Is the Hotel Brand Website Hotelier’s Friend or Foe?
By Max Starkov
Sunday, 5th June 2022

I firmly believe the hotel website is the most underutilized and quite often forgotten hotel asset.

Why are we even talking about it today, 27 years after the first booking engine-enabled hotel website was created?

There are several reasons for that:

  • The website is the hotel’s “digital storefront,” needed to engage and acquire the rapidly growing army of online travel consumers, fully dedicated to the digital world. The hotel website has become the gravitational center of hotelier's efforts to engage, acquire and retain these customers. Any marketing efforts of your hotel today - SEO and content marketing, SEM, social media, display advertising, email marketing, directory listings, etc. - lead the potential customers to your hotel website.
  • The hotel website is “the fishing rod” allowing the hotel to fish where the fish are! Today, the average travel consumers spend online almost 7 hours a day: browsing, searching, planning, reading, viewing, entertaining themselves, etc. In comparison, today’s consumers spend only 19 minutes a day on print media (newspapers and magazines). Overall consumers spend more time with digital media than with TV, radio and print media combined (Hootsuite). So naturally, the hotel website and digital marketing is where your hotel should spend your precious marketing dollars and efforts, and not on print brochures and collateral, print ads, direct snail mail, etc.
  • The hotel website provides the shortest path to “owning the customer”. “Ownership” of the customer and their first-party and zero-party data is extremely important in this age of privacy regulations, restriction and initiatives by governments, browsers like Safari and Chrome, search engines like Google, app stores like Apple, etc.

Hotels that “own their customers” - first and zero party data, preferences, stay history, social media behavior and customer review track record, pre-,during and post engagements and communications, etc. - are able to market effectively and efficiently and significantly increase repeat business via CRM and guest appreciation programs, marketing automation, drip campaigns, etc., and generate new business via similar audiences campaigns.

  • The hotel website is the engine that powers repeat business, together with the direct online channel as a whole. Repeat guests are much cheaper than acquiring new guests, all costs and benefits accounted for. The direct online channel is the engine that generates the property’s repeat business, and repeat business reciprocates by fueling the direct online channel.

Your past guests already know your property’s location, hotel product and value proposition, and are 5 - 15 times cheaper to re-acquire compared to new guests. In the post-pandemic era, success in bringing repeat business will make or break any property. Naturally, you cannot have a meaningful repeat business without investing in digital marketing and technology, including CRM technology and program in place.

  • The hotel website reduces labor costs. Having a great website and booking engine reduces significantly phone calls or email requests to the property. The issue with calls or emails is that when people call or email, someone at the property has to pick up the phone or reply to the email.

Analyze why people are calling the property. Is it to make reservations? If yes, then perhaps your property’s website and booking engine are not doing an adequate job. If it’s for information about your property’s location, services and amenities, perhaps your website technology and content need a serious overhaul.

Overall, your hotel website - for a single property or multi property brand - allows you to balance your distribution mix so that your property is the least susceptible to seasonality, group cancellations and calamities, or over dependence on the OTAs or any single distribution channel.

The hotel website is 50% art and 50% science.

Many hoteliers are obsessed with how beautiful their website is, completely ignoring the website UX, technology, functionality and content. Only a website conceptualized and developed using equal parts art and science can engage and convert users and generate meaningful revenues.

The 50% Art Part:

The art part includes: beautiful mobile-first design, unique, editorial-level written content, beautiful imagery, videos and virtual tours, and in the future - metaverse storefronts and property tours.

  • Mobile-first website design, ensuring an optimum mobile user experience and content access plus best-in-class UX booking path strategy to ensure users can easily complete a booking across devices. If you don’t, with more than 65% of today’s travelers visiting hotel websites via mobile devices, most will choose an OTA or a competitor if unhappy with their experience on your mobile-last website. Many hoteliers often fail to understand the crucial role user experience (UX) plays on their brand websites to achieve optimum engagements and conversions.
  • Great visual content sells! Since in hospitality we are selling a dream, visualizing your property’s or brand’s product, amenities and services are a great way to acquire guests. Using your smartphone to produce photography or videos for your website is a sure way to turn away potential customers. Make sure your website features professionally-produced photography, beautiful imagery, videos and virtual tours, and in the future - metaverse storefronts and property tours.
  • Mobile-first textual content is a must! Not just any content. Not the typical cookie-cutter, bland, bullet-point rich content you can see on any OTA site. Your website must feature high quality, unique, editorial level, credible and relevant content that engages and entices users and turns lookers into bookers. It also elevates your hotel website’s importance in the eyes of Google and the search engines as a whole and provides solid foundation for great SEO and top rankings in the SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages).

Typically, single or multi property hotels brands do not have the internal talent, resources, equipment or even bandwidth to produce high quality visual and textual website content. Always hire a professional photographers and videographers for the website visuals and PR or digital marketing agencies to produce the textual website content.

A word of caution about the textual content: remember that duplicate website textual content on different online channels can hurt very seriously your website bookings. Ex. Quite often, hotels provide the OTAs like Expedia, bed banks, wholesalers and tour operators (via copy and paste from the property website) with descriptions of the property, accommodations, amenities and services, hotel product descriptions - spa, meetings, we, golf, etc. that are identical or significantly similar to the descriptions on the property website.

