Direct bookings mean greater freedom for holiday accommodation operators. Greater freedom to set your own policies, to present your accommodation in the way you want, and to take home the full value of each guest’s stay.
That’s why we recently gathered four experts for a webinar where we discussed how accommodation operators can achieve independence from online travel agencies (OTAs). If you’re interested in using OTAs to your advantage without relying on them, you’ll want to hear what these pros had to say.
Both Monica and Katherine receive the vast majority of their bookings direct: Katherine is now at 88% direct bookings, and Monica’s at 95%!
If you want to see our guests in action, head over here to watch a recording of the webinar. If you’d rather read than watch, we’ve summarised our experts’ juiciest points below.
Why direct bookings matter to holiday accommodation businesses
OTAs, such as Airbnb, Booking.com, and Vrbo, serve a crucial purpose for holiday accommodation operators. They put your name out there and help you to attract guests who are looking to stay in your region, and at your price point – that’s a pretty handy tool.
And yet, there are some drawbacks to being overly reliant on OTAs:
For every booking you take, a portion of your revenue goes to OTA commissions – when guests book directly with you, you receive the entire value of their stay, which may also allow you to offer them a discount (whilst still seeing higher revenues).
Your brand is obscured beneath the OTA – guests think that they’ve booked “an Airbnb”, rather than your property. Whereas if they book directly through your site, they know exactly who’s hosting them, and who to recommend to family and friends.
You’re dependent on the stability and whims of the OTA – if Airbnb decides to change its refund policy, what can you do? If Booking.com were to suddenly crash, how would travellers find you? With your own direct booking site, you have complete control over your digital presence and your policies.
If you want to build a stable, profitable holiday accommodation business, direct bookings are a must.
Focus on cultivating guest loyalty
A sizable proportion of your direct bookings will always be repeat bookings. OTAs make it easy for new guests to find you. Your job is to then provide a magical guest experience – from booking through to post-departure – so that they can’t wait to return.
59% of Katherine’s direct bookings come from repeat guests, and she emphasised that this is all down to the experience she provides. She’s onsite to answer any questions or handle any confusion. Her Touch Stay digital guidebook helps her to communicate effectively and showcase the local area. They even have a loyalty programme which rewards returning guests.
When we took over the business, bookings were 50/50 direct and OTA. What we’ve done is fundamentally improved the quality of what we offer. The guest experience is professional: we pre-empt what guests want, provide them with everything they need, and try to be the experts on the local area.
Monica captalises on the cosiness of her 5-bedroom B&B to suggest that returning guests bring along friends and family for a group weekend away. This means that even brand new guests are often introduced to her via recommendations from previous visitors. Her guests are doing her marketing for her!
She’s already putting into action the strategy that Mark suggested. It’s so simple, it can be boiled down into four words: ‘do you know anyone…?’ He recommended a quick text or email immediately after guests leave, asking if they know anyone who might also enjoy a stay at your property. Chances are, if they’ve enjoyed their time with you, this little push will be all they need to start recommending you left, right, and centre.
Enhance your guest experience with a digital guest welcome book
Touch Stay digital guidebooks provide all the inspirational and practical info your guests need to enjoy a 5-star stay with you. Whichever kind of holiday accommodation you run – bed & breakfast, short term rental, glampsite – your guests will know exactly what treats are waiting for them before they even pack their bags.
Give your guests an intuitive experience by packaging all the details they want into a sleek digital format. Readily available information makes for prepared guests who ask fewer questions. And with your personal local recommendations, they’ll be able to feel how much you care.
READ: about how Touch Stay has helped Sarah provide a wonderful guest experience from the get-go (and spend minimal time answering repetitive guest questions).
Tyann Marcink, our very own Queen of Guest Experience, makes sure she stays in touch with her guests for as long as they’ll still have her. She’s had guests return to her a decade after their first stay: they’d celebrated their mother’s 70th birthday in one of Tyann’s holiday rental properties, and ten years later they wanted to celebrate her 80th!
Keep guests on your email list, even if they haven’t visited for years. You never know – popping into their inbox might be just the inspiration they need to book again.
Invest in your direct bookings
Katherine opened our eyes to a new perspective when she explained that she views her OTA fees and commissions as part of her marketing budget. The money she directs towards listing sites is an investment which helps draw people towards her direct booking site.
Her booking site listings serve a specific purpose: they draw people in, build user trust by showcasing her properties on a legitimate platform, and showcase glowing reviews from former guests. They also make it super easy for guests to find her direct booking site – she uses the full brand name of her properties in her listing title so that guests know exactly what to Google.
Tactics for driving guests from OTAs to your direct booking site
Block your OTA calendar: Tyann suggested having a polished presence on key OTAs, complete with photos, descriptions, and reviews, but blocking your calendar so that guests can’t actually book. They’ll discover you on the OTA but be forced to book directly with you.
Hike your OTA prices: Another strategy that Tyann suggested was dramatically raising your prices on your OTA listings. This way, potential guests are discouraged from booking via these platforms, and clearly see how much they’ll save if they book direct.
Take advantage of listing sites’ rank-boosting offers: Mark suggested pushing your listing site prices up, and then taking advantage of their discount offers. Your prices actually remain the same as they were before you hiked them, and taking advantage of listing sites’ offers gives you a boost in their algorithm, pushing you towards the top of the results page.
