Tower bridge with firework, celebration of the New Year in London, UK

2014 has been a big year for travel and tourism online, but it will pale in significance compared to what’s on the cards for 2015. As we recover from a few days with family and friends and big celebrations, it seems only appropriate to log a few of the developments that have made this industry so exciting to be a part of.

Up until this year – and irrespective of niche – web-promotion was pretty easy. Assuming that you were not link-bombing the open-source opportunities (still very much alive in the darker corners of the promo-web), the damage caused by site wide penalties, manual, partial or whatever else Google decided to term and then re-term them, was isolated to those groups that didn’t see the writing on the wall – organic traffic, or traffic without a fee was going the way of the dinosaurs. Whether it was front end design on the travel results pages pushing independent hotels below the fold, or the opening up further of the Google Hotel finder product (with the same impact of pushing down independent hotels that historically featured in the map packs) hotels took a battering in terms of being able to compete in the face of people via traditional optimization in 2014.  If you were a hotel that managed to stay top of organic, that would translate to a bottom of the (browser) page listing which would bring in a few crumbs of traffic.

Whereas historically OTAs and other large travel providers were able to compete only with each other, in terms of their ability to be advertising and in the faces of people everywhere, 2014 saw a number of interesting technological solutions come on the market which could be leveraged to help hotels compete in the same space.

One of the most interesting I came across was Marketizator, a Romanian company in startup, which sought to provide webmasters with the ability to survey its visitors, and serve contextual overlays (think Ajax popup like Groupon, but with the ability to tailor the popup to be annoying!) based on criteria you could define. So:  If a person arrived from Facebook, show them this popup, if a person arrived from Google; show them this popup…but also…. If a person arrived from Facebook, and then looked at more than two pages, and then looked at the gallery, and then scrolled down 80% of the page then show them a popup with a breakfast included rate. I started plugging this technology into both e-commerce and travel and tourism websites with good levels of success. For e-commerce it gave a way to design lifetime incentive schemes that were triggered based on on-site activity. There was also an option to pass customer data via variables back to the platform to re-use this information for personalized marketing. However, its most useful function was the ability to create surveys and capture leads (emails) at the end of the process – “complete our survey, give us your email address and get this!” – again the same rule types were available for when to show the survey (as for the banners) – show to people that have been on the site for more than 2 minutes, people that arrive from Facebook, people that arrived from a specific campaign with a specific utm code. Imagine being able to segment your audiences intent through a survey based on search, social media, or direct links.

While the money in online travel ensures that there is no end to the volume of research supporting the view that OTAs and other travel providers were where people were checking out, our tests brought back results that confirmed with the right approach it was possible to address and acquire new guests just by developing matching strategies. In some cases those strategies were capturing up to 40% of all the daily visitors to the website.

But it’s the economic arguments that gain the traction so, if £25 of every £100 booking is going away as commission, how can we offer £25 worth of extra value or options to the client to get them to book direct, and for the hotel to then own the guest from the start?

Another example, if it costs up to £3 to gain a new visitor that has a profile matching our guests via Adwords, campaigns, but it only costs 25p to remarket to a person that has already visited the website then throw the remarketing code on the website, update the privacy policy, and set a cookie length of two years for the time being because if the hotel isn’t ready to remarket now, in the meantime they can start gathering prospects. Again the theme that came through this year was one of tapping the holes that technology led-solutions provided to hotels as a way to claw back some of their online revenue from OTAs that have been doing this for years.

Fraud has also been a closing statement to 2014 in Digital Advertising. With some really clear examples of how the digital ad-space has been populated with techniques to inflate the digital marketplace.  There have been some excellent reports [pdf] that are talking up what many digital practitioners with any conscience have been shouting about online in forums for years, that at least with a car salesman you’ve got a car to look at in the flesh, but with digital advertising it’s all about trust! As anyone that has paid attention to the biggest marketplace of online advertising, Google, their online traffic fraud information document leaves you with the hope that everything is being done that should be. However quite why there is such a volume of 10 second sessions on paid advertising campaigns which are delivering users to pages that are completely in-line with their desire, with a unique offer is troubling for advertisers looking to understand customer behavior and maximize their ROI. I am sure that advertisers would be prepared to pay more for Adwords campaign modifiers where you could apply Marketizator type filtering – If a visitor arrives from Google and stays on my website for more than 2 minutes I will pay Google £10. No-one wants to pay for a 10 second visit so why charge for them; it just shows that the system doesn’t work because only one side wins and advertising should be a partnership process.  While it might not be a concrete rule, it appears that keeping out of CPM marketplaces with you brand will expose you to less risk of traffic fraud.

