How To Take More Direct Bookings

Plas Colwyn Self Catering, my 9-bedroom holiday cottage.

In this blog post, I discuss why taking bookings directly on your website is important and should be your number one priority as a holiday let owner.

I wanted to go back to my roots in this blog and discuss a world that I have been a part of for over 10 years now. Hospitality, and especially self catering holiday lets was going to be the initial focus of Morgan Branding, however due to opportunities coming up across a diverse range of sectors my focus has been dragged away a little.

Firstly, if you don’t have a website – get one! As you read through this blog I hope you will understand the importance of having your own website for your business. If you do already have a website, hopefully I can give some pointers and tips on how to improve that website to take more direct bookings.

I will discuss:

  • Listing Availability
  • Booking Engines
  • Optimising for Mobile
  • Moving away from a reliance on Online Travel Agencies (Booking.com, Tripadvisor etc)

How to list availability?

There are many ways to list your availability on a website. Over the years, we have used and seen many different approaches, for example;

  • Not showing your availability
  • Uploading a document with your calendar on, such as an excel spreadsheet, PDF or word document etc
  • Having a calendar “plugin” on your website
  • Using a booking engine

I will dissect these one at a time, I have listed these in potentially the “most likely” order of what owners may have done over time.

Not showing availability

This was quite common 5/6 years ago, and it is still happening today. Simply meaning that you don’t state what availability you have on your website, this may be combined with a pricing comment on weekends/weeks and low season high season which will be discussed later.

For me, not showing availability is a huge mistake. There are many reasons for this, however one of the first reasons is ease of use. Nowadays we are used to the slick operations for booking accommodation like Booking.com and Airbnb who have revolutionised the online booking process. As consumers we have become accustomed to easy to use calendars and online booking systems. Making it hard for customers to book online is not a sensible way to go. Over the past 24 months, we have seen the switch towards more people viewing self-catering websites on mobiles rather than desktop and over the next 24 months we expect to see more people booking through their mobile than any other source. This is getting close in the hotel industry, however in general the hotel industry has better websites, and better online booking engines. So not showing your availability is potentially one of the worst options for affecting your online bookings.

Uploading an external document that shows your availability

This method has been a good option for many years now as the booking engines available may not be fit for purpose or may be too expensive. I have seen many different ways people upload their calendars, from PDF’s of excel sheets to photos of calendars. Now this method actually works, as long as the calendars are kept up to date and re-uploaded regularly. Although this can be a time-consuming task and as many owners of self lets run it as a “second job” or a part time job, any task that can be kept simple, quick and efficient the better. Which is why having to update in just one place at a time may be better.

Having a calendar “plugin” on your website

How a “plugin” works will depend on how you have built your website. If you have self-built on something such as Wix or an of the shelf self-catering package you will likely be able to find calendar plugins. These will be manually updated and usually involve blocking off dates that are booked in another colour to the available dates. A CMS (content management system) like Word Press, also have similar plugins. You may find that if your site has been built by a professional web design company that they have used this route.

Using a booking engine

Now for me, this is by far the best way. A booking engine could be called a customer database, but is usually a little more advanced. The best booking engines will allow you to track availability and pricing, email guests “automatically” and take and track payments. The best booking engines will have calendars that can be embedded in all websites. These calendars sit within a website, do not take you elsewhere and also do not affect the mobile friendliness of your website. Some of these calendars can even integrate with social media pages. Not only that they will often link to other calendars like booking agents.

This is how Bookalet explains how they synchronise the calendars:

Booking Engine’s

This brings me onto booking engines in general. Now I have hopefully convinced you to use a booking engine if you are not already. I want to try and make sure you pick the right one. If you are already using a booking engine this may help you if you have ever considered changing in deciding where to go.

For me these are some key points:

  • Mobile Friendly
  • Embeds directly in your site
  • Gives you analytics
  • Allows you to include pricing
  • Cost effective – A holiday let making £3,000 a year will need a different solution to say a holiday let park making £1 million a year.