Take advantage of dynamic pricing tools
Speaking of pricing…
Mark already demonstrated that updating your pricing signals to OTAs that you’re keeping your listing up to date, which makes it more likely you’ll appear at the top of users’ search results. An easy way to ensure that your prices are regularly updated is using a dynamic pricing tool. These programmes regularly update your prices in line with the market in your local area to ensure that you stay competitive whilst maximising your revenues.
Mark’s top tip was to use these tools critically. Let them do their work, but keep an eye on your bookings. If your prices have recently hiked, and your bookings have reduced, you’re probably charging too much!
Advertise your holiday accommodation strategically
This is where our panellists were really able to let their expertise shine! They all agreed that paying for adverts on Google, Facebook, and Instagram can be an extremely effective way to draw people to your direct booking site. If you get it wrong, however, it can swallow money without giving you anything in return.
If you are going to do it, try to avoid Googling ‘how do I do Facebook ads’, because you’ll get everything around it. Make sure you find somebody who has done it in this industry, who knows what they’re doing, and who can clearly explain it.
Arthur reminded us that the people most likely to respond to your adverts are those who have stayed with you before, or at least considered staying with you. Rather than scattering advertising investments far and wide, target people who:
have previously visited your website
are already on your email marketing list
have stayed with you before
Targeting small groups who are already familiar with you can be a cheap, efficient way to direct people into your site.
Katherine’s taken a creative approach to her advertising strategy. She knows that a lot of her guests book with her because they want to be able to bring their dogs on holiday. So, she advertises on dog-related websites..!
Keep track of which strategies are working
Monica stressed the importance of software such as Google Analytics, which helps you to understand where traffic to your direct booking site is coming from. You might be investing a substantial amount in a specific OTA, or for ads on a specific site, and if you’re not seeing any traffic in return, it’s time to redistribute those funds!
Know who your hospitality guests are
This brings us neatly into one of the most crucial rules of any marketing strategy: know your audience. If you can identify your ‘guest avatar’, then you can determine:
where to advertise
which OTAs to use
how best to communicate your unique selling point
what guests want from their stay with you
which social media platforms you need a presence on
For example, Monica’s registered with a radio conglomerate that promotes Black-owned businesses for free. She’s identified a market of Black visitors to Durham, North Carolina, with whom she knows her offering would resonate, and found a creative way to reach them.
Mark emphasised that you only need to appeal to your audience. If you’re concerned that a high price point will put people off, the only thing you need to ensure is that the quality of your guest experience matches your price point. If you offer a premium service, people will be happy to pay a premium price.
Collaborate with your fellow hospitality pros
Monica had a valuable lesson for us in really understanding who your competition is: when she first opened her B&B, she quickly realised that the four other inns in her area were her companions. The real competition was the large hotels.
And so, the inns banded together and formed a cooperative, which allowed them to market much more effectively than they could have done alone. If one inn was full up, they’d recommend the other inns to disappointed guests. It was a win-win for everyone!
When it comes to direct bookings, it’s essential that we work collaboratively. The majority of holiday accommodation businesses are small (but perfectly formed!), and it takes mutual support to gain independence from the mammoth OTAs.
Essential direct booking tips
Our panellists rounded off the discussion by sharing the first thing they’d do if they were looking at building up their direct bookings today:
Katherine emphasised the importance of a fantastic website. It needs to entice guests in, give them all the info they need, and look professional enough to build trust in your brand
Monica echoed Katherine’s advice, noting that she doesn’t get many bookings through social media, they primarily come through her website. She added that it’s important to make sure that people can reach out to you immediately with any questions, either through a chat box or by providing a phone number.
Arthur emphasised the importance of email marketing. It’ll be your go-to channel to drive repeat bookings, which will make up a solid proportion of your direct bookings.
Mark suggested that people start close to home: talk to your friends and family, ask them if they’re looking for somewhere to stay, or if they know anyone who is. The power of a word-of-mouth referral can’t be overstated.
Tyann recommended that viewers get their processes in place: in practical terms, how are you going to receive and manage your direct bookings? And, if you’re looking to build or acquire a new property, list it now! Get it out there and get people talking about it.
Andy reminded viewers that they shouldn’t be afraid to repeat themselves. Tell people about the benefits of booking directly with you on your website, on your social media, in your responses to reviews, and when talking to friends and family. Get the word out there!
I talk to people about commission, that if they book direct they get a better deal, that my cancellation policy is more flexible, they can add on packages that they can’t do through an OTA
Earn more direct bookings with a Touch Stay digital guidebook
A Touch Stay digital guidebook enhances your guest experience by storing all of your guest information – from access codes and WiFi passwords, to recommendations for the best local swimming spots – in one intuitive guest app. And a brilliant guest experience will always get people coming back for more (and spreading the word to friends and family!).
Memo, our guest notification system, allows you to schedule as many messages as you need to share your guidebook with guests. Remind them to book that delicious restaurant around the corner, or to bring sensible walking shoes to enjoy the local trails. Deliver 5-star communications whilst freeing up your brain space for more interesting stuff.
Beyond this, your digital guest book provides a spot for you to direct guests straight to your direct booking website, your social media, and your email newsletter. Before guests even leave your property, you can direct them to your online presence to encourage them to stay in touch. You can even inform them of any discounts for returning guests and direct bookings.
With your branding throughout – include your own logo, colours, and pictures – guests will know exactly who they should be shouting about!