How to Make Sense of Hospitality in 2018 for Sales and Marketing

November 30, 2017 Cody Putman

 

New Study from Kalibri Labs shows Direct Bookings push is working[i]

The War Is Over, and the OTAs Have Won[ii]

 

For Hotels, the Airbnb Threat Could Be Receding[iii]

Hotel Investors May Be Ignoring Airbnb Threat[iv]

 

Believe it or not, these are all headlines from just the last few months. The oldest of them was published four months ago, the most recent in November. Conflicting data is spreading like wildfire. As the Director of Sales and Marketing, it’s your job to see where the market is going and stay ahead of the curve, but with so much confusion in the industry, how is this possible? Hotels are confused by reports that direct booking efforts are working when they are still feeling the significant pressure of rising OTA commission costs. Guests, on the other hand, are confused by the vast array of hotel and vacation rental choices available across so many different outlets, able to be booked at any time from anywhere on any device.

 

Making it even harder, independent hotels and vacation rentals are more vulnerable in these scenarios. Why? Because most of the data focuses on chains. A survey of tens of thousands of hotels often includes mostly (sometimes entirely) larger, branded hotels. There is far less research available to independents, and the vacation rental industry is still trying to harness data at all.

 

Here’s what sales and marketing directors at these types of properties need to know to move into 2018 feeling equipped to drive up revenue and bookings.

 

Independents & Vacation Rentals More Options Than Big Brands in 2018

In an interview with Jan Freitag, SVP of STR’s Lodging Insights, he said, “Independents have an opportunity to grow occupancy and rate in a way that the big brands do not. Branded hotels have been achieving 70% occupancy; their only solution is to increase RevPAR. Independents, on the other hand, have had an average occupancy of 64.5%, so there is still room to grow.”[v] Of course, this doesn’t mean growing occupancy all at cost (i.e., don’t rely on OTAs). Independents must be cautious about maintaining profitable bookings while simultaneously increasing occupancy, a task that puts pressure on marketing to increase the volume of both online and offline traffic.

 

To do so, focus on 1) marketing strategies and promotions that maintain rate integrity but also drive profitable phone calls, especially via mobile device click-to-call, 2) tap into past guest databases, and 3) drive website volume strategically, for instance, when there is a specific need for increased occupancy. Additionally, independents should adopt processes—some of which fall to reservations, some to marketing—to nurture reservations leads from the very first call. For marketing, this includes set-and-forget marketing automation around critical points in the guest journey.
 

The vacation rental market is projected to see significant increases in revenue in the coming years. By the end of 2018, reports Forbes, the industry is expected to be worth $36.6 billion, “twice the growth rate of the entire travel sector.[vi]
 

Though growth will slow, vacation rentals still have new market penetration on their side—some travelers still aren’t aware of or have not yet booked a vacation rental—and naturally built-in efficiencies (fewer staff and services). A focus on increased mid-week, shoulder-season, and off-season occupancy, as well as growing RevPAR, are essential.

 

The Sales & Marketing Piece of this Pie

Sales and marketing has a stunning level of responsibility that falls between and across the revenue management and the reservations team. Before and after the booking. Long after the stay. It is simultaneously a big picture and acutely detailed role. One of the first steps in creating a more holistic approach to reservations in 2018, one that will drive RevPAR and occupancy, is synergy, especially with reservations. Marketing must know what happens on the other end of their tactics. A full understanding of how the bookings eventually get executed both online and offline is the only way to be sure that guests are responding as desired; feedback from agents on the frontline of conversations with guests can help sales and marketing stay nimble.

 

Further to this, attribution takes a top rank among the greatest challenges and needs in hotel marketing. According to Sean O’Neill, “The most critical problem facing hotels is a stunning lack of knowledge about exactly how much falls to the true bottom line for any given reservation.”[vii] Estimating the guest acquisition cost as well as the effectiveness of the strategy begins with attribution. For independents and vacations rentals, which receive a proportionally much larger share of voice channel reservations than big brands, attribution proves to be that much more challenging. Online attribution technology must be accompanied by technology that will track campaigns from online to offline channels. And never forget the power of a reservations agent’s conversation with the guest. Valuable information if frequently uncovered and well-trained agents will record it.

 

Guest Acquisition Costs Affect the Asset

The cost of guest acquisition has become so substantial that hotels are evaluating it as an asset loss, a big one. Cindy Estis Green, CEO of Kalibri Labs, notes that “a change of -0.3 percent year-over-year was a loss of $500 million for hotels and an asset value decrease of nearly $5 billion.”[viii] The long-term financial health of the property is affected by today’s guest acquisition costs, and it also affects day-to-day operations, for instance, the ability to employ the resources and technology to enhance marketing, guest service, and so forth.

 

Additionally, STR’s Freitag says that it’s not clear yet if the U.S. lodging industry is at a peak or plateau. “Though occupancy in 2016 was the strongest we’ve ever recorded, we’ll start to see a decline. The most important thing hotels can focus on is that RevPAR growth number; it encapsulates everything.”

