Independent Hotel Web Sites: Marketing Winners... and Losers.
By Neil Salerno
Thursday, 4th May 2006
Just about every month, I hear from independent hotel owners and managers with questions about marketing their properties on the Internet. Their questions cover many aspects of Internet marketing; web site design, how to improve traffic to their site, pay-per-click and other forms of electronic advertising, online booking engines, developing a link strategy, or simply, how to work with third-party aggregators and the GDS.

Most of these owners and managers are less concerned with the technical aspects of what needs to be done to improve their site; they are more interested in getting it fixed and how much will it cost. Take heed, it shouldn't cost a fortune and is almost always very cost-effective; with a return-on-your-investment measured in weeks to just a few months.

There are thousands of hotel web sites that range from really great to really poor, in design. During the last 15 years or so, many hotels jumped on the bandwagon to have a presence on the web.

In those early days, few people knew how to design an effective hotel web site; many of them were designed by the hotel's "in-house" techie, the owner's niece or nephew, some local ad agency, or a host of technically oriented but unfortunately, not hotel marketing oriented, designers.

They made pretty web sites, but lacking conformation to search engine requirements and good marketing techniques, they were very ineffective. The results were a disaster and very discouraging for most of these hotels. The "build it and they will come" theory just doesn't apply to hotel web sites.

There are some designers who tout your site's successes by reporting the number of unique visitors or, even worse, the number of "hits" your web site receives. Very simply, you need to be more concerned with the number of reservations that are made from your site. Basically, it's the number of "lookers" to "bookers" which counts, unless your bank now accepts deposits of unique users. How well does your site convert lookers into bookers?

The Internet has become the great marketing equalizer; it's a sales tool which works well for hotels, large and small; independent or franchised. More than that, the Internet is the only tool which allows smaller independent hotels to compete with their bigger-box competition. The Internet leveled the entire playing field.

Before the Internet, the primary incentive to join a franchise was the enormous marketing power and massive exposure which was wielded by most of the franchises; their reservations contribution. Today, that incentive is somewhat diminished. Now, small and large independent hotels can get needed world-wide marketing exposure on their own; at a far lower cost than that of a franchise.   

There are many owners and managers of small hotels who feel that Internet marketing is financially out of their reach, but they couldn't be more wrong. It doesn't take a fortune to gain a presence on the net, but there are some important rules, which need to be followed. It all starts with the design of the web site itself. A well-designed web site follows search engine guidelines, is easy for visitors to navigate, and has text and content which take visitors towards the ultimate goal; to make a reservation.

Everyone agrees that a hotel web site needs traffic to produce business. With the ever-increasing use of search engines, the search ability of the site is critical. Many people don't realize that the design of the web site has everything to do with its ability to be found and ranked by search engines. There are many criteria which are used by search engines to "rank" a site. Your site's conformation to these criteria is essential.

Perhaps the most common error is over-designing the site itself. Many technically oriented, as opposed to marketing oriented, web designers tend to overwhelm the site with flash, fancy opening pages, complicated moving elements, and morphing photos; with little time and effort spent on the most important part of the site…its text content.

Text content is so important because it is the only thing that search spiders recognize when ranking a site for search results; key words/phrases and search relativity. Secondly, text is what closes sales; not photography. Good representative photography creates interest, but text sells. Your site is not an online brochure; it's a sales piece. If it doesn't sell, what good is it?

It's easy to spot a web site that was developed by a techie; simply read the text. Poorly written text is the most common error. If the site is full of flash and fancy moving photos, that's another tip-off; makes for a pretty site, but doesn't sell hotel rooms. Optimizing the design of your web site is the most important first-step to improve your Internet reservations production. Content is king.

Ok, you agree, what's the most logical next step? Hire a hotel marketing professional to review your site and specify changes to optimize your site's production. Most professionals charge very little for a site review and usually suggest very cost-effective improvements. Beware of those who might suggest search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click advertising, and/or adding flashier cool-stuff to your web site, until your web site itself has been optimized. Spending money to get more people to visit an ineffective web site is a waste of money; fix it first.

Neil Salerno, CHME, CHA
Hotel Marketing Coach

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