Mobile Friendly

Your booking engine has to be mobile friendly, if half of your customers can’t see your site properly this is a big no go! You are excluding half the population already from visiting your site. Now traffic is often 50/50 but often people still chose to book using a desktop. This means that likely in the region of 70% of your new customers, i.e. people who have never seen you before, will visit you first through their mobile and then go to their desktop to complete their booking. In this key research phase, you not only have to convince them to book with you but booking direct on your website rather than with an online travel agent (OTA).

Embeds directly in your site

For me, if you are going to have a booking engine it has to embed directly into your site. If you click on the booking engine and it takes you to another web page outside your website, this is not good. There is no excuse for this, it is a bad experience for the customer and bad all around for your website.. I am surprised at how many bookings engines do this in 2018, it is incredible. When choosing your booking engine, ask to see examples of it in action on other sites, test this on your desktop and mobile and see how it works.

Giving analytics

Different booking engine’s give you different analytics and to varying depths. Some people will never look at this function, but it can be very insightful if you can spend some time looking and work out who your typical audience is. You can see where your bookings are coming from (geographical location) and the demographics of your customers. Additionally, you can see how far in advance are people booking and where they have found you, whether that be directly via your site or they have been driven to your site via a social media channel or search engine. This data can assist you in profiling your target audience when considering your future advertising and promotion methods. You may also be able to see through which channels people are actually booking your holiday let and not just browsing.

Let’s you include pricing

Having your availability and pricing linked is a must for me. If I am looking for accommodation on say the 6th June, I want to know, are you available and how much is it. If this is in one place, great, if I have to go to two different pages, NOT FUN. This process is about making it as easy as possible for the customer, take a look at how Booking.com do this, they are the absolute best at getting people to book. I can assure you they do not “hide” the prices.

Cost Effective

All this advice is great, however if margins are already tight, adding the cost of a booking engine into your expenditure may not be cost effective. However, there also has to be a time consideration. I suspect my booking engine saves me circa 30 minutes per booking. Which over a year may be in the region of 20-30 hours! To me an investment of £100-£200 is well worth this amount. Regardless of it making you more money or not. However the solutions for a holiday cottage that makes say £3,000 a year in comparison to £1million a year will be different.

Booking Engine Options

Bookalet

https://www.bookalet.co.uk/

Pros:

  • Price
  • Mobile friendly
  • Easy to use

Cons:

  • Back office not mobile friendly
  • Automation not as good as other platforms
  • Not as much useful analytics as other platforms

Supercontrol

http://www.supercontrol.co.uk/

Pros:

  • Great Automation
  • Very Useful Analytics
  • Back End Mobile optimised

Cons:

  • FRONT END NOT MOBILE FRIENDLY
  • Price
  • Difficult to get a grip off
  • No SSL (Security Certificate) (As I was posting I realised this)

Our Choice –  Bookalet

Pricing Structure

It is important that your pricing is very obvious on your website and easy to navigate. It always amazes me how many people either don’t include or make it incredibly complicated to work out how much a trip may be. For me this is an area that should always be reviewed and looked at. I think it’s the number one place that a self-catering owner should be looking at to increase their revenue and more importantly profit. Your pricing should be reviewed each year, and as much time as possible spent on it, I would estimate over the years we have managed to grow our revenue by 2-5% Y-o-Y just by tweaking the pricing.

Cost Effective

All this advice is great, however if margins are already tight, adding the cost of a booking engine into your expenditure may not be cost effective. However, there also has to be a time consideration. I suspect my booking engine saves me circa 30 minutes per booking. Which over a year may be in the region of 20-30 hours! To me an investment of £100-£200 is well worth this amount. Regardless of it making you more money or not. However the solutions for a holiday cottage that makes say £3,000 a year in comparison to £1million a year will be different.