 

The first line of defense: reining in guest acquisition costs to increase net revenue. Not only are OTA costs 6.5% higher than direct costs, but direct ADR is also 9% higher than an OTA.

 

Call centers have the second lowest acquisition costs next to online booking; however, call centers bring in more profitable revenues and have higher conversion rates. According to Michelle Marquis, NAVIS VP of Sales, “All the data still supports that voice produces the highest revenue. This is especially good news right now because mobile search has surpassed desktop, but mobile bookings have only increased marginally. Always be asking where those searches are going? What hotels are finding is that their guests are using click-to-call from mobile devices when it comes to finalizing the reservation, especially for high consideration stays, which includes independents and vacation rentals.”
 

About the Direct Bookings Campaigns

The direct bookings push by several major chains, also known as “Stop Clicking Around,” has worked… for the major chains. A Kalibri Labs report from November said that from May through December of 2016 room nights were up 7.8% and net revenue growth was 9.3%. What you need to know, however, is that the survey included 25,000 hotels, but the majority were flags, and the focus was on Brand.com bookings, excluding direct bookings via the voice channel.

 

So does the data still apply? According to Jeff Robertson, NAVIS VP of Marketing, “Absolutely, but there are interesting exceptions for independents and vacation rentals. The first is that the big brands are receiving approximately 7% of their business via voice channel. Independents get around 34% via voice channel, so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. But that’s okay because the point Kalibri makes is that the big benefit of the direct booking campaigns is in the long-term decrease in guest acquisition costs due to loyalty. Independents and vacation rentals have this in the bag in a way that the flagged hotels don’t yet.”

 

The Kalibri report notes, “The success of the book-direct effort—and all future campaigns to drive direct bookings—will hinge on how well hotels can cater to the guest experience.” For these categories of properties, experience and loyalty are inextricably tied together. Robertson notes, “Experience comes in not just the singularity of the product but also in the human interaction. This is why we see websites with 2-4% conversion rates while reservation agents have a 40% conversion rate. In the end, this bodes very well for independents and vacation rentals. To capitalize on these trends, they will need to shore up their marketing tracking efforts and begin to think more holistically about online and offline booking channels, but after that the experience and loyalty are built-in.” Marketing teams that invest in outbound marketing programs can then take advantage of this natural loyalty.

 

The Online vs. Offline Reality

Phocuswright’s 15th Edition U.S. Online Travel Overview shows that offline bookings still outpace online with 60% offline and 40% online, but when it comes to those online reservations, OTAs are edging out hotels.

 

 

For private accommodations in the U.S., 34% called the homeowner or the vacation rental company, while 32% booked via rental or vacation rental company website.

 

 

The bottom line is that both online and offline channels matter to achieving the most profitable mix of bookings. Among the lessons: deep rate discounts are not necessary to attain direct channel bookings. Quite the opposite. They undermine branding and long-term rate strategy. Instead, look to optimize rates across all channels carefully and drive direct bookings through inexpensive value adds as well as the promise of a superior experience.

 

The Sharing Economy & the Impact on Revenue

For hotels: When it comes to revenue management, does a thriving sharing economy matter? Yes. Two years ago just 14% of travelers had used Airbnb, and now 25% have.[ix] The competition has expanded and, in addition to the supply increases among hotels, the sharing economy has further extended the inventory available across nearly all markets. Therefore, hotels must consider vacation rental and home sharing sites in their competitive mix.

 

For vacation rentals: All that said, Airbnb and VRBO have been making moves to substantially decrease the contact that owners and management companies have with the guest. Not only are these changes reducing phone calls, they are also making the guest experience with their sites more challenging. Questions must be answered one-by-one via email, and some of the listing sites are going so far as to black out details in email correspondence when there is any reference to competitors. Vacation rentals that rely too heavily on sharing sites may find that in addition to their guest acquisition costs, their guest experience also may suffer.

 

According to Marquis, “For every 5% of call volume a vacation rental gets from VRBO or HomeAway, they will need to increase inbound call resolution (with the same demand) by 2%. Let’s say that 15% of inquiries won’t be coming in via phone anymore. That means you have to increase your call resolution by 6%. It’s a tall order. Vacation rentals will need to shore up their agent performance as well as use tools to manage and consolidate their listing site leads to capitalize on existing call volume.”

 

The Short Version

Supply is increasing, competition is increasing, demand will start to taper off, OTAs are thriving, and guest acquisition costs are still far too high. But for independents and vacation rentals the opportunities remain substantial. Focus on (carefully) growing occupancy and RevPAR going into 2018 and stay centered on driving the direct channel, which means online and offline. Know that the two are inextricably connected. When your team focuses on mobile strategies, these strategies may trickle down to the reservations team. When they are creating pay-per-click campaigns, that reservation may only come after 38 different website visits and two phone calls. The complicated path must be tracked and accounted for to be clear about the true cost and the contribution to the bottom line.

 

[iii] Barron’s 11/10/17

[v] Jan Freitag Interview. STR. 11/14/17

[vi] Forbes, 6/7/17

[vii] Skift, 2/24/17

[viii] Hotel Management, 11/29/17 

[ix] Barron’s 11/10/17

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