Boutique hotels tell a story. These stories inspire, motivate and attract prospective guests to book your lovely boutique hotel. This is the ideal scenario. But, is it really that simple? Having a great story is brilliant. Finding the right audience and getting them to book is more complex.
Here, let us take a look at the factors that influence your guests to book. There are many lessons to be learn depending on the type of property that you are looking to promote.
Arguably, once the decision to take a leisure trip is made, there are only three simple decisions involved:
- where to go
- how to get there
- where to stay
Yet, the consumer travel planning process is far more complex, depending on the purpose or occasion of the trip (i.e., a vacation for fun and entertainment versus a visit to a home town or a family visit, etc.), as well as the travel components involved (i.e., air travel, a hotel stay, a rental car, etc.).
Depending on these choices, further decisions include having to choose a specific airline and accommodation, as well as choosing various trip activities. All decision-making is influenced by a variety of factors, such as how much the consumer can or wants to spend on the trip and the travel companions involved.
With so many choices available to travellers at each point in the decision-making process, consumers may or may not seek travel information from a variety of sources.
Take a look at the graphic below which outlines the typical stages of a generic leisure customer journey.
This shows where the customer’s initial requirement arises (need recognition) through to other key stages including their online experience.
From a hotel perspective, you can identify opportunities to reach the prospect at the right stage of the booking funnel. The activities that need to be undertaken are different depending on where and when you are looking to have a touchpoint with your ideal prospect customer.
The stages have been identified for understanding the most common sequence in travel planning. In some instances, these could happen differently. In many cases, the stages may happen simultaneously or side by side (example: need recognition, logistics, setting limits).
- Need recognition is the first stage in the buyer decision process in which the consumer identifies a need. This need may be triggered by internal requirements within the family or among friends or by external stimuli such as exposure to a new product or advertising message.
- Information gathering is the stage in the process where the consumer is interested enough to search for more information. This interest usually encourages the customer to actively search for information or may heighten their attention to relevant information sources including advertising. (Here it is important to understand the sources from which customers draw their information to influence the decision process). Accumulation of mental images about vacation experiences and modification of those images by further information happen here.
- Logistics and identifying the day to day requirements for such a trip is usually the next stage and this has a bearing on the duration of the leisure trip
- Setting limits is important to most leisure travellers except perhaps in the high-end luxury travel segment. This is influenced by a number of factors including the reason for travel and number of travellers as well as various demographic factors.
- Once sufficient information is gathered, the consumer moves into the evaluation of alternatives phase where they evaluate the options available.
- Generally, the consumer’s purchase decision will be to buy the preferred brand/solution but two factors can come between the evaluation of alternatives including the intention to purchase and decision making. The first factor is the attitude of other people who influence the purchase decision, for example, family members. The second factor is unexpected situational factors such as availability, or finding some component of the product offering which does not meet their expectation, such as discovering a price increase after they saw it first.
- Actual travel experience follows and this is in turn complete with the sharing of memories and experiences from travel.
- Trip occasion tends to have more influence on the overall travel decision making processes than other influencers such as time and money.
- As indicated in the stages, buying decision process may start long before actual purchase and continue long after – so the focus on the various stages of the entire buying process is critical.
The role of inspiration in the booking journey
It has become increasingly necessary for hotels to address the need for ‘ideas and inspiration’ requirement of the leisure traveller.
The main reasons for this are
- Leisure travel starts with the seed of a travel idea being planted – and the organisation which plants it has already impressed the customer and has a better chance of converting business
- The leisure travellers of today have travelled far more than ever and are more aware of the choices; however, this has also meant that travellers are overwhelmed by choices and are looking for simpler decision making possibilities
- Leisure travel is mostly for recreation and therefore more about ideas and inspiration
- A wide range of leisure traveller surveys indicate this as the most important starting point for most travellers
Different organisations address this in varying degrees to provide customers with a unique experience.
Staying visible during information gathering
a) Provide an idea/inspiration based approach
Understanding the customer and providing great customer service has always been a critical component of the luxury hotel industry. And a high-quality website which provides customers with what they are looking for is an important part of this effort.
However, in a technology-driven world with vast amounts of choice online, customers are looking for still more. It is no longer adequate to provide a high-quality shop front with great products listed – there are numerous providers doing the same or similar.
It will increasingly become a battle of ideas and inspiration to gain and retain consumers. Companies which engage and inspire customers will gain their loyalty and equally importantly their feedback – this will also be a critical factor in providing great customer service online and at hotel.
b) Make the online experience fun and enjoyable
A large proportion of online bookers use a hotel or third party booking website for its speed and functionality; most however say that the internet shopping experience is still lacking with a much smaller number saying they have ‘actually enjoyed’ a web shopping experience compared with in-store shopping.
A website which is as much fun and easy to use, as it is functional, is more likely to invite customers to come back and provide better conversion possibilities. The Word of Mouth (WOM) impact is also higher as people tend to share such news with more people.