Cottages.com RANT!

I am going to “name and shame” here, in the hope that one day, they give me a reply.

I would like to discuss Cottages . com, English Country Cottages, Hoeseasons Group. Whichever name they are trading under and likely to change as this blog ages!

So I have been working with Cottages . com group for over 10 years. I have worked across several properties however the focus has been on the larger units.

Now in that time, I suspect properties I have been working with have paid over £50,000 in commission and they have taken over £500,000 worth of bookings (conservative figures), so I think its fair to say I have had some experience or dealing with them.

They currently advertise to have over 20,000 properties listed on their site, yet for some reason, they cannot price correctly. You would think they would have a team of wizards working hard on this, as ensuring pricing is correct will directly affect not just the owners but cottages . com’s bottom line as well. However it seems that these wizards could just be fortune tellers trying to predict the future using a glass ball.

Firstly their pricing structure is incredibly over complicated with millions of price bands and categories. If they are going to take this approach, then for me it HAS to be right. I think they have gone for the approach to blind their customers with a huge rate board in the hope, they will be so confused that they just agree! Potentially it works well on the lower end of the spectrum but for me on the higher end it has not worked at all.

How i could ever trust “smart pricing” where i lose all control, i would never know, so i cannot judge this product at all i suspect cottages . com would say it is better however I think they should get the basic model correct before working on a “smart” model.

School holidays – pretty important you may think, not to Cottages . com it seems. You would not believe the arguments I have had over the years about when school holidays fall. Also no consideration seems to be made for how they move in different parts of the country. So if you have a cottage with a localised audience the holidays will be vastly different to a venue that attracts guests from all over the country.

Most cottages would run at a loss if it was not for school holidays, therefore any owner has to “make hay while the sun shines”. I know over the years there has been questions about whether prices should go up and is this fair but it would not be fair if no cottages could open as they could not afford to run! Getting a good balance throughout the year can help owners and customers achieve the best deal.

I cannot recall a time I have ever spoken to the pricing team direct, this may be an option if I had pushed harder however if im querying prices I think I should speak to a pricing expert and not customer service. Since trying other agents, I have spent hours on the phone to their pricing team. Discussing and adjusting, not with Cottages . com however! You speak to customer services where sometimes I have had to argue when the summer holidays are when I am sat looking at a school holiday calendar and Cottages . com have decided the school holidays are over, when they are not!

Anyway I will get off back to it and leave cottages . com alone for a little while now, I will be back though.”

Mobile Friendly

We quickly mentioned this earlier, bu this is INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. Your website and your booking engine or however you are displaying your availability and pricing HAS to be optimised for mobile. If I look at the house we own (Plas Colwyn) I have seen that in the past 12 months we are regularly having months where more people are looking on mobile than desktop. Now bear in mind I tend to check our website on desktop, I suspect that actual customers will be even higher! Our house sleeps 18, I also suspect that houses that are smaller, and more “spur of the moment” bookings, will see a lot higher mobile percentage.

Helping to move away from booking agents

If you get your website right, and the ability to book online easily right. Guests will be more likely to book direct. Take for instance a situation where a guest has found your house on an OTA (Online Travel Agent – like Booking .com, TripAdvisor etc) and then found your direct. If they cannot book easily, they will go back to the OTA and you will then have to pay commission. Customers are used to how easy the big sites make it to book or buy online. Hotels.com, TripAdvisor, Amazon etc make it incredibly easy to buy through their sites on mobile and on desktops.

I would say people are less likely to “trust” sloppy websites and also its sets a bad impression. Your first impression starts way before a guest gets to your front door.

So, all in all, our best advice is get a great website, linked to a great booking engine and ensure your pricing is correct. This will help you move more bookings to yourself let and more direct bookings and you will see your revenue increase and your profits (without those pesky commissions) sky rocket!

And if Cottages . com want to let me take over their pricing model, I will be available for a large fee.

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