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  • Writer's pictureRyan Haynes

Digital Marketing: Optimising the direct channel

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

We’re joined by David Ohandjanian, CEO & Founder, Up Hotel Agency to look into hotel marketing and how to optimise direct bookings through the direct channel.

In conversation we look at

  • Changes in approach to direct bookings

  • Key to direct booking and marketing for the guest journey

  • Evolving roles of agencies and consultants

  • And how the website function has adapted to consumer expectation.


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Programme Notes


This episode has been automatically transcribed by AI, please excuse any typos or grammatical errors


Ryan Haynes:

Hello and welcome back to Travel Market Life. In today's episode, we're going to be talking about hotel marketing as part of our mini-series and this conversation will look at how hotels can optimize direct bookings. We'll be speaking to David Ohandjanian, the Founder of Up Hotel Agency. In our conversation today, we'll be looking at changes in the approach to direct bookings, the key to direct booking and marketing for the guest journey and the evolving roles of agencies and consultants.


Ryan Haynes:

Travel Market Life is backed by Haynes MarComs a B2B marketing communications, and PR consultancy, specializing in the technology travel, hospitality and property sectors, creating meaningful connections and visibility to grow. Hans Marcoms cuts through the noise to resonate with target buyers, decision-makers and influencers. From contextualizing your mission to positioning your value proposition. Haynes MarComs helps you address the issues that matter, marketing, PR and social build a profile, gain, momentum, and shape strategy with Haynes Marcoms.


Ryan Haynes:

Hi David. Thanks ever so much for joining us today. So, when it comes to hotel marketing and direct bookings, what are the changes that you've been seeing over the last few years and their approach, particularly to the direct bookings?


David Ohandjanian:

Hi, Ryan. Well, it's a big question, but a good one. I feel like Covid has been a time for reflection for everyone, right? We all got thrown into some crazy zone for a while, but for hospitality, it allowed them to take a step back and reevaluate the relationships that they had, their strategies, and especially things like the distribution parts. So third-party relationships are somewhat treated the nicest way, and genuinely hotels took that time and put strategies in place and priority on things like generating their own direct booking percentage. So previously we've noticed with hotels that obviously this has been something for a while, right?


David Ohandjanian:

It's not a secret that many wanted to, and they've made the right noises about doing it, but actually, there was a disconnect between the desire to do it or this internal rhetoric that they had, and actually the strategies being linked together with people like the revenue managers who would carry the, the sort of key to being able to do that properly and this being flow flowing through the whole business. So, profitability became more of a focus and looking at these channels as a cost per acquisition rather than just like, what is our occupancy rate? This kind of conversation would start to become even more important, especially when you know you've been damaged quite seriously and in a time like COVID.


David Ohandjanian:

So, I feel now that Hotels understand and actually believe that it is possible to grow their direct bookings, and many have achieved that goal and seen the real numbers. So that is a great start. And then I think also that attitudes changed and that's encouraged the Hotels that have tried it and more Hotels to actually do so. And what that also means is that they've taken action to do things like that.


Ryan Haynes:

It has been fascinating to see how that dynamic has shifted over the last few years because there was an over-reliance on OTAs and, you know, third-party resellers and TMCs, to bring in the accounts, but suddenly with that huge shift in a way that people were purchasing, buying, travelling, the growth of that leisure sector, particularly overnight dominating all bookings and business, really pulling back there has been that rethink. And as you say, you know, a lot of our conversations across Travel Market Life Hoteliers’ Voice and the other episodes that we've been doing here, there's been more talk about that important role of the revenue manager and the, the commercial director within The Hotel and how they're overseeing the, the different departments of revenue sales and marketing.


Ryan Haynes:

So as part of those attitudes shifting that you've particularly seen with your customers, how are you seeing that being fulfilled today?


David Ohandjanian:

Yeah, so I guess this is the thing, isn't it? Let's not beat around the bush. It was easier, right? It's easier to say, okay, well you, you guys sell it, you know, these big machines that have got this marketing capability. But I think a lot of hotels realize that they do need to develop some of their own, especially in need periods, and then they can bolt that on top of what they're already doing in that distribution channel. But it's caused a lot of hotels or definitely, people that we work with to look at what they're offering because it was very easy to just put best rates direct on a website or, you know, best rates deal or book direct here and leave it at that.


