Why 2012 will be the year of the hotel website

While we’ve all been waiting for the “next big thing” and surviving the downturn, we’ve also failed to tap the full potential of the hotel website in driving business.

Imagine it in the context of drilling for oil. In the early 20th century, most oil was pumped from depths of less than 4,500 feet (1,372 meters), and at one point, these wells were considered tapped out. However, in 1928, drillers in Texas ventured twice as deep, eventually reaching the massive oil fields that created the legendary oil fortunes and fields that still produce today at even greater depths.

Our zeal to keep pace with innovation means many hotels — especially independents — have only reached that first depth with their online presence, stretching resources to reach the proverbial inch deep and mile wide. In the year ahead, hoteliers should instead go back to the basics of the hotel website and drill deep.

1. Feature content. And by content, I mean images. Put yourself in the shopping experiences you’ve had online. Do you make your decision based on a flowery description, or do you trust the images you see — or don’t see? If you’re able to spend money on social media or promotions, do it only after you have exhausted your budget for photography. You need good pictures.

2. Do something with your database. How many of you have collected data on your site by customer opt-in only to have it sit there unused until a moment of desperation when it likely won’t make any difference? If you’re collecting data, then use it at least once a quarter. Let people know you have special offers, a mobile site, updated guestrooms, loyalty programs, et cetera. Don’t just promise to write — write. 

3. Create comfort. In addition to the comfort you create on-site — easy check-in, goose down comforters, flat-screen televisions, and Wi-Fi — what have you done to create comfort in the booking process? Guests are more likely to participate in a comfortable booking experience. If they’re one of the 29.7 million who are expected to book travel via mobile next year, you need to make sure your site features responsive design so it appears quickly and offers ease of use to those booking via smartphone or tablet — any smartphone or tablet. A desktop website displaying on a mobile device simply creates customer frustration.

4. Know your audience. If your hotel attracts global travelers, make sure you offer a multilingual and multi-currency booking process. This doesn’t mean you have to translate the entire site into multiple languages — unless a single country makes up a great majority of your bookers. Instead, offer a fact page in each appropriate language with an overview of the hotel and a “book it” button in that language so they can book comfortably in their language of choice.

5. Fish where the fish are. Be aware of what’s out there on TripAdvisor and respond to it. Have a presence on Google, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Twitter and your strongest OTA, and monitor guest feedback and reactions. While people may not be buying through Facebook, they are using it in the research process before they visit your site to book. The social media may not convert them, but it will lead them to shop your site.

6. Know where they’re going. Track your website to see where visitors are coming and spending time. If they’re skipping areas they should be visiting — for example, the “groups and meetings” page for a strong convention hotel — then you need to reevaluate how the information is being presented. Content is as much about appealing to the guest as knowing the guest. I recently looked at a hotel in New York and saw the rates they were selling were rack rate. A hotel website is meant for the consumer, not the travel agent — design it as such.

7. Highlight what’s important. Hotels are often so focused on rates that they forget to highlight amenities in the booking path. At least 40% of a hotel’s traffic goes into the “teaser box” on the hotel’s home page. What are you including there? If visitors are coming from an OTA, highlight the cancellation policy so they have an incentive to book with you instead.

As the economy stabilizes, hoteliers will re-focus on the basics, those things necessary to attract more profitable and desirable direct business — in other words, your website. By going the extra mile, properties can avoid fads that add little value and instead produce a highly refined product that adds real value to the customer and, ultimately, the hotel.

David Millili is chief executive officer of Open Hospitality and chief web officer of Pegasus Solutions.