Beating the OTA at their Own Game for Hotel Executives
As a hotel executive, maybe you attended Cornell or another prestigious hospitality school. You have really honed your skills over the years, paid your dues and worked your way up from housekeeping to the front desk and through the ranks to general manager or some other highly esteemed position. Hopefully, it’s been worth the hard work, long hours and working almost every vacation, only to be thanked with the usual Tuesday off, which you could enjoy with your friends, except they had regular jobs and couldn’t enjoy it with you. Now that you finally have a more stable schedule and some sense of normalcy, along comes the OTA (online travel agency) to regulate your reservations and force you to pay an unheard of 12% – 25% in order to get reservations you would normally have received through your relationships with various associations and travel agents you cultivated over the years. The OTA fleecing has begun! Now discover how a hotel executive can beat the OTA at their own game.
So What Can You Do?
Act fast, especially if you’ve got your head in the sand on this topic. Even if you’ve dipped your toe in the water, it is now time to dive into a new way of getting reservations. The ship has sailed, and you’re either on that boat or you’re marooned on shore. The fact that Priceline has been quoted in their annual report saying that they have all but signed up every hotel chain in the US set alarm bells off in my head! The OTA movement is here to stay—whether you like it or not.
Here we lay out a robust digital online marketing strategy, including considerations for securing outsourced vendors or using in-house professionals to help you make some headway through the maze.
Hotel Digital Strategy
Auditing Your Digital Assets
The first step is to take an audit of all of your digital assets. This can be easily achieved by using the internet and a simple spreadsheet. Type your hotel name into Google. (I would also add a geo-modifier like the city or town name.) Take notes on the following:
Google AdWords – In the top section and the section on the right, you will see either a light yellow color or the words “Ads” which reflects either OTAs or hotel competitors bidding on your hotel name. I would take down notes on the spreadsheet and have columns that include these advertisers. Is another entity using your hotel name in their ad and are they using an address in their ad, and if so, is the address yours or someone else’s?
Google Organic – Right below the Google AdWords, you are going to see organic listings. Hopefully, your hotel domain name is the first domain name that comes up organically. Take notes on who is listed below you. Are they OTAs or social media sites? Are they using the right logo, phone number, email, address, description and photos of the hotel?
Google Local Maps – If there is a Google Local Map, are you listed? Is the information correct? Have you claimed the listing? Are you the verified owner of the listing? Do you have any reviews, positive vs. negative?
Google Hotel Finder – Also you might see a “Sponsored” hotel result with hotels coming up. Go to Google.com/hotels—are you listed there?
Google Carousel – The chances are that your search won’t work effectively if you are searching your hotel name, but take out your brand name and try “Your City” and the word “Hotels, do you show up in the Google Carousel ?
Google+ Page – Right below your domain name, Google might have added “Google+ page”. Click on it—are you the verified partner? Are the logo, phone number, email, address, description and photos of the hotel correct?
Google Images – After completing your inventory of paid and natural search results, click on Google Images. What photos are there of your hotel? Are they offensive or inaccurate?
Google Video – The same for Google video, are there any videos of your hotel? Are they offensive or inaccurate?
Now that we are done with Google, I would go through and check the following social media sites, Facebook, Yelp, Foursquare and Twitter, to make sure you have verified and claimed these listings under your hotel name. Check each one to see if they have the right logo, phone number, email, address, description and photos of the hotel.
At the end of the audit you should have a clear understanding of where you are with regards to your digital footprint.
Protecting Your Digital Assets
Make sure that no outside vendor or in-house staff member has personal control over any of these digital assets. Your audit should also ensure that all digital assets’ login and password information are controlled by the hotel and only issued to authorized personnel. I have seen too many occasions when people or vendors have been terminated and what started with a small innocent Twitter account has blossomed to over a few thousand followers and the rightful owner doesn’t have access to it. Make sure while everyone is playing nice that security measures are put into place.
In-House vs Outsourced Hotel Digital Strategy
Analyze your spreadsheet looking at the current skill set in your office. Decide what can be done in-house and what needs to be outsourced. Think about the amount of time it will take in either scenario to achieve your end goal of ensuring verification and 100% accuracy of your digital assets. It is no use assigning these tasks to your 65-year-old administrative assistant who might be a whiz at scheduling and organizing but has barely figured out Facebook. Before any strategy can be put into place, you need a solid platform and the right staff to manage it. If you’ve done your audit, you’ve come a long way already and the next steps will be easy.
