How hotels maximise their internet presence

Features, Back of House

Hoteliers are more tech-savvy than ever before; while the web remains a strong marketing tool, they are also increasingly turning to social networking platforms and blogs in order to log their presence, find Punam Mohandas and Bindu Gopal Rao.

Not too long ago, getting a hotel accommodation meant making a direct reservation or approaching an agent for a booking. Things have now changed dynamically, and the one single enabler for this has been the web. Today, with high levels of internet penetration, it is normal to make online reservations for accommodation.

“In the current competitive hospitality scenario, a hotel’s website needs to be viewed as the hotel’s most important salesperson,” avers Saurabh Rai Bhatnagar, regional director, India, and director global sales, India, Middle East & Africa, Preferred Hotel Group.

“Gone are the days when a website used to be more of an electronic brochure of the hotel; today, under no circumstances can a hotel afford not to have a dynamic and fully functional website.”

Websites are designed in a manner that allows you to take virtual tours of the hotel from the comfort of your home, and are increasingly being viewed as online marketing platforms.

Says Tarandeep, head, marketing and communications, Jaypee Vasant Continental, New Delhi: “A hotel without a strong web presence means losing out on an average 60% of potential customers. The hotel website not only helps us to shift from passive to interactive relationships with many customers, but also to deliver unique valuable offers and products, and work out a differentiated approach to key customers.”

Abhijit ‘Beej’ Das, senior director development – India, Hilton Worldwide, says that web presence is an incredibly potent sales and marketing tool.

According to him, Hilton Worldwide and the web sites for the entire portfolio of brands are perhaps the web’s most searched hotel sites. He stresses that web content should be constantly reviewed, re-imagined, and refreshed, and real-time responses are important.

Mamta Sharma, owner of The Estate, a bed-and-breakfast based out of New Delhi, attributes a large part of the web’s growing popularity and success to a decision she took of having the right online presence to market her business, which included using a dotcom address.

“We were focussed on being prudent about the way we showcase ourselves online, that being the only marketing tool we intended to use. For a small business that does not have a big marketing budget, a website is a must-have. It is one of the most effective ways of reaching out to audiences globally on a shoestring budget,” she says.

Over time, hotel websites have become the nucleus of all marketing programmes and activities. Declares Nikhil Kapur, general manager, Ista Bangalore: “Reservations are on the increase; 20% of total bookings are now online. It is therefore imperative for a hotel to have a website. We see about 300-400 unique visitors per day, and we answer queries within the same working day as received. The ratio we are seeing is 70:30 foreign to Indian guests.”

“I would say the ratio is 70/30%, international to domestic,” agrees Romil Ratra, general manager, Intercontinental Marine Drive.

“A website is certainly critical, given that most people today research almost anything and everything online before they buy, but the most critical part is the content and ease of navigation. We see anything from 15 to a few 100 hits per day, depending on the season. 30-35% of our business is generated through online sales; not just the hotel’s direct website, but through other online channels that interface with our booking engine as well.”

Visheshwar Raj Singh, general manager, Trident Bandra Kurla, Mumbai, breaks it down in detail – on a monthly average, the Trident Hotels website gets over 25,000 visitors from approximately 120 countries; of these, over 18,000 are from India, followed by 2,000 from the United States, and about a thousand from the UK.

Says Bhatnagar: “Generally, this percentage is well balanced as the domestic market has lately acquired a huge amount of confidence in booking online through a hotel’s website.

The premise here is to study the segmentation of your online business mix and structure the pricing model around it. Based on seasonality and pick-up lead time, this mix can quite effectively varied. This has proven to be one of the most successful online revenue management practices.”

Joy Ghosh, national head of sales and marketing, Mirah Group Hospitality, whose recently launched site attracts over 10,000 hits daily, says that the internet offers hoteliers a true ‘Direct to Consumer’ medium.

“To take advantage of this remarkable opportunity and remain competitive, you must create a comprehensive website that will drive bookings, increase ROI, and generate economies of scale. The days of hotels and destinations not having a website to service customers are over; hotel owners who understand this will not only survive, but also do well,” he says.

Adds Uday Rao, hotel manager, Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai: “Websites are a one-stop-shop for all guests to find any service information about the hotel. It is an easy access to the right sources within the hotel, from reservations to grievances.

Our website also provides an informal platform like Twitter to be integrated into the main page, where you learn fun facts about the property. The web is an effective marketing tool to promote your property. The life span of any material is limited and web usage allows us to act quicker and update guests faster.”

Apart from having a website of their own, hotels opt to use other sites as well. There are specific portals that are used to check on city events.

Says Dr. Amitabh Saran, co-founder and managing director, Buzzintown, a portal that lists happenings and events across cities: “It is also a well-established fact that few internet-aware people book on hotel websites – they most certainly get much better deals on travel portals. Most prospective travellers check hotel sites for details, and then book on an internet consolidator aka travel portal.”

In fact, Buzzintown’s 1.5 million strong user base and 10-million monthly views, ensure that these details reach the hotels’ target market very effectively. Seen as a boon to the hospitality industry, travel portals are emerging as a one-stop shop to the e-traveller; they provide not just information about accommodation, but offer great value deals and unbiased reviews that customers can trust.

Says Seema Singha Roy, DGM – Hotels, Yatra Online: “Given the power and reach of the internet, online bookings are definitely beneficial and probably one of the most cost-effective means of acquiring business for hotels.

The contribution of online channels to total hotel bookings can vary dramatically from city-to-city. In India currently, the average online hotel bookings may be around 15% of the overall bookings that happen, but globally it would be a higher percentage and eventually this is likely to go up even in India.

