these sites as “unbiased” online media players compared to the OTAs.

The most popular meta search sites and features in the hospitality and travel space include:

  • Google Hotel Finder (HPA pricing drop-downs): Google Hotel Finder beta, Google Maps, Google search engine results pages (SERPs), etc.
  • TripAdvisor Meta Search
  • Kayak.com
  • Trivago.com (Europe)
  • WeGo.com (Asia Pacific)
The value proposition to travel consumers is undeniable: by adding real-time availability and pricing and enabling rate shopping, travel planners are now provided with everything they need to research and book their hotel stay.

Let’s take Google for example. Google provides:

  • Hotel Location: The best mapping service on the web
  • Hotel Information: There is more information about any hotel, its location, destination, local attractions, etc. than anyone could possibly read in a lifetime
  • Customer reviews: Google provides Zagat’s Reviews plus a summary of reviews from all reviewing sites, including TripAdvisor
  • Real Time Availability and Rate Comparison: With Google Hotel Finder, Google has “closed the loop” and now provides 360-degree hotel stay research with easy planning and booking
Google Hotel Finder (HPA pricing drop-downs)

4Hoteliers Image Library

TripAdvisor now provides a similar experience with its meta search program, and Kayak.com and Trivago are close behind. The main question is: Why would any online travel consumer want to go to an OTA website when they can get all of the above on Google, TripAdvisor, etc.? Rightfully, here at HeBS Digital we consider meta search the ultimate “OTA-killer.”

Is Meta Search a Distribution or Marketing Channel?

Though we applaud these meta search initiatives, hotel distribution, availability and pricing are more complex than meta search websites realize. The hotel distribution eco-system consists of disparate and, in many cases, legacy technology platforms, including property management systems (PMS), central reservation systems (CRS), global distribution systems (GDS), online booking engines, OTAs, etc.

Sometimes these inventory distribution technologies do not even “speak” the same language. Hotel pricing has become very complex as a result of more sophisticated revenue management technologies, and the ability to react quickly to market conditions and changing comp set pricing behavior is key. Rate parity requirements also add complexity to pricing. All of this requires professional meta search marketing expertise and help.

Contrary to some perceptions in the industry, meta search is not a distribution channel, nor is it a “set and forget” marketing initiative. Meta search marketing is an advertising model that typically utilizes the cost-per-click (CPC) advertising format, where the advertiser pays only when someone clicks on their listing and is taken deep into their booking engine.

The meta search advertising format requires daily spend and bid management, daily reaction to what other advertisers are doing, monitoring of budget spend on a daily basis and monitoring of rate parity (that is often abused by the OTAs).

For instance, since only the top three positions on TripAdvisor and the top four for Google Hotel Finder matter, just being enabled means nothing since OTAs will push the property down or out of the pricing ad menu. This is why branded hotels rarely see themselves in the Google Hotel Finder meta search pricing menus or among the top three featured advertisers on in the TripAdvisor Check Rates meta search menu.

As a marketing format, meta search marketing is quite complex due to the fact that it requires real-time room availability and pricing, in addition to daily campaign and bid management. Hotel inventory availability and pricing feeds are required components, but they constitute a small part of the complexity of this new “hybrid” advertising model. The most complex part is the technology needed to manage ad spend (budget) per property on a daily and monthly basis, real-time bid management, conversion and ROAS tracking, campaign monitoring and ongoing optimizations and reporting on the property level.

Though some meta search websites have enabled a self-service functionality where in theory a property can set up their own campaigns, meta search marketing requires sophisticated CRS access and advertising middleware technology (such as the HeBS Digital MetaSearch Gateway) to manage daily ad spend, campaign management, and dynamic bidding and optimization. Once again, meta search marketing is not a “set and forget” initiative that you can run on auto-pilot.

Here’s an example of why running on auto-pilot doesn’t work. Google AdWords’ self-service functionality has existed since 2000. It takes any hotel just a few minutes to set up an account and live paid search campaign. Today, how many of the 52,000 properties in the U.S. are using the self-service version of Google AdWords? Just a handful of hotels, and there is a good reason for that: there is a science to managing paid search campaigns, same as any digital marketing campaign.

