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Hotel web sites: Your site is your brand
The Internet has revolutionized hospitality as much as it has revolutionized any industry. Yet even as the Web gains importance as a sales channel for business like hotels and restaurants, it's changing fundamentally in terms of what consumers expect from it.
In 2008, up to 40% of all hotel bookings in North America will be generated from the Internet. Another 25-30% of hotel bookings will be directly influenced by online research, but booked offline. By 2010 the Internet will contribute over 45% of all hotel bookings in North America.*
Meanwhile, the GDS-backed early leaders in the online travel space are losing ground to direct sales and now account for less than 20% of online bookings. Translation: people are increasingly going direct to the brand source for in-depth information, not to online "travel agents".
Perhaps most importantly, the general level of consumer Internet-savvy, bandwidth, and technology are all reaching levels that stretch consumer expectations of how a hotel site should look, feel, and function. It's not enough to just offer the ability to check rates and availability anymore.
What this all means is that attaching legacy concepts about hotel sales, marketing and distribution channels to a website is a big mistake. Is a website an ad, a booking engine, a customer service vehicle, a property tour, a trusted source of local information, a direct mail piece, a loyalty club, a salesperson? Of course, the answer is all of the above.
The functional tools now available to support websites as distribution channels are extensive and well-established enough to use acronyms: SEO, CRM, CMSs, TPIs. But these tools all need to be evaluated and incorporated within the context of the bigger picture: your website is your brand. Done right, it will be built and operated from the perspective of the consumer experience first, and all of the attending support mechanisms second.
Perhaps the closest single analogy for what a hotel website is and does is to simply think of this "virtual location" as an extension of the physical locations. Outside of their experience on your property with your people, there is no more significant brand touchpoint for your customers than your website.
If you accept the premise that a site is a branding tool, here are some key points to consider for the approximately 15% of the hospitality industry that's planning a re-launch in the next year:
Two strong examples of these principles in application are Joie de Vivre Hotels, and Francis Ford Coppola Resorts.
Joie de Vivre Hospitality, the California boutique hotelier, re-launched their website in 2007 at www.jdvhotels.com. With a focused new brand strategy to take full ownership of their guest's entire California vacation, their thinking went beyond the simple online or in-room experience. Dramatic California imagery and dynamic design elements introduce the idea that Joie de Vivre is about California. They provide tools to help build a trip itinerary full of specific activities in each property's area, and even locate knowledgeable locals to show you around. Finally, they match guests with the perfect choice from among their 29 California properties using a Hotel Matchmaker search tool that allows you to choose a property much like you would choose a friend.
The 2005 Francis Ford Coppola Resorts website aimed at taking you there before you get there. A trip to Belize or Guatemala is a leap of faith. Word of mouth is essential, but so is a totally immersing website that makes you feel the full romance of the location. This site using analog materials centered around a web representation of Coppola's desk and scrapbooks from his visits to these resort locations to bring prospective guests into the experience, and build confidence in booking.
Using these two projects as an example, it's clear that a good website approach needs to be organizationally collaborative, particularly between the often wildly disparate concerns of design and branding and technology and IT. Unless these varied concerns are merged, the result will be something that reaches only a portion of the Web's potential, and a portion of the expectations of the customer.
As hospitality websites enter the next phase of sophistication and competition, more companies are viewing them as assets, much as they would a piece of property or infrastructure. Some contend a hotel's (or hotels') valuation can be influenced 10 to 20% by a winning website approach. While this number may be up for debate, one principal is increasingly clear: websites are now a critical branding tool for the hospitality industry.
* 2007 HeBS Benchmark Survey (www.hospitalityebusiness.com/dyn/hebsReports_coll49.php)
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