One of the biggest problems for hotels of all sizes is simply staying on top of the technologies that are available and knowing how to leverage them in a strategic way. Marketizator can help you get a handle on what your audiences want when they visit you, and you can split this data up based on the channel that is bringing them to your website.  Zooming out to the global audience, attention spans are on the decrease so throw out the idea that people will go through all the different navigational elements on your website to find information about you, start serving up one-page answers that close the visitor, and answer all their questions, leaving them to click your book now button.

Closing people can be a problem, but in 2014 I started using a piece of technology that fills a hole in the marketplace (crap in-house/supplier web-design capacity to deliver landing pages that converted and could be easily tweaked independent of long supplier development times) and offers up an easy and scientific way for anyone that wants to test out pages and communications messaging (aka multivariate testing).

In some cases I worked on projects that required setting landing pages for membership clubs, and using this technology it was possible to test different layouts, sales messages, as well as the images that drove signups. How this works is just why I love working as a technology driven professional: You create a landing page via templates, or independently via a WYSIWYG interface and this is then published to your own subdomain (easy A record additions on your domain name) on your hotel. Once you have your master page, you can then clone it and tweak an element. Now here’s the clever part: You tell the system to split the traffic across the two pages, say 50/50. The system will then serve 50% of the visitors the Master Page while the other 50% will get to see the cloned page. If these pages are capturing information, such as an email address, then this will also be recorded over time as the pages are tested. Your control panel will report back stats on the pages that are performing the best. You can then promote winning variants to the master page, dupe them and do all kinds of tests to get the magic formula right. One of the landing pages we started developing converted at 7% and it now coverts at 27%.

These are technologies that are becoming available to all hotels and are being backed up with really fabulous support as well. The tutorials are spoon feeding this tech back to hotels that are starting to use it.

The industry also went through a number of changes in 2014.

TripAdvisor, has just been fined heavily in Italy for not doing enough with regards to its policing of fake reviews via their online platform, but aside from that the giant also went through a few iterations of itself.  I’ve yet to see an economic case for the cost effectiveness of their business listings service and this year I did really get to grips with measuring this. All we were able to find out was that was that for the most part revenues were coming in as an Assisted Booking revenues in Google Analytics (this can be tracked by simply tagging your TA website link with the relevant utm codes). That’s to say that TA was essentially participatory in the conversion but not a clean converter, such as you would be able to see more cleanly with Google Adwords or a Google organic conversion. So if TA can’t be used as a revenue driver let’s look at the total traffic is sent (during a trial) and put a CPC cost on that traffic to see what we would be paying for it over 12 months (total clicks to hotel website during 1 month trial x 12 divided by annual business listing charge). But even here you may find that you’re paying a premium rate CPC costs for essentially a click through to your hotel (would they have come anyway?). Your last hope is that of brand-awareness, that’s the largely bullshit metric that web-agencies pull out trying to convince you that to build a brand you just need to be in the faces of everyone all the time. A quick look at this year’s Christmas advert by Sainsburys, shows that there is a bit more to brand building then pasting your brand logo all over the web, much to the annoyance of its users.