The test to pass the Google Adwords Professional Certification Program consists of over 100 questions and requires real hard work and extensive SEM and digital marketing experience.

Why is Meta Search Marketing a “Must Have” for Hoteliers?

Meta search marketing must be part of hoteliers’ concerted efforts to shift share from the OTAs to the direct online channel, i.e. to the hotel website. In addition to other fundamentals such as website re-designs, SEO, SEM, online media and retargeting, emails marketing and social media, meta search marketing is an important tool to help hoteliers lessen their dependency on the OTAs and drive more direct bookings through the property website. Independent hotels are particularly OTA-dependent. Last year, more than 76% of online bookings for non-branded hotels came from the OTAs and just 24% came from the hotels’ own websites (STR, HSMAI Foundation).

Think about it, hoteliers do everything possible to provide an excellent service to their guests, from friendly staff and safe and enjoyable ambiance to appointed accommodations and amenities and unforgettable dining experiences. But hoteliers do not stop there. Hoteliers encourage guests to share their positive experiences on TripAdvisor, Google’s Zagat’s Reviews, etc. Hoteliers monitor these customer reviews on TripAdvisor, Google, etc., respond to negative reviews and thank positive reviewers.

The OTAs do none of the above. They do not meet and greet guests with a smile. They do not clean after hotel guests. What do they do? They are lying in wait like a pack of wolves on the property’s page on TripAdvisor or Google +Local (the hotel local business page) with one single objective in mind: to convert any visitor to the property page into an OTA client.

By being part of meta search marketing on websites like Google or TripAdvisor, hoteliers are leveling the playing field with the OTAs and giving their past guests or referrals from past guests the chance to book directly with the hotel.

In addition, meta search marketing generates incremental revenues and produces excellent ROAS (return-on-ad-spend). HeBS Digital’s hotel client portfolio has been enjoying robust ROAS rates of 800%-2000% on both the TripAdvisor Meta Search and Google Hotel Finder meta search program.

Case Study: TripAdvisor Meta Search

This full-service hotel in Boston embarked on an aggressive campaign to shift share from the OTAs to the direct online channel. In addition to revamping the property website, SEO, SEM and online media and retargeting efforts, the property launched a campaign on TripAdvisor Meta Search. This new marketing presence provided the numerous visitors to the property profile page the chance to book directly with the property. In the first half of 2013 the property not only generated over $145,000 in incremental revenue, but saved over $36,250 in OTA commissions.

4Hoteliers Image Library

So, what should hoteliers do?

Independents: Meta search marketing is a “must have” initiative for any independent hotel, resort and casino and any small and mid-size hotel chain; it is as important as SEO, SEM and email marketing.

Branded properties: Though most major brands have enabled their properties on the meta search sites by utilizing the “pay-for-performance” model (the property is being charged a “success fee”/commission by the brand), all branded hotels should regularly monitor whether they are present in the meta search programs on Google, TripAdvisor, Trivago, Kayak.com, etc. We have noticed that major brands are constantly outbid by the OTAs, or the OTAs are “gaming the system” and pushing the property pricing listing below or out of the meta search menu. We are already working with some franchisees that are taking control of their meta search presence in addition to the major brand’s effort in this respect.

TripAdvisor Property Page with Meta Search Results Open

4Hoteliers Image Library

How Can Hoteliers Take Advantage of Meta Search Marketing?

Meta search marketing is a great way to level the playing field with OTAs throughout the fast growing meta search eco-system. In addition we have witnessed great ramp-up of high quality traffic volume since the beginning of the year with the introduction of meta search by TripAdvisor, the entrance of Trivago.com in the North American market, and the acquisition of Kayak.com by Priceline.

Advertising on the meta search sites is easy and stress-free if you partner with an experienced meta search marketing firm that has the technology interfacing with the meta search algorithms of Google Hotel Finder, TripAdvisor Meta Search, etc.

