Everyone knows you need a functional website, no matter the business or the locale. For hotels, most of us recognize that often a website may be a customer’s first introduction to your property. As such, it should entice, educate and make them want to stay with you.
Hence, for many GMs, one of the largest items on the 2017 marketing budget is likely the development of a new website, or at the very least a refurbishment of the current one to show newcomers that there’s something new to get excited about. This can come in the form of new interfaces or layout schemes, pages, offers, events, exciting visuals, plugins, iframes – whatever it takes to boost the user experience (UX) and keep customers engaged.
I say this taking into full account that for many of you, the website is something beyond your control, as dictated by the corporate overlords of your brand. For you, while you may control the actual content on the specific portion of the brand.com that’s relevant to your property, you likely don’t have control over such top-level features as the UX or theme.
In any case, whether you are an independent or semi-independent with your own vanity URL or part of a larger group with only limited control over your brand.com, there is still much to be conscious of before you greenlight any web-related project. For this, it’s wise to take a step back and view your website as only one part of a much larger picture. And to help you along, I’ve listed five “big picture” questions that you should ask your marketing team before proceeding with any expenditure.
1. What is the single, underlying purpose of your website?
Or, to put another way, how does our current site fail to meet the current requirements for your brand identify or for how online consumer behavior has progressed? Does it lead with stunning visuals that both tell your hotel’s story and give a strong sense of place? How will it grow your business?
For instance, if your site is not built responsively – that is, automatically configuring to mobile – then by all means make haste and get a new one underway immediately. Mobile isn’t the future; mobile is now and it is everything. Bolting on a mobile-ready format is not easy to do, and you don’t want to create a Frankenstein’s monster in the process. However, if the site works great on mobile (try it yourself to confirm and note any UX deficiencies), then and only then should you investigate further enhancements.
2. How much is the new website going to cost, both now and ongoing?
With so many diverse and fully mature layout theme generators available nowadays to help create a reasonably good looking website from scratch and manage via a user-friendly CMS, your first thought might be that getting set up is both relatively easy and cheap. While this is partially true, it is nonetheless very naïve thinking.
Developing a website that is both functional and attractive is no simple task. While the functionality aspect has been somewhat commoditized of late given the versatility of plugins and your chosen CMS platform, every hotel’s business needs are slightly different, and so additional programming resources will always be needed above what was outlined in the quote for your shiny new website.
Furthermore, things break and third-party software needs to be upgraded. How are you going to account for those additional coding hours? Managing a website and all the social networks connected to it is now a full-time job. Do you have someone onsite who is proficient with the CMS and can handle all the day-to-day updates, or will you have to farm this out too?
As to the latter point on visual appeal, I liken this to an arms race in that you must compare yourself to your most proximal competitors as well as those far away. Look for how design standards are shifting, and make sure that you are always ahead of the curve. Moreover, developing a website that truly stands out these days takes a lot of time and a lot of resources.
3. How will the new site improve direct bookings?
Building off of the first question, this is a critical task toward effectively growing your business. Ideally, you want all your bookings to come through your reservation hotline or your website rather than a third party. So, how specifically will the new website convince people to book at your property instead of one of your competitors? How will it create a seamless booking process so that they prefer your interface over, say, that of an OTA?
Properly answering these questions is no small undertaking. It requires a thorough understanding of how everything from social media and mobile-specific behavior to your channel mix and how customers are finding your website. In other words, getting people to book direct has a lot involved with it than just upgrading some graphics and copy on your brand.com’s homepage.
Tying this back in website development, it’s vital to ask how the site will integrate all the other channels and allow for coordinated changes to reflect those made further up in the consumer travel research and purchasing funnels. While I previously stated that attractiveness is important, substance trumps style. If a website isn’t built with any underlying CMS controls or code to track, say, search engine ad conversions or remarketing, then this will be a mandatory, and quite substantial, cost for later on down the road. As budget is concerned, should you need to sacrifice a bit of razzle-dazzle to ensure that you are ‘all good under the hood’ then so be it.
4. How will the new site improve the UX?
The UX covers everything a user sees and can potentially interact with from the moment they enter to the moment they leave your site. You want this experience to be frictionless, intuitive, meaningful and captivating. As a broad primary goal, you want future guests to be able to easily find every single bit of information necessary for their stay on there and not accessible in some convoluted way.
For a second goal, you want the UX to be dynamic, interactive and visually stimulating to the point where customers actually remember what your website is like. Barring a full UX audit, which is always an option for those with serious budgets and time to boot, simplicity rules the day. Have everything accessible from the homepage and opt for clean, brisk text with speedily loading images.
Given the aforesaid point about accessibility and that a typical single property site can cost between $20,000 to $65,000, would you be better off compromising on a few design features and pushing that surplus into content creation instead? In other words, UX is only as good as the people who are visiting your site, and if it isn’t updated frequently then usership will drop. If all your upcoming events, blog articles and promotions can’t be readily communicated to your audience, what incentive will they have for being recurrent visitors? Clearly, a balance must be struck between the upfront design costs and those allocated for continual ‘renovations’, and this is something your DoSM must figure out before moving forward.
Taking all this into account will take some time as there are many cases where a new site is fully justified for the ongoing success of a hotel. But remember, the goal is not vanity, but revenue. So, be sure that you first comprehend all the hidden costs so that you don’t dip into the red and that you don’t stray from your key objectives.