David Ohandjanian:

But actually, we need a better proposition than just rate parity. So, a lot of hotels are now being bold about it, the guest needs to look at the site and it is a no-brainer that this is where I book for this hotel or this accommodation because generally, it's going to be more difficult for them to book on the site. You've got to remember that the user literally probably got those two tabs open and booking.com, Hotels, Expedia and your website, which they're verified for a bit richer information to actually flip the tab and have their details filled in, have a nice mobile checkout and do that within a few seconds. It's a lot rosier for them than actually going through and filling out and having to trust in maybe a third-party booking engine that logs into a different screen.


David Ohandjanian:

So, we need to give them a great incentive to jump through a hoop to actually book on your website. So, hotels have rethought what that is and made that package a lot more, a lot greater for the user to actually make that decision to book there. And it's very easy to lose 20%, or 15% commission just by not doing that. So, they've, they've actually seen that working really well for them. And I guess in light of that with the confidence and with the thought about that package and with that, it's not just rates, but it could be extra thing that they've bolted on. They've also started to invest in the conversion of their websites to make sure that it's right and re-looking at how our consumer sees their website and then get more confidence to drive funds with paid search meta like hotel ads, those kinds of things.


David Ohandjanian:

And even trialling some social ads is a very targeted market. So, once they've got the actual source, right, their website, right, their proposition, right, actually driving traffic to that and then looking at the cost for acquisition of those channels and saying, actually they're cheaper than these third parties. Why don't we sell it like this? They're starting to see that all come around and get those tangible results. Therefore, that focus shifted a lot heavier onto those bookings and actually getting those customers directly. And then of course the lifetime value of that customer and loyalty improves So it has been great to see that and work on that. That's one positive from Covid that we've had.


Ryan Haynes:

I was going to say, what a relief, finally there's budget to put into advertising and we obviously, we've been screaming from the rooftops for years that it's not organic anymore, that you really have to start driving and pushing people through the funnel that it's not enough just to have a website, but a website that actually works for your customers. And, you know, I guess that must be really interesting for you as an agency because that must have really influenced the role that you are playing today. How have you seen sort of your relationship with your customers change and the types of things that you are working on with them and, and, and, and how that's adapted your services over the last few years?


David Ohandjanian:

So personally, I feel like I'm having to offer a lot more advice and suggestions on a much broader spectrum. So, we're not just the digital guys of the website guys, it's some, you know, it's things like PMS systems, APIs and different methods and even the marketing mix that goes outside, maybe our typical remit and how we, you know, publish that, even printed materials or how The Hotel might signpost certain things. And I guess the other thing is, I feel that we're less having to back up why you should digitally market and be easily invest in these kinds of areas or websites, but still be super sensitive to, we understand that hotels are coming from a difficult place. So being able to maybe do smaller experiments and verify that these things do work and once we've got the confidence, then it's easier to grow.


David Ohandjanian:

So, we're not, you know, going ploughing ahead and saying, oh, well spend this, spend that. We're actually trying to work with hotels on that and try and give them the confidence. But the great thing is we genuinely see that very quickly, the results. So that means that we're able to experiment, change and evolve. And I, think hotels are, are a little bit keener to trial these things and as long as they can set those KPIs and understand what those are, then they're, they're able to do it.


Ryan Haynes:

Let's look at some of the key aspects that Hotels should be thinking about for their website and particularly the guest journey.


David Ohandjanian:

So, I have to hold myself back from getting too excited about these things because I do genuinely love working with Hotels and I've got a passion for seeing the differences and changes that we can make. But one of them that often gets overlooked, which is a key area that I try and distil into the team, but also into a lot of the clients we work with, is that indifference is a, is a big enemy to many hotels. And what do I mean by difference still not being unique, not getting your personality or your USPS across? And as you probably know from looking at sites yourself, a lot of hotel websites become the same thing very much. A nice big, huge image or video of it may be a drone shot or a beautiful picture of the outside, highly produced, maybe a bit of writing on a booking mask book now in the top right and navigation.


