Experts are projecting that 60% of all travel will be booked online in 2008.
by Holly Zoba, Milestone
Tuesday, 1st January 2008
It's not big news that the internet has changed the landscape of travel.  A few years ago you would have called your travel agent to help make your travel plans, and that agent would probably have offered you one or maybe two hotel options. 

Today the choices are seemingly limitless and a bit overwhelming for your potential guests.  And overwhelming for hotels too - how much of your marketing budget should you spend on the internet?  Where should you spend it?  An independent website?  Pay per click advertising to support your brand site?  What is your best opportunity to capture your fair share of that every growing population of internet shoppers?

Our research has told us there are four kinds of potential guests and each of them uses a distinct online tool to find the right hotel:

Brand loyalists.  These guests stay only at Hilton or Holiday Inn and the first place they go online is the brand.com website.  A few might go to a search engine and type in Hilton Mclean for example. .  If you are a brand-affiliated hotel, your franchise fees are paying for your hotel to show up on those searches.  What can you do to make sure you're getting your fair share? 

Make sure your brand.com website is completely up to date with current information, things to do in your local area..  Pay as much attention to the information (and photos) on your brand website as if you were writing a $20,000 check to produce it, because you probably are.

Discount seekers.  There will always be searchers who are looking for a great deal and they are typically going to third party travel websites such as Priceline.com, Hotwire, etc . . .  There comes a time in every hotel's inventory where they simply need to fill up some rooms.  

A group fell out at the last minute, or a basketball team lost the semi finals and there were a series of early check outs.  This is time to maximize your third party sites participation.  Third party travel sites can be an expensive way to get business, so be sure to find out how much you are really paying per reservation as commission, and then decide how much of your fair share of this business you want to go after and with which providers.

Email responders. Just like there are people who respond to discount coupons, there are people who respond to email offers.  It's a small percent, around 3%, but there are people right now thinking about coming to your area, and if they were to receive a well written email offer describing the benefits of your hotel, a great photo, time sensitive offer and a clear call to action, they might be inclined to make a reservation.

Generating an email campaign is also an inexpensive way to sell a new offer at your hotel to your past customers - new restaurant, new spa opening, newly renovated rooms. Remember the ABC theory - Always Be Collecting.  Whenever possible, ask your current guests for their email address, and ask for their permission to add them to your emailing list.  You can do this on your website during the reservations process, during check in or check out.  Permission based email marketing is simple, inexpensive and can be very effective.

Destination/Activity Searchers.  A large percentage of online shoppers are using search engines to find a hotel near a certain destination, activity, or event.  They may be attending a family reunion in Nashville, or planning a girls' weekend shopping spree in a nearby city.  Maybe it's a sales call they are making on the headquarters for a computer company or a romantic getaway to countryside resort.  These guests will type a "keyword phrase" (like "hotels near ABC Company headquarters" or "pet friendly hotels in Portland") into a search engine. According to ComScore statistics, 42% choose Google,   27% use Yahoo, 13.5 use MSN and 8% use AOL.

Here is the REALLY GOOD NEWS:  Most hotels haven't figured out how to show up high on searches for activities and destinations around their hotels - YET.  Most hotels are focusing on being found when someone types in the name of their hotel and their city for a search.   So, right now is a great opportunity for you to grab more than your fair share.

Don't believe me?  Try it for yourself.  Make a list of the top five attractions near your hotel and start checking. Consider destinations like a nearby university, an amusement park, or a popular shopping mall.  Go to your favorite search engine and start checking.  Type in a keyword phrase like "hotels near ABC University", What results comes up?  Your competitors?  You?  Probably neither.  How many more reservations do you think you would get if your hotel were one of the few that appeared?

In order for you or your competitors to appear when real paying hotel guests are entering these destinations, your website needs to be "optimized" for those keyword phrases.  What does that mean?  It means your site needs to have rich, relevant content about those destinations included in the text on your site, and also, that those destinations have a link from their websites to yours. 

The relevant content is how search engines determine whether or not to include your hotel in the search results, and the link from the destination is like a reference to the search engines - saying yes, you really are nearby that amusement park or university so give this hotel a high ranking.

What about Web 2.0?  Where do blogs, RSS, online video, social networking fit in?
While hotels might have some very specific reasons to use some of the Web 2.0 technology – they have just added a spa so they want to add an online video to show if off for example, but in the world of search results, we have found two tools the most useful.

Blogs – search engines like new content, again it makes your site appear more relevant.  If you have a stagnant site, there is nothing new for the spiders to index.  A blog is constantly pinging the search engines saying, new data here, and it is relevant to the city/area/hotel.  Blogs also add some credibility to your site for your potential guests.  They can read comments about your area, the dining options, things to do in your neighborhood.  Even if the comments aren't all positive, it allows potential guests to get a stronger sense of familiarity with your product, makes the decision less scary.

Online Video – While a photo can say a thousand words, we have also found that creating an online video AND embedding the file with keywords and descriptions, and submitting it to the search engines/ top video sites makes the site rank higher on searches and drives more traffic to the site.  Once more visitors arrive, they can enjoy a close up view of your hotel, and they are more comfortable making a reservation.

In 2008, results from social networking, podcasts, and yet to be discovered Web 2.0 features will begin to take shape.   For today, however, your two primary goals when considering how to invest in internet marketing in 2008 should be increasing traffic to your site by improving your hotel's ranking on search engines and converting more lookers to bookers once they arrive at your site.

Specifically, we recommend you allocate your internet marketing dollars (and time) as follows:
1. Make sure you take advantage of all that your brand.com site can do for you by providing great content and photos to your franchise
2. Do keyword research and optimize your website for the destination and activities closest to your property.
3. Work on getting links to your site from strategic, relevant sites
4. Consider adding a blog or an online video to your website

Article contributed by Holly Zoba, Milestone Internet Marketing

Milestone Internet Marketing, experts in creating complete internet marketing solutions for the lodging and hospitality industry. Please contact Benu at benu@milestoneinternet.com 
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