Direct booking lessons from COVID-19 for the hospitality industry

Hamid Vosooghfar Hamid Vosooghfar Uploaded




Zeevou's Hamid Vosooghfar outlines three lessons apartment operators and hosts can learn from the Coronavirus pandemic to boost their direct business.

COVID19, the most unwelcome guest not only for hospitality owners but to the whole world, taught us - vacation rental owners and serviced apartment operators - many lessons. The #bookdirect lesson, however, is the one to commit to memory and learn by heart, not cram during uncertain times like the pandemic and let go once everything goes back to normal. This is a collective lesson for all members of the hospitality community around the world as they are feeling more interrelated than ever before and are ready to join forces to promote direct bookings on different outlets. All the valid fears about third-party reseller sites previously thought of as paranoia and desperate, futile struggles are now justified and many direct booking movements are blowing the whistle to start the marathon, pass the #bookdirect baton to the next host-runner in line, and finish the race for a collective win: more direct bookings.

• Lesson 1: OTAs should be a stepping stone not a diving platform
True, OTAs and property listing sites are key players in the serviced apartment industry, serving as a stepping stone to drive bookings and shout your business to the world, but sticking to them and forsaking direct bookings, especially during unforeseen circumstances, is a sure way to business diminution, if not, demise. Following the COVID-19 outbreak, which still features in headlines globally, the giants of the industry basically pulled the rug from under the hosts’ feet by the abrupt change in their terms and conditions, without the hosts’ prior knowledge and consent, and refunding even non-refundable bookings. The wide scale lockdowns issued by governments around the world such as in the UK aggravated the situation for hosts as major OTAs like Airbnb and Booking had no way but to block all calendars in the affected areas, which was the right call to make as a fight against the spread of the virus.

But what struck short term rental owners and almost all in the travel sector was not the close-down of the industry leaders but their obvious failure to facilitate accommodating key workers and all those on the frontline of combating the pandemic and in need of self-isolation. Quite shockingly, they did not have the tech necessary to vet guests before confirming a booking and essentially forced hosts to close their doors to all, no matter the circumstances. This is where emerging startups stepped in, took the initiative and provided different platforms to both help accommodate frontliners and help hosts to survive, be it at very discounted rates to cover costs. That is why OTAs can be, at times, a diving platform into a sea of ever-increasing commission rates, where hosts have been left high and dry despite the urgency to adapt to the new reality.

• Lesson 2: A direct booking website is a must
To gain more control and in order to achieve more direct bookings, having a good direct booking website is a must. It is no surprise that small and medium sized hospitality businesses do not possess the financial resources of Booking Holdings Inc. and Expedia Group and their many affiliates, for example, to run ads and rank high on Google, but sitting out the #bookdirect website design project could amount to business damage beyond repair as COVID-19 and the OTAs’ backdown very clearly showed. A good number of guests still tend to Google listings’ names to find their websites for more info and better rates as awareness of #bookdirect perks are increasing by the day. Guests look for easy and smooth booking processes offered on famous platforms, but if you have a functional direct booking website with a built-in booking engine, you can convert the bookers landing from third-party websites into direct bookers with the possibility of making them repeat customers.

Additionally, an SEO-friendly website with a blog section and other pages filled with the right keywords may change the game and benefit you by means of attracting potential guests right into your website. You will also have full leverage on the content you publish to win over guests. A combination of Google and social media ads, as well as regularly posting on social media and running competitions, will definitely open up more space for you to increase your direct bookings even in this very saturated market. You do not necessarily need to spend a lot or be a developer to build a good direct booking website as there are property management systems which offer an auto-generated website with live rates and availability and SEO fields as part of their features. It is up to you to choose the one that best suits your purposes. Finally, do not forget to include your own terms and conditions for direct bookings on your website and get them signed to avoid future problems and losses.

• Lesson 3: An email marketing list is an asset
COVID-19 revealed once more that unless hosts and operators have an email marketing list (GDPR-compliant for EU members), they have no access to their previous guests and leads, which means a good majority of them have no direct means to contact their existing bookings to negotiate a change of date or refund terms, or nurture their leads to book at a time when even a few bookings serve as a saviour. Many OTAs and property listing sites hide guests’ real email addresses and provide you with alternative ones you cannot directly contact. So, even at uncertain times like now, you are at a loss and dependent on the policies set by the big players.

The lesson to bear in mind is collecting guests’ real email addresses at the point of booking both for easier correspondence and with the purpose of further marketing them into repeat, direct bookers, is key. What this implies is that you should implement a booking confirmation process to create a GDPR-compliant database of contact details as one of the essential steps and start inserting your opt-in form link on your social media and in the signature of all your outgoing emails. Besides that, you can run competitions and challenges and set signing up to your newsletter a requirement for entry.

• Final Word
The hospitality industry does not seem to rebound very quickly. People around the globe are wrestling with the crisis, and there is reason to believe this will continue for quite some time. Nevertheless, you should tap on all existing resources to capture as many bookings as possible. Staycation could be a way forward as domestic travel is expected to rise over the next few months. To all short term rental owners and serviced apartment operators: it takes action, determination and creativity to come out on the other side unharmed and even thriving. Now that you may have more free time, think of solutions and alternatives, and decrease your dependency on OTAs. Not all days are sunny - let’s prepare for both rainy and sunny days!

Hamid Vosooghfar is Zeevou's Chief Evangelist, primarily focused on spreading the word about how Zeevou can address the pain points of vacation rental owners and serviced apartment operators when it comes to managing their businesses, automating their process and boosting their revenue. Experienced in marketing serviced apartments as a marketing manager, he knows the importance of direct bookings, and seeks to raise awareness and help change the game in favour of short term rental owners.

 

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