Search Engine Marketing
This pertains mainly to Google AdWords. I would look at partnering with a Google Qualified Partner. This is an extremely technical skillset that is more easily outsourced, rather than trying to master it yourself and wasting money and time.
Next, going back to the advertisers on your spreadsheet, if any advertiser was running an ad that included your hotel name, that is because your hotel has not trademarked its name or if it has, it hasn’t submitted it to Google (https://services.google.com/inquiry/aw_tmcomplaint). Your inattention has allowed OTAs to use your hotel name as the title for their ad using Dynamic Keyword Insertion. This is a quick fix, but if you have noticed a wrong address with the ad, call the Google Ads team from 9:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday at 1-866-2GOOGLE (1-866-246-6453) and raise HELL. If you are outside the US look at Google’s support page for your local Google number (https://support.google.com/adwords/answer/8206?hl=en).
If you decide to do only one bit of digital marketing, do Google AdWords for your hotel brand name. It is a fraction of the cost compared to the keyword “Your City” + the word “Hotels”. The OTAs know this so if your hotel is not running that ad, the OTAs will own that advertising space above your organic listing. You’ll then pay 12% – 25% commission on something that should be either a free listing for you or one that costs a lot less through Google AdWords than the OTA commission.
If there’s one piece I’d advise outsourcing it is this: you need an expert that knows meta tags, sitemaps, hotel schema, etc. Be very careful in selecting an outsourced partner. Check references. India, I love you, but 10,000 backlinks for $10 is going to kill my website!
In a nutshell, search optimization normally has two phases: the initial slog, where all the code has to be corrected, then the monthly maintenance consisting of back-linking and other SEO best practices to help the website to continue ranking well for both branded and non-branded keywords. At this point I would make sure you have Google Analytics installed as well as Google Webmaster Tools. Your vendor should benchmark everything before getting started and then give monthly reports. Not only is this a great way to keep them in check, but you know the reports are accurate coming from Google and not a vendor’s own custom reporting (which you should politely decline).
Content optimization happens both onsite and offsite. Onsite means you update and freshen your hotel website content, add a blog and post cool articles about the happenings in the area and great restaurants to visit including your own. This is a great way to get potential guests to your website who are searching for non-branded keywords. For example, a blog about fun things for kids to do in your area could be easily read by a potential guest looking for ways to entertain their kids while on vacation, and your blog insights could persuade the guest to book with you.
Offsite web content focuses on external websites, blogs, press releases and forums with the sole purpose of driving traffic back to your website. There is an industry term called “link bait” which is posting something interesting enough to catch people’s attention so that they both click on the link and read the original article on your website or they post a link of the article on their own website / social media profile and link back to you. There are a lot of ways to do that—including putting in sweat-of-the-brow work to generate data or insights—or it can be as simple as being creative. You can also say something controversial to generate discussion; however this gets tired if you overuse it.
You could task the content portion to an in-house member who has a nice, creative flair and with a bit of training on using the website and blogging tools, he/she could manage this. Just remember this is a marathon not a sprint, so put together an editorial calendar to organize content and posts and also have new articles/blogs on hand just in case the employee is out.
I would focus on Facebook and Twitter but have a presence on Google+ , Yelp and Foursquare. My Papi always said, “Fish where the fish are,” and right now they are on Facebook. Facebook has similar characteristics as offsite web content and link bait. In a nutshell, you are posting for three reasons: 1) Increase your number of fans to your Facebook page, 2) Increase the engagement on your Facebook page and 3) GET RESERVATIONS. There are a number of tactics to achieve these goals—hashtags, pictures, Facebook Ads—but I promised myself to focus more on strategy rather than get too tactical.
Social media could be done in-house. You could look for an agency with the proper training and monthly guidance, but some of the best posts you are going to find are the real ones, from real people, rather than some PR auto-generated, generic post. People see right through that—they want you to be real.
You’ve done the audit, implemented your strategy and assigned key tasks to individuals or to trusted, out-sourced partners. Do not leave your digital marketing strategy on autopilot and at the mercy of preying OTAs. It needs constant tweaking. Other marketing strategies that come into play once the group work has been laid include: Email Marketing, AdWords and Social Remarketing, but I save that for another blog. The internet is a measureable metric. You can track everything, and remember you can’t manage what you can’t measure.
This blog was published in Hotel Executive – http://hotelexecutive.com/business_review/3881/how-a-hotel-executive-can-beat-the-ota-at-their-own-game