One such technology is HeBS Digital’s MetaSearch Gateway, a one-stop meta search marketing platform that enables, runs, manages, tracks, and reports on any property’s meta search marketing campaigns on Google Hotel Finder, TripAdvisor Meta Search, Kayak.com, Trivago, etc.

How much should hoteliers budget for meta search marketing? At this point, this advertising format is not a big-ticket item. For example, here at HeBS Digital, a Google Hotel Finder meta search package starts at $300/month and a TripAdvisor Meta Search package starts at $500/month. These cost-effective meta search marketing packages include the advertising spend, property CRS connectivity to the MetaSearch Gateway, campaign management, daily bid and ad spend management, conversion tracking and reporting.

In the case of TripAdvisor, HeBS Digital recommends combining the TripAdvisor Meta Search Program with a TripAdvisor Business Listing. Based on our hotel client portfolio, properties with BOTH the Meta Search Program and a Business Listing generated:

  • 66% more revenues compared to properties with ONLY Meta Search
  • 126% more revenues compared to properties with ONLY a Business Listing
The HeBS Digital MetaSearch Gateway

HeBS Digital’s proprietary MetaSearch Gateway is an advertising enablement technology, unique to the hospitality industry today. It allows any hotel, resort or casino to participate in new meta search advertising programs such as Google Hotel Finder and TripAdvisor Meta Search.

Functionality: The MetaSearch Gateway structures and “translates” the property’s real-time inventory availability and pricing feed into “Google speak” or “TripAdvisor speak” developed as per these advertising platforms’ requirements. The MetaSearch Gateway provides campaign management, daily bid and ad spend management, budget monitoring and management, campaign and conversion tracking and reporting by property.

Supply Side: The real time inventory and pricing feeds come from various sources: mid-size and smaller hotel chains CRS, third-party CRS vendors, distribution connectivity providers, property management systems (PMS) vendors, eCRM vendors, etc.

Demand Side: The demand aggregators include Google Hotel Finder meta search program, TripAdvisor Meta search program, Trivago.com, WeGo.com, Kayak.com, etc. Here we have to add the new derivatives of the meta search concept, such as dynamic rate Google AdWords, banner advertising formats with real-time pricing, dynamic text retargeting ads, email marketing with dynamic rates, hotel desktop and mobile site dynamic rate promotions, etc.

Conclusion

Hoteliers must add meta search marketing to their core marketing budgets, next to such fundamental initiatives such as SEO, SEM, online media and retargeting, email marketing, etc. Not only does meta search marketing help hoteliers compete against the OTAs and shift share from the OTAs to the direct online channel, it generates cost-effective incremental bookings at great ROAS levels. HeBS Digital expects meta search marketing to grow over the next few years and we encourage hoteliers to participate now in the early stages of this viable marketing channel.

Partner with an experienced meta search marketing firm that provides a one-stop meta search marketing and connectivity platform and take advantage of this growing direct online channel revenue opportunity.

About the Authors and HeBS Digital

Max Starkov is President & CEO and Tara Dyer is Online Media Planner at HeBS Digital, the hospitality industry’s leading full-service digital technology and marketing firm (www.HeBSDigital.com).

HeBS Digital has pioneered many of the best practices in hospitality digital technology and marketing, and direct online channel best practices and strategies. The firm has won over 250 prestigious industry awards for its digital marketing and website design services, including numerous Adrian Awards, Davey Awards, W3 Awards, WebAwards, Magellan Awards, Summit International Awards, Interactive Media Awards, IAC Awards, and others.

A diverse client portfolio of hospitality clients: from restaurants to major hotel brands, luxury and boutique hotel chains, resorts and casinos, hotel management companies, franchisees and independents, and CVBs are benefiting from HeBS Digital’s direct online channel strategy and digital marketing expertise. Contact HeBS Digital’s consultants at (212) 752-8186 or success@hebsdigital.com.

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