This ultimately is achieved through the interactive nature of a website and by allowing customers to build and play with their own travel ideas giving them some ownership over their plans.
c) Provide further assistance in information gathering
Most people begin the holiday research process by searching for destination information/guides through Google. Often, this in-depth destination information and/or guides either don’t exist, or consumers don’t realise that they exist.
By not offering this extra level of information, hotel websites risk people leaving and finding this information elsewhere – thereby potentially not returning.
Researching and booking a holiday is a very time-consuming process and competes with other work and household activities.
People have limited time during lunch break and evenings, meaning they’re likely to get frustrated if it takes too long to find the information that they require.
Partnering with other organisations which specialise in travel information could be a possible route to address this given the need for accuracy and keeping it current and relevant.
The most important aspect here is to provide sufficient information to help influence the travel decision. Whether this is an objective online destination guide or a suggested excursion complete with a review from a previous customer, the smallest gestures can make a huge impact.
d) Addressing specific guest requirements/challenges
Groups of friends holidaying together on leisure often disagree on destinations, and communication within the group can be poor. It is worth exploring if one could potentially link travel planning with social networking websites to enable these groups to communicate better.
The main concern of those travelling with children is making sure the holiday is child-friendly. Search functionality to find similar information will help customers narrow down their choices effectively.
e) Using social media networks
Over two-thirds of your customers travelling are probably on social media networks; using their input to engage the traveller into the future will be key to completing the loop in the leisure customer journey.
It is important to identify the type of network that has the maximum potential impact and reviewing options to engage them.
f) Possibilities to bookmark/shortlist
This is to assist in the ‘Information Gathering’ Process. A customer who is researching travel and accommodation options will be able to then visit the site later to complete the booking without having to search from the beginning.
If the functionality allowed additional note-making, this will also help them create a shortlist of destination attractions or related information in one place.
Understanding the booking stage
a) The importance of time
- There is usually one main organiser among a couple, family or group of friends.
- Holiday research and booking competes for time with other work and household activities.
- Limited time during lunch breaks at work and evenings at home, which means that they’re likely to be frustrated if it takes too long to find information or to complete a booking.
- ‘Email this page’ functionality to share is used occasionally mainly because it is either absent or not prominent enough in most websites.
b) Sources of information
- A large number of travellers start their booking and research from Google or through a few major travel websites e.g. Expedia or Booking.com.
- Metasearch websites like TripAdvisor, Kayak, Skyscanner, Trivago and Google have become dominant.
- Many travellers usually need more general ‘destination guides’ than they typically find (although this has consistently improved with a better understanding of this stage of the booking funnel), and turn to local tourist information websites.
- Not all research is done online. Guidebooks are still a popular source of travel information
- The more unknown an attraction is, the greater the influence of product information about that attraction on the planning and actual consumption of the experience. The greater the distance that the consumers travel to engage in destinations specific consumption activities, the greater the difference in expenditures between planned and realised activities. Experienced customers plan fewer consumption activities and are less likely to indulge in unplanned activities compared to inexperienced customers.
- Typically, consumers start a search on Google and then drill down for detail, with particular emphasis on other consumers’ reviews and comparison shopping for the best deal.
c) Family travel
- Travellers with children look to book stays that wouldn’t make the kids too tired (if younger), and where there would be enough activities to keep both older children and adults occupied.
- If the travel booker is not sure if a holiday would be child-friendly, they usually look elsewhere.
- Making sure that the information about child-friendly holidays and activities is easily accessible is considered important by most family travellers.
d) Keeping track of travel planning information
- Planning a holiday involves a large amount of information e.g. alternative choices for flights and hotels, interesting attractions and booking confirmations.
- Travellers (organisers) use different ways to aggregate and track this information while researching holidays and during the trip, but this is considered a painful exercise.
- Some travel and supplier websites help do this to a certain extent
e) Recommendations from trusted people
- Recommendations from friends and family are an important source of inspiration and information.
- Most travellers take recommendations into account while planning their holiday, especially when they came from trusted, like-minded people.
- These recommendations are either face-to-face or online as people connect with like-minded peers through social networking and travel community forums.
f) Travel Reviews
- Reviews are an important influencing factor, especially when travellers are evaluating the accommodation.
- Reviews also sometimes provide details that are not available elsewhere e.g. which rooms had the best view.
- If reviews are to be trusted, people need to be convinced that they are independent and impartial, which means that negative reviews should be allowed.
- Most travellers ignore negative points if they find them irrelevant/immaterial to their taste.
g) The sustainability movement
People are looking to bring their green living habits to their travel experience and they are increasingly demanding more sustainable lodging options.
Travellers expect lodging facilities in varying degrees to
- use energy-efficient lighting
- use energy-efficient windows
- use environmentally safe cleaning products
- have water-saving devices in rooms
- provide local transportation options
- use renewable energy
Some eco-commitments which travellers expect:
- Written policy regarding the environment and local people
- Contribution to conservation or local people that they are most proud of.
