The evolution of hospitality website design

The evolution of hospitality website design

For the past 15 years, hotels, resorts and hotel brands have commissioned the building of their proprietary websites.  They turned to hospitality specific design firms, advertising agencies, website design shops and nephews working out of their parent’s garage.  Initially, it was enough to simply slap together a site with nice pictures and a booking engine.  As property websites became a larger and more important source of business, hoteliers’ needs changed.  They wanted sites that could grow and remain current.  They wanted to update packages on a regular basis, post job offers, speak to the current weather or season; essentially, they wanted their website to be a living, dynamic marketing piece.  To facilitate this need, clients began demanding the inclusion of a Content Management System (CMS) as part of their new website.  The feeding frenzy that followed could be compared to a modern day gold rush. 

Design firms have long struggled to generate residual fees.  One can charge to build a website, but once the project is completed, the fee stream disappears.  The requirement from clients to include a CMS gave firms the opportunity to license proprietary software, and in doing so, lock up a client for the long term.  Every month, hotels would be required to pay a fee, generally in the $350-$500 range, and if any custom work needed to be done on the site, it had to be done by the original design firm. 

The convenience of being able to update copy, photos and basic navigation changed the way hotels managed their website, all to the benefit of both the hotel and its customers.  However, CMS integration became a double-edged sword.  To make a change to a CMS driven website, hotels HAD to go back to the source.  They were at the mercy of that firm’s fee structure, and that often led to big invoices for seemingly simple changes.  I personally saw countless clients frustrated and emotional about not being able to quickly and easily have simple changes implemented, and there was nothing we, or they, could do about it. 

It is time for our industry to evolve.  Over the past several years, robust new open source CMS platforms have been introduced.  They are free to use, and developers around the world are adding to them, making them better every day.  I love the open source environment for my clients for many reasons, not the least of which include:

  • It’s free to use – No more $350-$500 per month in fees for software licensing.
  • By definition, open source platforms will remain technologically ahead of proprietary platforms – with tens of thousands of developers using and adding to the platform daily, private firms stand little chance of keeping up.
  • The client has all the power – when one needs to make an update to a website, there are thousands of developers one can turn to instead of being forced to work with a single, expensive source.
  • New features are incredibly easy to add – each open source CMS has a library of available extensions, which can be uploaded to a site with a minimum of programming time.
  • Development time is reduced – developing a new website, or an extension of an existing website, takes far less time, thereby reducing the cost of the work.

Three open source platforms have risen to the top of their class.  Each offers its own advantages and disadvantages, but all are great options to consider: Joomla , Drupal, and WordPress.

There is a lot of money out there motivated to convince you that I am wrong.  Design firms don’t want to return to the days of project based work.  They don’t want to lose that source of residual income.  They will argue that it’s not that easy.  They will say that the open source CMS’s limit a firm’s ability to design custom work, or that others will be able to replicate your design.  They will talk about “enterprise level” solutions and custom toolkits. They will do everything possible to avoid acknowledging the writing on the wall.  It’s time to evolve.

Of the three aforementioned CMS platforms, my preference is Joomla, but there was a good article in Smart Company that will help you decide which platform is right for you.  To get a feel for the sheer volume of tools available, go to and search for anything, from “weather” to “newsletter.”  Have fun exploring all of the options available.

Finally, to the question of design capability and flexibility.  Is it possible to buy a full website template that runs on these platforms for a few hundred dollars?  Yes.  Do I recommend it?  No.  It is still very important that a hotel have a site designed to its specific needs.  It needs to speak to the target audiences, represent the core advantages of the property and celebrate the individual outlets and amenities that make the property unique.  Yes, this means a larger investment in custom design, but a personalized site will also yield noticeably faster returns once the site goes live.  The following two custom websites were developed in Joomla and do a wonderful job of representing the unique advantages of their property.

If you have seen any other hospitality sites designed on an Open Source CMS, please post the link in the comments section.