A startup guide to hotel e-commerce

Don’t know where to start when it comes to creating an e-commerce plan for your hotel? Here’s a guide to get you on the right track.
Having looked after a portfolio of hotel websites over the past five years, I have seen how fast e-commerce changes every year. There are fundamentals that never do change and that should be a part of your plan. Here are the basics:
Excellent photography
I have said this publicly multiple times. The best return on investment in your marketing budget is on excellent photography of your hotel. Get this right on Day One. Your new hotel’s photos go everywhere and won’t go away. The owner’s sister, the friend that also shoots weddings, the person you know who takes beautiful landscapes are all awful decisions. We took over a hotel that the photographer was one of those situations and it took months to delete the photos throughout the Web, but a simple Google Image search still manages to uncover this mistake.
At a minimum a hotel requires an expert architectural photographer who understands lighting. A true interior architectural photographer will have his or her own lights and will often have a lighting tech to assist on the shoot. Understanding your audience will give you a leg up on maximizing your returns on this marketing expense. The look will be different while attempting to market to different audiences.
Models can greatly benefit ROI, adding a layer of lifestyle that simply can’t be achieved without one. Props also can add another layer to your photos. Make sure it is determined who is providing props ahead of time. Most high-end photographers will be able to recommend a prop stylist.
How much should this cost? A new hotel will need days of shooting and possibly the expertise of two or more photographers.
  • Food photographers: They have their own props, trade secrets, prop assistants and more. If your pro forma calls for $3 million or more in food-and-beverage revenues, you are going to have to invest appropriately.
  • Lifestyle photographers: There are two distinct “looks” when using models in a photo shoot—commercial and editorial. An editorial photographer will work with magazines and brands with looks that are destined for fashion spreads. A commercial photographer will have looks that will be friendly to your end game and will have experience working with businesses. Look for a portfolio with models of varied ages, looks and ability to communicate lifestyle.
  • Architectural photographers: Some brands will recommend photographers who can come in and take all of the photos on the brand required list in a single day. I don’t recommend that method. Try to find photographers who can accomplish first and foremost the look you want to achieve.
A new luxury hotel should budget a minimum of $30,000, which can quickly go north of that amount depending on the size and scope of the shoot. Unfortunately there is a lot of pushback on spending in this category. I always tell owners: Why would you risk $10, 20, 30 thousand on a $40-million hotel? You wouldn’t.
Excellent reviews
If you are looking to attract leisure travelers, your ranking on sites such as TripAdvisor will make or break you. A Cornell Study on the impacts of various social media sites found that for every point its TripAdvisor reputation improves on a five-point scale, a hotel can raise prices by 11%. And for every percentage point a hotel improves its reputation, its revenue per available room goes up by 1.4%.
Our company makes meaningful changes in operations and invests in areas where our hotels perform poorly in reviews. The quality of this guest feedback in the history of our industry is unprecedented. If you aren’t improving, you are losing position in rankings.
Bottom line: If a property expects direct bookings, it should be a top option in its location.
Rate parity
This needs no explanation yet has become a major issue in 2015 with TripAdvisor’s price-check feature. Now no-name online travel agencies get prime position to undercut your best available rate without your knowledge. Your rate-checking tool isn’t picking everything up. Someone needs to be checking rates on TripAdvisor weekly and ensuring consistent rate parity or you will lose reservations.
An outdated website is the No. 1 indicator of an underperforming business in any industry. Your first impression is your website. Unfortunately, technology and Google’s best practices are constantly being updated. It is said now that the average life a hotel website is two to three years. Which means either a high-cost renovation every three years or a continuous effort to ensure a high-performing site on a monthly basis. There are so many elements to a high-performing website that it warrants its own article. Bottom line, don’t mess this one up.
Here are things to consider while managing your website:
  • site speed;
  • call–to-action locations;
  • analytics (with proper cross domain tracking);
  • email subscriptions;
  • quality of content;
  • inbound links;
  • grammar and spelling;
  • image and video;
  • formatting;
  • site structure;
  • social media shares;
  • remarketing;
  • links;
  • social proof; and
  • awards and accolades.
Why does someone want to stay at your hotel and how will you win their business?
A tested value proposition
What is your value proposition? Have you tested it? Simply put: Why is someone staying at your hotel over your competition?
At a minimum, hoteliers should be executing a brand SEO strategy on Bing and Google. Brands like to complicate this, so play by their rules. If you are paying for non-branded keywords they should be with the intention on targeting a niche guest. Sample examples: “two bedroom hotel times square”; “adult only hotel vegas strip”; “free parking hotel phoenix airport.”
Your ad text also should be appropriately niche to cater to these terms. Never begin a campaign without setting an ROI target for your ad spend. I recommend 10:1, meaning that for every $1 spent you will earn $10.
Not the newest or hottest marketing trend, but it is the best ROI available for your hotel. There are numerous ways to monetize an email address.
OTAs send email communication to their users multiple times per week. How often should you send out an email blast will depend on how large your property is. I would shoot for once a month with a pre-determined schedule to eliminate guesswork while maximizing the chances of sticking to the plan.
Here are some ideas for your team to increase the value of your email:
  • Confirmation email: upselling (upgrade your stay, add rental car, spa treatment, etc)
  • Cancellation email: Ask your guest why they are canceling and make sure it isn’t due to rate.
  • Pre-stay email: upselling and awareness (inform guests about revenue-generating centers on property; upselling here is important, too)
  • Check-in email: Check in with your guest to eliminate possible negative situations, remind them to share their experience on social media and again remind them about the availability of your excellent facilities that generate additional revenues.
  • Check-out email: Provide a short survey to identify possible negative reviews and have guest relations staff ensure a happy customer.
A comprehensive email capture program at the front desk should be in place. An email address gives the hotel an opportunity to increase incremental revenues and create a lifetime value over the client’s relationship with the hotel.
Remarketing and retargeting
Retarget to visitors who didn’t book after visiting your site. With a simple tag via your online marketing firm, your ads can follow abandoned visitors around the Web. Use the opportunity to simply remind a guest of your hotel or extend a targeted offer.
Remarket to guests based on their past interest at your property. Send an email to guests with spa revenues on their folio by offering them a spa-specific package. Offering customized messaging increases conversion rates and reduces the risk of the dreaded unsubscriber.
Special projects
Other marketing to consider:
  • exit intent pop-ups with unpublished offers;
  • subscribe/share to unlock special offers (aka locked content);
  • photo contests;
  • photo booths;
  • Instagram selfie areas; and
  • chat-enabled reservations department.
Most importantly you need someone to manage this for you. The e-commerce manager is the new revenue manager of the early 2000s. Your e-commerce strategy will affect all of your direct bookings.
Your director of sales and marketing simply can’t keep up with the pace of technology and keep up their other activities. A revenue manager is also not a competent e-commerce manager. If you hire a third party, it still needs to be managed by someone who is highly competent or you’ll risk getting into bad situations, such as the common one of paying a monthly fee for a website that isn’t continuously evolving.
Sam Trotter is portfolio eCommerce Manager at Boutique Hospitality Management. Besides focusing on website revenues, Sam dives into how technology can positively influence a hotel’s business. A self-confessed data junky, Sam Trotter provides news and analysis on website design, applications, marketing programs and other digital trends that are or will affect a hotel’s business. To continue the dialogue or for the latest technology news that impacts your hotel, follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn

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About Author

Founded by two travel and technology professionals with years of experience in Asia, Representasia specialises in sales & marketing representation throughout Southeast Asia for travel/hospitality technology providers and travel-related startups, as well as providing marketing consultancy services for hotels and travel businesses in the region.

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