Paid Distribution Marketing.
By Patricia Brusha
Monday, 7th November 2005
Major Hotel Brand websites have begun to recognize the importance of website Optimization for micro sites within the brand site. How do they approach the legal or rightful claim a franchisee has to own a website outside of the brand?

Beyond Brand Organic Optimization -- You have successfully Optimized your Brand website for improving your organic placement, and you are ready to explore the online marketing programs accessible to advertise your hotel. You decide that you will approach 2006 with an increased marketing budget to promote online distribution by driving increased traffic to your own website. Before you reallocate your traditional advertising dollars to higher rated Distribution Marketing Verticals, you may want to check what current guidelines your brand has recently put into place.

The fourth Quarter of 2005 has seen a number of the Brands roll out new, stringent standards in regards to Vanity Websites and the ability to market your website in online and offline advertising, use of their trademark, restrictions on the ability to communicate with your guests, and standards regarding your own email addresses. Numerous brands have put forth that franchises must become compliant with these standards between Q1 and Q4 2006 in order to maintain their Franchise privileges.

These complex and legal standards will dramatically alter the way online and offline travel seller's market rooms. How will these new standards affect our brands? Who will educate the properties on what steps to take to become compliant, and what that means to their current vanity site initiatives? Who will internally audit the compliance of the properties in order to avoid brand fines and penalties? Who will analyze how these new standards will affect our ability to sell against our competitors in the market? Bottom Line…Who on your property will own this?

Vanity Websites
Having your own website outside of the Brand is a common occurrence, yet it remains a topic everyone is afraid to talk about. For the last few years The Brands have turned a blind eye to the independent brand websites out there as long as they pointed the reservations to the Brand Booking Engine. For the most part this has been common practice, with only a few daring soles venturing out to have their own booking engine.

To view these vanity websites, just go to Google or Yahoo and type in any brand name into the search bar, Marriott, Hilton, Hilton Garden Inn, Westin, etc. After passing "The Official Brand Site" you can scroll down and see numerous URL's reflecting www.location+brandname.com. Viewing these vanity sites, it becomes clear that there have been no standards or guidelines in place as each brand vanity site is more of a reflection of that property's marketing budget. You will find extensive websites that incorporate rich media, virtual tours, flash and numerous targeted market pages, to the 3-4 page online brochure websites. Colors, content and functionality range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Watch out because in 2006, this might all be changing. Now that the Brand has taken back the control of their inventory with "Best Rate Guarantee" and preferred agreements with third party intermediaries, their next targeted audience to enforce standards is aimed toward their own franchise community. You may no longer have the freedom to direct reservations to your hotel, or capitalize on your brand plus online location; the new guidelines make it almost impossible to have your own identity outside of the brand.

This is not to say they will not allow you to have your own website, but as you navigate through the complex set of rules and standards, you will get the feeling that their main intent is they hope you feel it is not worth the effort…and the cost. (perhaps they feel that the money you have invested in the previous years was a waste, and that it is better to write it off now!)

If you think I am being dramatic, and possibly standing on a franchise soap box… let's examine, with out going into too much technical detail, what some of the new website standards that you will have to address to remain Brand compliant. Some or all of the following standards are being introduced by the various brands. This is a generic overview and cross section of what you might encounter:

Email Address: It will become difficult to maintain an email address that has a brand trademark name as part of the address.

Domain Names: You will no longer be allowed to register a domain name that includes a brand trademark name.

Website Design: All brands will be issuing website standards for look, feel and functionality.

Customer Data: You will no longer have the privilege of collecting your guest's names, email address and freedom to communicate directly with those individuals who have requested information from you.

Reservations: Besides sending all online reservations to the Brand booking engine, some brands may also require you to post the brands 800 number to book all phone reservations.

Monthly Web Stat Reports
If you do continue to operate a brand approved website, you will be required to share your monthly web stat reports with the brand.

Search Engine Optimization
You will need to get brand approval on any title, Meta and description tags you use on your site.

Printed Marketing
You will no longer be allowed to advertise your own website on your business cards, stationary or any other print advertising.

I don't mean to get your blood boiling on this topic because on the other side of the coin, this could be a blessing in disguise for the franchise owner. Up until now the lack of rules and regulations regarding the way you market the brand has been chaotic, and lacking any order or consistency. Before the "Best Rate Guarantee" was put into place, sister brands were undercutting each other with discounting inventory through various channels and all control seemed to be lost.

Objectively, this is not dissimilar to where we were as an industry a few short years ago as we find ourselves bidding for the same keywords against each other and the brand. This only raises the bid prices and continually makes the Search Engines richer. Secondly won't this help level the playing field out there? How can you compete with another Franchise who has the monetary resources to invest in the best technology, website functionality and who can afford to "own" all of the brand and destination keywords? Won't these new guidelines bring consistency back to the brands and be less confusing to the consumer? Isn't it becoming difficult for a traveler to distinguish the difference and understand all these brand sites out there?

I am not saying that the Franchise community will go down without a fight. It will be interesting to see how they react to these standards and guidelines. Does this mean that if you are having a local New Year's Eve package, you will have to send it to the Brand to book the reservation? Does it mean that you will be paying the franchise fee, and then your advertising cost, and then you will pay the brand again for booking it? What about all of the tracking that individual properties have already invested in? Will they be willing to surrender this invaluable information about their customers? It is hard for me to imagine that owners will voluntarily surrender their property data to the brands without first considering the long-term ramifications.

The Brands seem to have pledged to put their full authority into capturing the ownership of the individual traveler. I don't have to tell you what is next, as the brands have already begun to set the stage to own the franchise properties Group Database! But that's another can of worms!

About A Couple of Chicks Marketing and Internet Strategy
Patricia Brusha is the co-founder www.acoupleofchicks.com, a newly "hatched" Internet Marketing, Distribution & Revenue Measurement Company. "A Couple of Chicks" have taken ownership in understanding the new policies, procedures and guidelines to provide an unbiased consul in assisting properties in their Website Distribution Marketing, while remaining Brand Compliant. E-mail Patricia at solutions@acoupleofchicks.com or visit www.acoupleofchicks.com.

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