David Ohandjanian:

And then, you know, from there, very similar layouts and they might be some best practice elements. Yes, they've got the booking mask on there, they have this beautiful image, they have great pictures and photography, they're all great things and we would recommend that of course we would. But when you've got 40 tabs open and you're looking at locations, you're looking at flights, you're looking at restaurants, you're looking at five, six hotels that have all looking very similar and all got these beautiful big banners and they, they sooner will blend into one. And as users, we have quite a little patience and, we need things to stand out. So, we try and help a lot of hotels we work with, and I'd recommend that many hotels think about how their websites stand out compared to others.


David Ohandjanian:

What are they selling? Are they able to distil that information very quickly into saying, I'll choose this website, this hotel, or this location or this accommodation over the other one because I can see clearly, that it's near the place I want to go. It's obviously at the right price, but it offers this, this and this. So, getting that across in a distinct way and having the difference and maybe the personality and the language of the design that's used rather than it just being a photo and a nice font is a great way to actually improve the website of The Hotel and not just to rush through those things and really think about how we translate personality. The second is techier. So mobile experience and payments.


David Ohandjanian:

And the reason why I put that one in is that, well I think, I don't need to say this really, we're all on our phones pretty much all of the time, but the people are finding, if not researching first on mobile devices, whether it be phones, iPads, maybe tablets, but also, you know, generally it's the first place that it's found, but even more so now with the generation, people are still making the, the transactions on it. They're spending more time and researching on these devices. So, I find it frustrating that a lot of the big booking engine companies and yeah, they've got the resources to do it, but I don’t know why they haven't yet in some cases is things like Apple Pay integration, Google Pay, making, mobile checkouts, really quick and succinct.


David Ohandjanian:

Really see if you can get a booking flow, which is designed for mobile. It's not just a squeezed-down version of a desktop site, but also that filling out of the form, do it yourself. Please take, take your website and see how frustrating it's to actually do that. I mean I've seen somewhere you're literally scrolling for 15 screens just to choose room types and rate types and it's very frustrating for the user, let alone someone like yourself who's willing to look at your site. So, we think about it, how are people using their phones, how are people digesting that content these days? It's not the same. It's TikTok video flick, Instagram flick, flick reels, visual.


David Ohandjanian:

So, are we again falling into the trap of that desktop being squished down into a mobile or are we thinking of maybe different ways of interacting using the swipe? We, I mean we've even done sites that use the gyroscope scope from the mobile to make things move in the background on navigations and add little effects in there. So, you can actually use a lot of the mobile things like the location and little interface elements that you just can't use on a desktop and actually make it even better on mobile devices. So do that as well. And don't forget things like loading quickly and Optimising the US UX of the site so that people on mobiles can understand naturally what they'll click and where they'll click.


Ryan Haynes:

You. You mentioned the booking engine in particular and you got any recommendations or advice around the booking engine because as you say, that's one thing that's really going to sort of underpin everything related to the design.


David Ohandjanian:

We do get that a lot, I think naturally because we do a lot on the website and then generally there's a handover, there's not many booking engines that allow you to embed them into the page, which is again frustrating for a lot of hotels because they do all the hard work, they spend their money on developing a lovely site and they've got the marketing there, they're pointing people and as soon as they click the book or they fill in their dates in and out, they go to a third party URL, which maybe looks a bit less trustworthy and it's very clunky and it's, you know, you, you get that adage you've got one job, which is what the, a lot of booking engine companies do have, but they don't seem to be able to get that secret of maybe making this track out as simple as it could be.


David Ohandjanian:

So, we do get asked that, I guess my response in that, that case is it's not very easy to save one booking engine for everyone. And that's, that's probably the, the, the answer to that question in reverse. Because if you've got a very simple accommodation format where it's a room and maybe a couple of extras, there might be a booking engine that's a lot slicker for that. If you've got more of, I guess a detailed checkout process where maybe you're, you're even selling things like spa or other elements that make it a bit more difficult or a lot of room type or rate types. There might be one booking engine that is a lot more tailored to that kind of approach.


