In search of a flawless website

Late last year, I had the honor of evaluating entries for the HSMAI (Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International) competition. This annual program calls for hotels and their agencies to submit their marketing efforts to be ranked among the best in the world. Competition is fierce, and this year more than 1,000 entries were received. Judges can choose to examine any number of entry types; I chose websites, as more than 150 different entries were posted.

The goal of any judge is to be fair and above board in making decisions. In doing so, we are provided with a summary of communications, all with the identical format, and a scorecard that ranks five core attributes on a scale from 1 (worst) to 10 (best). The attributes are straightforward, including creativity and results.

After reviewing about 65 different individual hotel sites (I chose not to judge sites from CVBs, hotel chains and other related entities), it was clear that several did rise to the top. Hence, lessons for all.

Establishing criteria for judging

Judges are left to their own devices insofar as what criteria they use to make decisions. The approach I took was an attempt to emulate the potential guest. In other words, I attacked the site from the standpoint of someone reaching it through search or referral, but with no prior knowledge of the property. On this basis, my goal was to see if the site could accomplish the following:

1. Can the viewer find the guestroom section, look at a selection of accommodations, understand the differences between these room types and quickly get to the booking engine? (I did not rate the booking engines themselves, as that code is not really part of the front-end presentation.)

2. Would a leisure visitor be able to easily find out what there is to do in and around the property? Was the information up-to-date and available by at least four to six weeks ahead of time (a typical leisure booking window)?

3. Was the site fluid when viewed on my iPad as well as my laptop? (I didn’t include my iPhone due to lack of time, but will definitely make this mandatory next year, as mobile is a critical channel.)

4. Was the site effectively linked to social media?

5. How effortless was it to navigate through content? And, if I got to an area such as a blog or a downloadable menu, could I get back to the main page?

6. Was there anything special about the site and its portrayal of the property that had me in awe and salivating for a visit? This query encompasses that certain “X factor” — that intangible allure. To complete this assessment, I quickly looked at the target audience and tried to place myself in the mindset of these individuals.

Uniqueness counts

Not surprisingly, most of the sites I reviewed scored well on the first five of six criteria. There were some with programming glitches (404 errors, 500 errors, etc.), and a few sites did not have any social media — rather surprising in today’s Facebook- and Twitter-driven landscape. Some had problems on the iPad. Still others had so much content that the site became cluttered with confusing navigation.

But, the separation of the wheat from the chaff came in the area of uniqueness — the X factor. Disappointingly, many of the sites appeared to be cookie-cutters, using an identical template from other sites with minor tweaks to the fonts, colors and names of some of the navigation elements. These sites covered the bases and worked flawlessly, but failed to differentiate their product on an emotional and subconscious level. And, they generally scored well in everything but this last point: creativity. I’m sure they saved the property some dollars on their online construction, but really, how can you tell the world your hotel is better if you don’t invest wholeheartedly in your own website?

With traditional advertising costs prohibitive to all but a few liquid brands and operators, how are you going to set your property apart with this, the kernel of marketing elements?

Photography is a cornerstone

To make a great site, you need great photos. Not surprisingly, some of the sites I rated higher also had the best photography. Here is a rule of thumb: 50% of your web budget or more should go into photography. Good photography sells rooms. Great photography sells the vision of a fantastic vacation and gets the buzz started before the trip even begins. A picture really is worth a thousand words.