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Contributed by Estella Hale, Chief Product Evangelist, SHR
We’ve all l heard so much about driving direct demand, and no wonder. With a direct relationship, you can provide a better stay for your guest, help build excitement for them by cross-selling activities and experiences before they even arrive, and of course, drive loyalty. But how does all this happen for today’s digital traveler? Turns out, it’s about more than just the familiar guest profile. It’s about meeting your guests where they are, not just physically, but mentally within the social ecosystems of Facebook, Google, and beyond. We sat down with Sanjay Wahi, VP of Product Management at Sojern, to find what this all means, and how you can start using guest habits and information to your hotel’s best advantage.
How are guests booking today, and how can you drive direct?
There is a saying we have here at SHR that selling a room and providing that great guest experience is everyone’s job, from the front desk to the call center to the revenue managers. Sanjay agrees. “Considering that consumers now check up to 30 different websites before they book anything, everyone at the hotel needs to be empowered to engage that guest at every touchpoint,” he said. “Guests get recommendations from friends and others through so many different sources. This is why you as a hotelier have to put your very best foot forward on all these mediums, all the time starting with the basics, like rate parity. You may have a beautiful website, but if you’re selling a room for $50 more than an OTA, you are at a distinct disadvantage.” But getting in front of your guests today means more than just your website.
How can we use guest loyalty to stimulate demand?
“You have loyal customers who know their favorite brands. They respond to email marketing more readily due to loyalty. Some other folks only care about location,” Sanjay explained. “Then there is the leisure traveler for whom the amenities rule. So, it’s really important to understand those differences, and also the universal truths, like quality, to really stimulate demand.”
Thinking about universal truths and stimulating demand, I believe loyalty programs are about making someone feel special and valued. And for that you need the similarities, but to Sanjay’s point, you still have to stand out as special. And you can’t stand out if your audience is somewhere else. “To really get in front of consumers, you need to be on social media, but you also need to buy ad space to get the advantage of intent, from and toward your hotel, from potential guests,” Sanjay said. “Knowing that someone is in New York looking, and being able to track that is a big deal, and so much more effective than a ‘spray and pray’ way of doing things—plus it saves money from being wasted.” I believe that is something that will change as we move more towards intent, and not just guest attributes. You know who they are, but what are they doing, where are they looking?
Why is Facebook so important?
“Facebook is more than what it might seem. It’s Instagram, it’s Messenger, it’s WhatsApp. They own the top five apps globally with millions of users using them,” said Sanjay. “So, any business MUST be on the FB ecosystem. On Google it’s key word oriented, but in FB there is a wealth of other bits of info as well. Their ad units can cater to flight or hotel seekers via dynamic ads for travel at different stages of the booking journey. So, you can run a campaign on FB and get your ad in front of them at higher parts of the funnel.”
This speaks to me directly as stimulating demand, and we talk all the time with hoteliers on this exact topic. Because guests are going to so many places before they book, you need to make a great impression with your website to capture a guest at that time they hit it. “Just because they’ve visited your website, though, doesn’t mean they will book with you,” Sanjay warned. “They may just be rate shopping. Oftentimes, consumers book via OTAs because it’s just easier. Their info may already be stored, plus their past selections and preferences. That’s why you need to level the playing field by optimizing everything about your hotel that you can.”
Booking direct is great, but we also need to keep in mind what that means to the guest. We need to get into their heads, and that means looking at our hotels through the social media and apps they are using. “You’ve got to be able to know WHY someone would want to book direct with you to get them to do it. It’s got to be a benefit to them,” Sanjay said.
How can we understand and predict travel intent?
“Machine learning is already being employed to rate users in real time so you know the ‘travel intent score’ is of any particular user,” Sanjay explained. “Then you can use that score to create a profile and leverage your marketing spend toward producing more bookings. Teasing that out is more of a probability approach right now, based on booking days and patterns.”
Is it always flight/hotel/car, in that order? Sanjay says not anymore. “The traditional linear booking process is not being followed. So, you have to be able to absorb that data across all the various social platforms as it occurs, and have a system that makes some sense of it. That’s when you’re going to be able to predict how to better spend your marketing dollars.”
Is all of this reactionary, or can we be proactive? “Hoteliers can definitely reach out and stimulate demand,” Sanjay explained. “For instance, you should be maximizing the ability to re-engage people who have already visited your website. Those people are expressing a lot of intent, so you want to get your paid ads in front of them to convert them while they are interested. For example, I was in Chicago at a hotel and stumbled across a beautiful roof top bar. But I wouldn’t have known that without physically climbing up there. That’s the kind of thing that needs to be on their site, and maybe featured in a targeted ad.”
What can hoteliers do today to get into their guests' heads?
“If I owned a hotel, I wouldn’t overwhelm guests with too many rates and packages,” Sanjay said. “Make sure you have rate parity of course, then feel free to experiment with different videos and different platforms. Change things up often. Google Adwords is the next stop, but also Google Hotel Ads with rates right next to them. In a mobile environment, screen space is at a premium, so make the best impression you can quickly. Then go where your guests are -- the Facebook ecosystem and its apps for one place—to inspire your guests toward their next wonderful experience.”
Hoteliers today can take the ability to work an ecosystem like Facebook with billions of users and look at that intent to purchase as something additional to simply the normal guest profile. Remember, you have the power to stimulate demand for your hotel, so use it!
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