Google will immediately determine the existence of duplicate content on different sites and will have to make a choice: do they rank your website content pages or Expedia’s? It is either or. Guess which website Google will choose: Expedia with millions of content pages, millions of inbound links and traffic of hundreds of millions of users or your property website with less than 100 pages, less than a few hundred inbound links and a couple of thousand visitors a month? You know the answer to that.

The 50% Technology Part:

  • Cloud-based Content Management System (CMS): Your property's mobile-first website must be backed by a mobile-first website technology platform -(CMS), which features mobile-first functionalities specific to the hoteliers' needs, such as comprehensive merchandising suite, reservation abandonment tools, personalization pricing and content, technical SEO, cloud hosting, and robust analytics suite.

Your website CMS should enable you to update the visual, textual and promotional content 24/7 and create and schedule for publishing unlimited content pages and sections calendar of events, promotions and landing pages.

  • Improve your website download speed: Make sure the download speed of your website on mobile devices is below 2.5 seconds to avoid your site being penalized by Google and reduce its bounce and abandonment rates. Google’s Core Web Vitals now uses a load speed of under 2.5 seconds as one of the primary measurements of indexing a website, stricter requirement from the 3 second benchmark just a few years back.

According to Google, 57% of visits are abandoned if a mobile site takes longer than 2.5 seconds to load. Unfortunately for our industry, on average, hotel websites download in 6 seconds or more. Mobile-first responsive website with cloud hosting and CDN (Content Delivery Network) provides far better server response times and faster

  • Overhaul your website SEO: Google has frequently stated that it is using more than 200 major ranking "signals" with many thousands of sub-signals and variations. Make sure your website features unique, relevant and editorial-level copy that is significantly different than the one you have used in the property descriptions on the OTAs, travel guides and directories, etc. and is fully optimized for the three main SEO categories: on-page SEO, inbound linking, technical SEO.

Make sure your website has professionally-developed on-page SEO and has professional ongoing SEO management. Your website SEO should address all important elements: the above-mentioned unique, editorial-level content, H1 and H2 headers, title tags, description tags, internal links, URL optimization, ALT tags and image optimizations, etc. Make sure your digital marketing agency can handle very complex Google-specific technical SEO requirements including automated schema markup, Google Sitemap XML, Google Search Console dashboard management, etc.

  • Advanced merchandising technology platform as part of the CMS technology, enables the hotel to sell rooms and generate leads via promotions, specials, limited time offers on every page of the website via a complete ecosystem of modules, functionality, and capabilities. Does the technology offer special banners and live rates that dynamically change anytime they are updated in your CRS? Does the technology enable the hotel to "sell on value," as opposed to "sell on rate," and maximize revenues on the hotel website?
  • Personalization engine capable to target users with one-to-one marketing messages and promotions, based on hundreds demographic characteristics, geolocation, feeder market origin, pathing and booking behavior, loyalty member affiliation, and many more.
  • Automated Schema Markup on the mobile-first hotel website, which help the search engines understand the content and intent of websites, especially dynamic content elements.
  • Reservation Abandonment Technology: Acquiring a new website visitor is many times more expensive than retaining an existing one. On average, two out of 100 visitors to the hotel website complete a booking. Does your website feature reservation abandonment technology to win back users who start the booking process without completing it? Your website should be the final touchpoint to convert the visitor into a hotel guest.
  • The quality of the booking engine matters! A user-friendly website booking engine like Pegasus, SHR’s Windsurfer or Avvio’ Allora guides the user through a frictionless booking process, and helps the hotel website increase the sale of rooms, packages and promotions.
  • A chatbot ensures 24/7 customer service: Do you have a chatbot on the site like Asksuite to engage users, answer all of their questions and steer them toward making a booking? Chatbots provide users with information through text, images, video, audio, etc. and serve as your property’s 24/7 virtual customer service department, make recommendations, handle customer complaints, etc., thus relieving the work load of the front desk
  • A virtual concierge on the site like Alice App answers questions about the destination, the property amenities, events and happenings.
  • Secure cloud hosting platform, featuring a full stack of automated download speed- enhancement tools and bandwidth, specifically designed for mobile users.

A word of caution about open source CMS. If you have the fiduciary responsibility for a multimillion dollar hotel property, you should NEVER use an open source CMS like Wordpress for your property website. If you have a rental cabin in the woods, and you need a quick and simple website, then Wordpress might be an option.

Your hotel website should be hack-proof, functioning 24/7 to generate maximum direct online bookings. You need a proprietary enterprise CMS to power and secure the most precious digital asset of the hotel - its website. There are plenty of hospitality-native and hospitality-focused CMS technology vendors out there that have mastered the space.

Wordpress is a popular open-source CMS and this makes it a popular target for hackers worldwide:

  • Stats show that almost one out of every six WordPress-powered sites are vulnerable to attacks. More than half a million WordPress sites were compromised by attackers in 2021. Common web hosting providers are the most prominent targets for hackers.
  • WordPress Comprises 90% of Hacked Sites

Today's hoteliers must create and manage a robust digital presence and engage, acquire, service and retain travel consumers in this increasingly mobile-first world. They must invest in digital technology, including website technology and digital marketing to engage, acquire and retain travel consumers throughout the Digital Customer Journey, enable the best user experience, provide the best customer service, thus increasing efficiencies and boosting direct revenue.

Max Starkov is the adjunct Professor NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality and Hospitality & Online Travel Tech Consultant

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