The industry should be looking at this 15% contribution going up to at least 25-30% in the next five years. There has been an encouraging upward trend since we started online hotel bookings via our portal. There is tremendous scope for growth here as the benefits this medium offers to the consumer are immense.”

Says Deep Kalra, CEO and founder, MakeMyTrip: “We sell 30,000 room-nights per month. This category was a slow starter but, as internet penetration is increasing and more and more people realise the benefit of booking hotels online, the trend is catching up fast. On our portal, we have witnessed a year-on-year growth of 115% in the online hotels-booking section.” Interestingly, search-to-buy percentage has increased by more than double over the last year.

Of a necessity, online reservations means funds are automatically transferred via payment gateways on the site, and hence, security is a major issue that needs to be factored in.

“Every reservation that comes through the online portal is secured with the credit card number of the traveller with the hotels terms and conditions. As far as customer information is concerned, it is in our interest to keep it confidential,” says Rupam Dutta, general manager, Radha Regent- E City.

Modern browsers use a technique called Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), to encrypt the information that flows between your browser and the web server receiving your order. Citrus Hotels uses third party payment gateways with SSL crypted information and secondary level password protection checks.

Concurs Singh: “All user data is encrypted prior to storage. SQL injection adds enhanced security for all data on our website, while generic booking data is collected at the Trident Hotels website and then routed to a third party secure reservation engine, where the booking is created. This ensures that our data is doubly secure. Apart from the above, we also have SSL Thawte certification.”

Says Das: “Security should be top priority, and all hotels should implement strong measures to protect against fraud. Privacy policies should be published and strictly adhered to, something that small and independent hotels need to perhaps do a better job of.”

Social networking sites too are now seen as a perfect sounding board for resonating ideas for a hotel, and a real-time scorecard of how guests perceive a property. The advent of social networking has completely changed the dynamics of online marketing. Agrees Kapur: “Facebook is very effective, we use it a lot to promote events and activities.”

Says Singh: “Both Facebook and Twitter have enormous online reach, especially among the tech-savvy travellers of today and are recognised by us as valuable information sharing channels.

The inherent design and usage of such social networking websites encourages interaction and engages both existing guests and potential customers.

Trident Bandra Kurla’s internet launch campaign alone resulted in approximately 1400 visitors to our website over a 21-day period. Apart from that, we had over 50 click-throughs to our website from a three-day campaign of Facebook updates and Twitter tweets.”

Today, hotels are increasingly present on such sites to connect to potential clients and listen to what customers are saying about them. Social networking websites give guests a platform to voice their opinions, upload pictures of their trip, share their experiences, and also works as a grievances portal.

The Four Seasons Mumbai claim they have seen an increase of close to 50% in their following since they started a Twitter account last month. “This is currently one of the most important tools for guest connectivity.

By the presence of a social networking, not only are we updated, but also, we are constantly in touch with clients, which develops a great bonding between a guest and a hotel,” explains Dutta.

Agrees Aditya Shamsher Malla, director- sales, The Oberoi Grand, Kolkata, and also president, SKAL-Kolkata chapter: “Facebook cuts across all levels and age barriers – you’re more visible on a social networking platform. I use LinkedIn and Facebook extensively for announcing Skalleagues get-togethers across the network and talking about our various activities.

I also run two other groups – Hotel Professionals and Director of Sales and Marketing, on LinkedIn, where I receive suggestions on marketing techniques from other professionals. I find LinkedIn a good source for finding the right talent,it’s very effective for professional networking and yes, I have recruited people from there.”

Clarifies Das: “Social networking tools and media are a major growing presence in the online space and potent, especially for smaller and independent hotels. Failure to listen to and respond to social media can be devastating.”

Adds Ghosh: “Social networking helps expand the customer base quickly, and tells you what is good and not so good about your hotel. Loyal customers themselves become spokespeople of your hotel, and are often invited to experience new products and services before it is actually offered in the market place.”

Networking sites cut across barriers of demography and are a boon to the hospitality sector. Networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Orkut, and YouTube are being used extensively by the hospitality sector because they help hoteliers to engage with followers and fans and share information that is of interest to them.

“Hotels are increasingly using social networking as a platform for marketing because it is an effective mean of direct communication with the guests, with better ROI. Some hotels are using social networking to spread information on special promotions, while others are creating communities whereby followers are invited to spark debates on how services could be improved. It has enabled the hotels to increase their business and enhance their relationship with their guests,” says Payal Sakhuja, founder, Ripple Links, Bangalore, a social media marketing agency that helps clients gain visibility in the social media platform.

Hoteliers are using social networking as a platform for marketing because it enables them to get in touch with the target audience directly. “Social networking is also used by hoteliers to generate leads and win successful clients. Also, through the use of blogs, podcasts, and twitter, chefs too can express their viewpoints and passions in an approachable and tangible way,” says Gunjan Goela, founder, Dilli Ka Khana, and food consultant with the ITC hotels in Delhi for Indo-Marwari cuisine.

The popularity of blogs is another aspect that cannot be under estimated. For hoteliers especially, blogs offer a solid interaction forum that can be used to read into their customers’ minds, resulting in a better understanding of customer requirements.

“This information can be used effectively by us to tailor product offerings to best meet the needs of those customers. Blogs help the hotel industry to build credibility and trust, and provide an insight into the hotel’s philosophy and personality,” says Ghosh.

Some blogs have staggeringly high levels of regular readership. “These readers are dreams-come-true for marketers because they represent a target audience, which is clearly already interested in a particular topic or niche. The reasoning behind this is that it gives the company more of a human face and strengthens the relationship between them and their customers. There are also benefits for small business owners in writing a corporate blog. It will provide an excellent channel of communication for to relay the latest developments regarding the company,” concludes Tarandeep.

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