TA also established more firmly the check-rates functionality (that’s the box that gets shown on a hotel TA page with the “real-time” rate checker into which independent hotels could propel themselves in an auction based economy – note: it’s CPC max bid that wins out here, and also note that this means that people on the website may book one of the rates shown but the cheapest rate is not immediately on the radar because it is lower down in the box (at the time of writing). Clearly this is not to the benefit of the people and “reviewers” that are quite happy to provide their reviews to TA for free…but as so often happens online the difference between what an online brand does in theory and practice is best not thought about as it will most likely lead to depression) and this was probably the first product TA had released that actually made a few people sit up and take note. In fact, it immediately became a requirement to have a TA business listing in order to be able to participate in the program. Then, perhaps because the take-up still wasn’t great, that requirement for a business listing went out the window. The problem with TA check rates is that it is essentially bid-management CPC which requires resources to manage the bids to make sure that your hotel is getting a good placement.

Chances are high that the OTAs are already using one of the industrial sized PPC bid management tools. I’ve not yet found a convincing technology platform that is offering bid management strategy for Trip Advisor and other meta-search networks (there is one but it seems only available for hotel chains with more than 150 properties) and so hotels that want to do check rates need to find a partner that can plugin to Trip Advisor and manage your campaigns. The problem is that because there is very little money in PPC bid management the chances are that hotels will be getting a poor deal because agencies will most likely just set a blanket CPC across the meta-search engines and leave that to run during the month. The outcome will be some poor performing CPC and ROI for meta-search. Solutions are starting to appear in the marketplace which should make the meta-search channels one to invest more time in, in 2015.  

Another TA product, launched in 2013, but cemented in 2014 is the Review Express platform. This is where hoteliers provide TA with guest’s emails and TA will then send a nicely formatted newsletter styled request for review. As described by the guidance notes provided by TA the hotel should tell the guest that their email address will be provided to TA for the purposes of soliciting their feedback at the point of collection. Now I’m not a gambling man but I reckon that if there was an audit of the hotel industry today using the Review Express service that a healthy share of those hoteliers are NOT confirming with the requirements of, not only Trip Advisor’s guidance notes but of EU privacy regulations. As with many things being used by hotels “it’s just easier” is a common mantra for why something gets adopted by hotels. This isn’t a criticism of hotels but it should be made clearer the obligations they need to follow. If a hotel is providing a customer’s email address to a third party without their consent a guest could quite conceivably voice their concern about it. Hotels can however send emails themselves to guests that have stayed at their hotel, and there are cleverer ways of spreading the people that are voicing their happiness at staying at the hotel through more channels than just one, and so mitigating the risk of one review site suddenly going under and all the time your staff have spent on it, going up in smoke.

Something hotels could be doing is simply measuring the effectiveness of products such as the Review Express platform , before making it a standard. Do a straight channel analysis on it. Count the number of emails that were sent via the review express platform and then divide it by the number of reviews that were published to TA. Of course this is not an exact figure because there will be people that will go and write a review independent of a nudge sent by a Review Express email. However, you might be surprised at just how poorly your Review Express emails are actually converting at (getting a review) for your hotel. These are some of the challenges I’ve been working at and providing solutions for in 2014. also branched out their online portfolio extending their offering away from the straightforward hotel booking marketplace to enter into the Vilas niche with and no doubt we can expect to see a lower segment for the guest house and bed and breakfast market over the next months, as they divvy up their online inventory and spread it across a number of different niches. Looking from the outside and what I saw on just about every channel I participate in, they continued their “we will be everywhere” media buying and online advertising in search and social media, and mobile!

All of these shenanigans by the larger OTAs is, in my view, because they are scared of what is coming around the corner from Google. A report by Evercore (pdf) framed an online travel economy with the search/advertising company in mind, which impacted on their evaluation of the OTAs prospects in the future. Google is currently running round hotels with 3rd party photographers that visit hotels and take street view high definition pictures of the property (for a fee). Consider that they have Search, Android devices and Apps and while people might not think that it’s such a big thing, make no mistake that this is going to be a game-changer when their final product gets launched.  

