Ruminations on Room Key

When Room Key launched earlier this year, I was skeptical. My primary detraction was that the website, even with the horsepower of six major chains, lacked the wherewithal to complete the consumer purchasing journey — from flight to hotel to car rental. This, in addition to the head start the OTAs already have, makes for a formidable case against Room Key’s long-term viability. But numbers don’t lie, and the latest digits have me doing a double-take.

Using its patented normalization analytics process, research firm Compete Inc. has stated Room Key obtained more than 4 million unique visitors during July 2012 with over 6 million total visits through the month. Tallying these stats points to a growth rate hovering near 20% per month. The results indicate roughly 90% of this proliferating traffic came from the founding brands’ sites (Choice, Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental, Marriott and Wyndham) while less than 2% came from paid or natural searches. Additionally, it’s reported that Room Key has a similar click-through rate back to partner sites when shoppers come from external search pages.

Compete accounts for these lopsided percentages by classifying Room Key as an evolving meta-search engine whereby a pop-under window redirects users to the booking website upon exiting a founding brand’s internal pages. It’s an exit traffic strategy, accruing users already accessing a partner’s (hence “meta”).

According to Google Analytics, the latest September figures estimate Room Key receives more than 14 million travelers per month. Adding more powder to the keg is the recent news that this meta-search tool has added three new partners — La Quinta Inns & Suites, Leading Hotels of the World and Millennium Hotels & Resorts — rounding out the site’s breadth of economy, midscale and luxury offerings.

Furthermore, as of this past May, Room Key integrated with Travelocity’s Res99 network, adding to the inventory on the site. No doubt this action greatly expanded consumer choices. But, as Compete observes, it has also countervailed the flow back into the founding brands’ websites, with Res99 amassing more than 11% of the total booking-driven transfers for June — a percentage that is increasing month-over-month and potentially deflecting users to an OTA to complete their reservations.

Despite all the positive growth markers aggregated by Compete, the real skull-scratcher is that, whether assisted by Res99’s incorporation or not, the founding partners’ ratio of bookings lost to the OTAs independent of Room Key visitation increased to nearly 24% for July. All in all, Room Key is making progress, but danger still lurks in the shadows.

To me, this heightened meta-search traffic appears to be of the “preaching to the choir” lot. The exit strategy model is a closed loop, feeding off guests who are previously exposed and already loyal. Room Key works as a powerful adjunct for visitors to the partners’ pages, but ancillary nonetheless. That 2% natural and paid search metric means there aren’t many new consumers reaching the website, and thus it’s not significantly advantageous towards augmenting voice share. People appear to still be making their final reservations through their preferred OTAs, but due to Room Key’s accurate property information and comprehensive design, it’s becoming the perfect cross-reference tool.

By this interpretation, Compete’s statistics might be a tad underwhelming, but there’s still hope on the horizon. With increased traffic comes an increased opportunity to deliver a simplified and pleasurable travel-booking experience. Exposure is the first step. However, consumers need to be incentivized to fully switch from an OTA to Room Key.

Part of that motivation will come from persevering with the expansion plans and adding more hotels to the website. Room Key is a distribution channel that consumers are indeed using, and your property should be included.

On the other hand, I believe a more efficacious answer is in overtly advertised loyalty programs. Make it known that booking through Room Key, other similarly sponsored reservation engines or directly through a site (and not through a third-party, high-commission OTA) is the only way for a traveler to earn their respective program’s loyalty points or rewards. This is a strong policy, and it has clear demarcations.

I’m sure there are other solid hypotheses as to how to make Room Key truly effective beyond mere through-traffic into a workable competitor for the OTAs. My take in the short term is by emphasizing loyalty. What’s yours?