Worldwide: Zeevou chief evangelist Hamid Vosooghfar outlines the importance of direct bookings and the lessons that vacation rental owners and serviced apartment operators should take away from the Covid-19 pandemic for their businesses.
Covid-19, the most unwelcome guest not only for hospitality owners but to the whole world, has taught us many lessons. The #bookdirect lesson, however, is a collective lesson for all members of the hospitality community around the world as they feel more interrelated than ever before and are ready to join forces to promote direct bookings on different outlets. Many direct booking movements are blowing the whistle to start the marathon, passing the #bookdirect baton to the next host-runner in line, and finishing the race for a collective win: more direct bookings.
Lesson One: OTAs should be a stepping stone not a diving platform.
Online travel agencies [OTAs] and property listing sites may be key players in the short-term rental industry, serving as a stepping stone to drive bookings and show off your business to the world, but sticking with them and forsaking direct bookings, especially during unforeseen circumstances, may lead to business diminution, or even demise.
Following the Covid-19 outbreak, the giants of the industry abruptly changed their terms and conditions, without the hosts’ prior knowledge and consent, and refunded even non-refundable bookings. The wide-scale lockdowns issued by governments around the world, such as in the UK, aggravated the situation for hosts as major OTAs like Airbnb and Booking.com had no way other than to block all calendars in the affected areas. This was the right call to make in the fight against the spread of the virus.
What struck short-term rental owners and those in the travel sector was not the closing down of the industry leaders, but their inability to accommodate key workers and all those on the frontline combating the pandemic straight away who needed to self-isolate. They did not have the tech necessary to vet guests before confirming a booking and essentially forced hosts to close their doors to all, no matter the circumstances.
This is where emerging startups stepped in, taking the initiative and providing different platforms, to both help accommodate front-liners and support hosts whose businesses were struggling to survive, be it at very discounted rates to cover costs. Some hosts feel like they have been left high and dry by the OTAs despite the urgency to adapt to this new reality, due to ever-increasing commission rates.
Lesson Two: A direct booking website is a must.
To gain more control over the fate of your short-term let and achieve more direct bookings, having a good direct booking website is a must. It is no surprise that small- and medium-sized hospitality businesses do not possess the financial resources of Booking Holdings, Expedia Group and their many affiliates, for example, to run ads and rank high on Google. However, sitting out the #bookdirect website design project may amount to business damage beyond repair post-Covid, as the OTAs’ backdown showed.
A good number of guests still tend to google listings’ names to find their websites for more information and better rates, as awareness of #bookdirect perks increases by the day. Guests look for easy and smooth booking processes offered on famous platforms, but if you have a functional direct booking website with a built-in booking engine, you can convert the bookers landing from third-party websites into direct bookers with the possibility of making them repeat customers.
Additionally, an SEO-friendly website with a blog section and other pages filled with the right keywords may change the game and help you attract potential guests right onto your website. You will also have full leverage on the content you publish to win over guests. A combination of Google and social media ads, as well as regularly posting on social media and running competitions, will open up more space for you to increase your direct bookings even in this very saturated market.
You do not necessarily need to spend a lot or be a developer to build a good direct booking website as there are property management systems which offer an auto-generated website with live rates and availability and SEO fields as part of their features. It is up to you to choose the one that best suits your purposes.
Finally, do not forget to include your own terms and conditions for direct bookings on your website and get them signed to avoid future problems and losses.
Lesson Three: An email marketing list is an asset.
Covid-19 has revealed once more that unless hosts have an email marketing list [GDPR-compliant for EU members], they have no access to their previous guests and leads. This means a good majority of them have no direct means to contact their existing bookings to negotiate a change of date nor refund terms. They also cannot nurture their leads to book at a time when even a few bookings serve as a saviour. Many OTAs and property listing sites hide guests’ real email addresses and provide you with alternative ones you cannot directly contact. So, even at uncertain times like now, you are at a loss and dependent on the policies set by the big players.
The lesson to bear in mind is collecting guests’ real email addresses at the point of booking, both for easier correspondence and with the purpose of further marketing them into repeat direct bookers, is key. What this implies is that you should implement a booking confirmation process to create a GDPR-compliant database of contact details as one of the essential steps, and start inserting your opt-in form link on your social media and in the signature of all your outgoing emails. Besides that, you can run competitions and challenges, as well as set signing up to your newsletter a requirement for entry.
The hospitality industry does not seem to rebound very quickly. People around the globe are wrestling with the crisis so you should tap on all existing resources to capture as many bookings as possible. Staycations could be a way forward as domestic travel is expected to rise over the next few months. To all short-term rental owners: it takes action, determination and creativity to come out on the other side unharmed and even thriving. Now that you may have more free time, think of solutions and alternatives, and decrease your dependency on OTAs. Not all days are sunny; let’s prepare for both rainy and sunny days!
Hamid Vosooghfar is Zeevou’s chief evangelist, primarily focused on spreading the word about how Zeevou can address the pain points of vacation rental owners and serviced apartment operators when it comes to managing their businesses, automating their process and boosting their revenue. Experienced in marketing serviced apartments as a marketing manager, he knows the importance of direct bookings, and seeks to raise awareness and help change the game in favour of short-term rental owners.