So where does that leave the hotels? Will they ever be able to compete with the marketing savvy of OTAs? Probably never, they are employing the cleverest people for a lot more money that most hotels pay their GMs.  OTAs are about discounts, and best deals. In a study of the attributes to which hotels and OTAs distinguished themselves in the online marketplace, the only attribute that the hotels had over the OTAs was that of quality. It’s quite acceptable for an OTA to put themselves in your face, run scarcity tactics on brand-owned pages to stimulate the user into making a booking with them, but if that happened on a hotel site it wouldn’t feel right. It would feel cheap, and the user would most likely ask why a hotel was doing this, ‘were they desparate?’.

A hotel is your Porsche dealership, the OTA is a bit more like Arthur Daley from Minder, or a second hand car salesman trying to get you to buy anything the moment you come through the door. In terms of customer services, as long as a person does not deviate too far from the sales funnel of an OTA their experience will be most likely be efficient, but there are a number of websites where people voice vitriol about things that go wrong, and this where the hotels have the opportunity to sell the thing that they always come out top on in research, the caring quality customer service process.

The skill of the average web-user is increasing and that means that they are able to find the hotel website irrespective of the advertising walls that are put up in front of them at the top of the results pages.

Therein lies the biggest opportunity for hotels in 2015: On-site conversion and capturing visitors for future marketing. Take a look at any of the leading travel provider’s websites and when making a booking for your brand you are pressurized into doing so. What is typically a casual reading of a catalogue for a hotel website is starkly different from the “10 people are looking at this hotel” “1 more room at this rate” and “last booked 2 minutes ago”. It’s a sales tactic that can feel a bit like the paranoia I go through when booking using ryanair and I find my excitement of booking a plane ticket being sucked slowly away from me as I complete an ever harrowing series of forms warnings. Yet, it is these lessons that hotels need to take on board and incorporate in the way they sell their online inventory otherwise they will never take direct bookings. Factor in REVpar and the question hoteliers should be asking themselves is “why the hell should someone book with us?” What are we offering that no-one else is? And that’s where creativity comes in and helps develop strategies that fit into that gap. People will come to a hotel website, but how do you tell them you are better than the OTA right now during that visit?

It would be remiss of me if I did not say the following two words: Responsive & Performance.

Go and look at the number of people that are accessing your non-responsive website with their mobile phone. If your website is not fully responsive, then you are losing business. Technology and devices have morphed so much over the past 12 months that the chances your analytics are capturing what’s really happening on your website is pretty unlikely. A responsive site should double your on-site engagement (the number of pages people look at) and increase the session time of the average visitor. However the really important point for hotels is that the messaging on a responsive site is consistent across devices. That means not more mobile sites maintenance and no more updating two versions. The message is the same everywhere. Booking engine providers need to be at the top of their game to make sure their websites are responsive and able to continue the same quality experience as people are passed from the hotel to a third party to process the payment.  Performance is the final point in this post and it’s important. Making sure a website loads really fast is a key ranking mechanism, I’ve seen it on websites that I’ve built myself and with sites I’ve been projected too.  Make websites super-fast and check they run across all the main devices and browsers with equal speed. Performance impacts search engine rankings in a very positive way. Tools like gtmetrix or Google’s own page speed tests can be useful starting points, but if you are still loading slowly, then change the server completely to something like AWS.

So in summary my travel world of 2014 has been about setting down benchmarks, and increasing the understanding of the audience my clients want to tap into. I think that 2015 will be a good year for Hotels and it’s always good to remember that hotels were around before OTAs and they will be around long afterwards, so don’t panic if you are hemorrhaging commissions to them – everyone else is! – instead, start to look at how to capture people looking for the best rate, analyze your channels and switch off those channels that are not delivering revenue, whether it’s TA or any other 3rd party. Measure every channel, set your utm tracking urls then sit back (not too far) and then take decisions based on data.

Have a good 2015.

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Author Information
Glyn S. H. has been online marketing since 1999 and has developed campaigns for leading luxury brands that have included Nestlè and Interflora . He works primarily in for the Travel and Tourism sector, helping hotels beat-down OTA paychecks. He has a web-marketing company, a Masters in Professional Communication, speaks fluent Italian, and is married with two kids. He also has a good sense of humour – essential for survival in web-marketing. He is not employed by Google. To contact via email: glyn@ (this domain).