- Measure their contribution to conservation and local communities.
- Specific help to protect the environment and support conservation, and which local charities are supported
- Know what percentage of products and services are sourced locally
- Treatment of wastewater and how the building is heated/cooled
- Information and advice provided to tourists on local cultures and customs
Findings from the Booking.com sustainability report 2019 reveals almost three quarters (72%) of travellers believe that people need to act now and make sustainable travel choices to save the planet for future generations.
- Difficult for an independent boutique hotel to have a traditional chain type of loyalty programme
- Usually a significant difference in loyalty between guests who book offline and those who book online.
- “Online bookers” tend to be more loyal among higher-priced chains and less loyal among lower-priced chains
- Guests of lower-priced brands that book online may be bargain hunters who are price-sensitive and thus less loyal.
- More appealing loyalty programs or even online booking bonuses linked to their loyalty programs may be the reason
- Customers may go straight for their preferred brand because they really want the points.
i) Complex bookings and the human element
- Customers visiting multiple destinations, arrive and depart from different locations, or requiring special amenities at a hotel tend to prefer an offline travel agent.
- The main factors which help here include the fact that an agent will ask questions to better understand a traveller’s needs and are willing to help customise itineraries to best fit those needs
j) Online Travel Agencies (OTAs vs. hotel brand websites
- OTAs attract more infrequent leisure travellers, who may take just a few trips a year and are more price-sensitive
- Boutique hotel brand websites have a great opportunity to merchandise better. However, you need to support this with an efficient online booking process once a prospect is on your hotel website.
- However, boutique hotels like yours may be challenged in reaching prospects at the top of the funnel due to limited marketing budgets and therefore will need to be creative.
- They are usually less concerned with price and more interested in scheduling, convenience and booking with specific suppliers
- Hotel focus – increase spend from frequent, loyal bookers, which means an increased focus on personalisation and community.
- OTA focus – expand the supply of hotel rooms to alternative accommodation and extract more from unconverted lookers.
k) Budget versus luxury holiday
- Budget travellers spend time finding a good deal and shop around more.
- Those booking a luxury holiday generally go through a more straightforward process, use fewer websites and complete their bookings quicker.
l) The importance of visual media
- Hotels that offer virtual tours, high-quality photos, and videos on the website assist conversion as much as good reviews by previous guests.
- Holidays have become a high-engagement purchase and increasingly, the research and booking stages are as much a part of the holiday experience as the actual holiday itself.
- As online travel channels mature, operators are turning their attention towards creating more compelling and engaging content, creating a rich, well-resourced, ‘one-stop’ research solution. In a travel market in which the consumer is over-optioned for choice, and a competitor is rarely two clicks of a mouse away, your hotel should aim to gain that initial attention, and retain it.
m) Regional differences – online bookings
It is important to take different buying behaviour in different countries and factor them into your online marketing strategy.
- Online shopping can and do vary substantially by region – in 2016, an estimated 19 per cent of all retail sales in China occurred via the internet but in Japan, the share was only 6.7 per cent.
- Britons spend most online almost double that of a Chinese consumer
- Desktop PCs are still the most popular device for placing online shopping orders but mobile devices, especially smartphones, are catching up.
- Travellers from Scandinavian countries continue to book their trips the furthest in advance in 2018, with Finland and Denmark ranking as the highest average booking periods for both short and long trips. In comparison, French-based travellers are the most spontaneous, leaving the shortest notice for trips of all types.
Why the post-booking stage is equally important
So now you have the booking – it may have come through your own website or through an OTA or elsewhere. Can you take it for granted? What can go wrong?
There are immense revenue and guest satisfaction benefits of engaging bookers just before they travel.
The opportunity to sell additional products and services is one of the more obvious elements. Engaging with the guest at this stage also means building a relationship and fewer chances of cancellation. Equally, it allows your hotel to be better prepared for your guest arrival and meet their specific needs.
Creating a process for this stage of the process can provide excellent returns.
How to be visible at all stages of the booking journey
The tremendous improvements in technology, as well as the level of qualitative and quantitative information available in the last decade, has meant that the leisure traveller has more choices than ever before.
However, this has also meant that the average traveller is overwhelmed by the choice and the routes available to make the final decision.
For a hotel website to be the final and preferred booking choice for travellers, it will have to engage the customer effectively through all stages of the travel planning process in a simple and effective manner; and this starts with providing innovative ideas and inspiring them, and following it through effective support throughout the subsequent stages (including information gathering and ease of booking as well as reliving and sharing experiences)
The opportunities are many-fold as the large players in the field have just started to make an impact using this approach.
There is a high dependency on technology as an enabler; this, however, will be an ongoing factor in all future development opportunities.
©Whitesky Hospitality 2019