David Ohandjanian:

So, I would say rather than jump into bed with I guess just one of the classic ones cause it's safe, I would say look at, look the market for a few because there are some really nice open API ones that allow you to even add your own stuff in. And there are a lot of new PMS systems, I'm thinking for the like of news app layer, stay in touch, these kinds of guys that have booking engines that plug into those as well that work with their APIs and go directly into the PMSs. So, there are multiple things to consider within the answer to that question.


Ryan Haynes:

Now the last two items, I believe one of them is around this big thing called artificial intelligence.


David Ohandjanian:

Yeah. So, I mean look, I would add dynamic content within that AI sphere and whether we like it or not and whether we're scared of it or not, whether we're embracing it or whether we're just typing silly things into chat GBT for it to do or create silly images. It's going to be around, isn't it? It's going to be around in some form and why not utilize some of the features on the website? So even if we don't want to, people will be expecting it, users will be expecting the content that they see to be a lot more relevant to them or adapt to them. So let me give you an example. Let's say you wanted to see a rate on a website for the eighth through 11th of October.


David Ohandjanian:

So, you do that, you visit a website, you look at the eighth, 11th of October, you look through the website, you look at the room types, you, you explore a little bit. And now I'd love it, absolutely love if it was the case that most people were, they just visited the website once and they went and booked that website and checked out and our conversion rates would be through the roof. and we have very happy clients as well, I'm sure. But that's not the case because people like to explore, they like to look at options. They may be looking at even multiple areas to look at and then they'll suddenly decide, yes, I did want to stay in that city and that hotel was good. So, I'll go back to the site. So, we're back on the website now what happened?


David Ohandjanian:

How is the user treated? Well, like they've never been to that site before, so they have to have, what was the rate again? Eighth And, I or which room was it? Yeah, we're creating friction, right? We're making them work again. Whereas we can use that information without the use of cookies we have like a technology that handholds from the browser into two browsers and we don't store that data anywhere, but we can use that information. It's like you get suggestions on passwords and stuff through your browser. So, what if we were to go back to the website and it would be pre-filled with those dates that I'd selected before? Great. I could change them if I wanted to, but if I just want to go back and check the dates and the rates again, I can do that.


Ryan Haynes:

Thank you. And your final recommendation and aspect in relation to the guest journey?


David Ohandjanian:

Is a genuine best direct offer. Now we see plastered on every single website pretty much now for hotels, best rates direct or you know, best rates by the booking button. And I don't think it's good enough. Seriously, I don't think it's good enough just to say you've got the, the, the parity with another site that's a lot easier to book on that actually the other site's telling them that they've got better rates cause they've got cross-outs and those many people are looking at it or you're, you, you've hit a certain level in that site so you get a discount, which isn't, isn't cheaper than your site if you're doing parity, right? So, we've got to remember, that everyone loves a deal. Whoever you are, you love a deal. It doesn't have to just be cheaper, but to make people elect to go through your site and like I said before, jump through hoops and not go through a site where all of the details are prefilled.


David Ohandjanian:

We need to make that something that will drive them and give that character angle. So, add genuine benefits. So, exclusivity is a great one that's not just rated. So fine post that properly. Yeah, exclusive access to a lounge. One of our clients gives a free cocktail and entrance a discount voucher an f and b. You, you're doing two things there. You're giving, you're driving people to your bar and restaurant when they might not have gone giving them all these kinds of things. One great one that one of our clients does is a free upgrade in a room if available you'll be prioritized for an upgrade. So, you're not guaranteeing it, but you're saying because you're booking with us directly, we'd like to reward you as being one of the people who have that priority access.


Ryan Haynes:

David, thank you ever so much for your insights there. A real pleasure to actually chat with you today and go through that in more detail. And I, look forward to talking to you again soon.


David Ohandjanian:

Wonderful, thank you.


Ryan Haynes:

So that was David Ohandjanian, the Founder of Up Hotel Agency. As part of our miniseries on hotel marketing and how you can optimize direct bookings, you can check out more of our episodes on TravelMarket.Life or through any of our podcast channels, including Spotify, Deezer, Apple, or Google Podcasts. Ciao for now.

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