Mr. Rosenberger

Boutique Hotels

Use Online Travel Companies to Attract Family Travel Business

By Matthew Rosenberger, Consultant & Publisher, ABC Travel Guides for Kids

Psst. . . .I have a secret. If you want to know how to use OTCs to your advantage take a close hard look at your own website. Once you understand that the combination of your website and the customer service you provide cannot be matched by OTCs you will have the tools necessary to implement marketing strategies to reach the lucrative family travel market effectively and actually use the OTCs to your advantage.

It starts with your Website

Interestingly enough it is your own website and marketing that will determine how effectively you can use OTCs to your advantage. Developing an online presence with components of particular interest to families and children is necessary to highlight and distinguish your desire to attract the family travel demographic. While OTCs are committed to presenting a wide range of information to their visitors, they are not hotels and do not provide accommodations, they provide a service. This is an important point that must not be overlooked. A room booked at an OTC website and not your website may not only result in lower room revenues but also negative reviews and damage to your brand if a bad experience develops between the customer and the OTC. And while these elements may be completely out of your control, the consequences could be irreparable. So the challenge becomes creating a website with plenty of information that is relevant to the location and families that you wish to attract. Unique family packages and affordable pricing are the keys. Your goal must be to attract the web surfer directly to your site from the start, but even if the surfer lands at your site from an OTCs site that's okay too as long as you provide them with the information they are seeking and the tools to make a reservation or have their questions answered promptly and efficiently without frustration. The key here is that the hotel is in control and not at the mercy of whether or not the OTC provided satisfactory customer service for your guest.

Customer Service is the Key

The OTCs are not equipped to provide the same level of customer service that your hotel can provide. One of the most common complaints with the OTCs is the inability for the customer to get a "live" person to discuss their reservation or any questions they have. Your hotel has a huge advantage in this area and must highlight its online accessibility, as well accessibility through the more traditional methods. Train your staff to effectively deal with customers who are savvy web surfers and want to secure the best possible rate available for their family. Remember that the family travel guest is not the business travel guest and the key to attract families is to provide great customer service coupled with a strong message, "we want families". Families will look to factors other than price when booking a vacation. It really comes down to creating the best experience for the family with a package that is both entertaining and educational and all-inclusive. I love the idea of having a staff member at the hotel who is trained and equipped specifically to deal with issues of concern to families. You must consider the different needs of your guests and have the appropriate staff "on call".

Pricing Structure

Discounted prices will be available from OTCs but they cannot offer the personal attention and packages that you are able to provide on your website or through your staff. Discretion is the key here. Give discretion to your reservation staff when contacted by family travel inquirers and sell unique family packages that are "not available online" or "only available through our reservation department". Give your guests the perception of great value through an all-inclusive pricing structure designed specifically for families. Factor in unlimited movies and popcorn, swimming privileges and other family oriented amenities. If you publicize that the lowest online price available is the one on your own website you need not worry about customers booking rooms at your hotel through OTCs. But the lowest rates for your hotel might be substantially higher than your competitors which means that you will lose guests who didn't seek out more information from your website because they felt that your pricing was not competitive. Learn what your competitors are doing and find ways to match them when you are contacted directly by a prospect. Preach the "you get what you pay for" creed and educate your prospects that you are the most family friendly hotel in the region because of your commitment to families and your packages and programs designed specifically for families.

Distressed Inventory

As a last resort aggressively partnering with OTCs to sell distressed inventory might be an option. However with the current concerns about the economy some experts are predicting that demand for U.S. hotel rooms will substantially shrink from the record numbers over the last several years. At the same time the supply of hotel rooms has grown dramatically. This combination may lead to more distressed inventory then in recent years. Hotel managers may recognize a need to cut staff, hold back rooms and find other ways to reduce expenses. At the same time it is anticipated that the cost of property taxes, insurance and utilities will all increase. The analysis of these factors may lead to the conclusion that holding back rooms from the market may yield greater savings than using OTCs to sell distressed inventory.

Look in your own Backyard

Perhaps a better way to deal with distressed inventory in the changing economy is to look in your own backyard for family travel business. With high gas prices and rising heating fuel prices, create family packages and mini weekend vacation packages. Partner with your CVB, local theatres and museums and sports teams to create fun, unique and affordable all inclusive packages to reacquaint travelers with all their region has to offer. The OTCs are not equipped to reach your local market with the staff and access to information the way your hotel is able. Assign a staff member for locals. These visitors need to learn about hidden attractions, events and activities and restaurants. They have different interests and needs than your business or out of town leisure guests. Tap into the resources your staff members have in their own neighborhoods.

Avoiding law suits

OTCs are facing lawsuits across the country from upset city revenue departments that believe their municipalities are being shortchanged millions when it comes to hotel and occupancy taxes. The lawsuits maintain that the OTCs are paying taxes based on the rates they pay to the hotel and not the amount paid by the guest to the OTC. For example in a transaction where an OTC collects $150.00 for a room it purchased from a hotel for $100.00 the suits maintain that the OTC is paying taxes based on the $100.00 (the amount paid) and not the $150.00 (the amount collected). There remains uncertainty as to the ultimate direction these cases will go but avoiding these lawsuits should be a priority.

The Information Highway

People go to the Internet for information. The more content and information about kids packages and amenities you provide for families the more likely it is that reservations will be booked at your hotel. If you train your reservation desk to be prepared with and provide them with some discretion regarding specific family travel related requests you will be selected over OTCs, and your competitors, for booking. If the OTC websites have more information about your hotel than your own website you're in big trouble. Accessibility is also the key here. When your staff is highly trained and able to answer specific questions you will be far ahead of the OTCs and the frustration that many people feel when they are working with an OTC. But the disparity in customer service will not last forever. Many OTCs have made great strides in providing excellent customer service. Travelocity for example has recently introduced two programs. From a service standpoint, Travelocity differentiates itself with a dedicated team of specially trained agents, known as the "Proactive Customer Care" (ProCC) team, whose focus is to sniff out problems before customers even realize they have one. For example, during the recent hurricanes that affected the U.S. Gulf Coast, the ProCC team alerted thousands of customers ahead of the storms to advise them of their options and to help change their travel plans as necessary. From a product standpoint, Travelocity's most recent innovation is its ExperienceFinder product, a set of planning tools that takes the focus away from the shopping and booking of a trip and shifts it to dreaming and planning. It combines videos, interactive maps, rich photography, user reviews and galleries to paint a vivid picture of more than 20 of the leading destinations around the world. Other OTCs like Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline also continue to work hard to improve their customer service and response times and even go out of their way to accommodate travelers.

The Bottom Line

Hotel sales and marketing departments must remain vigilant in marketing efforts geared toward improving their website, customer service and pricing structure. The initiatives and innovative programs of the OTCs should not be taken lightly. To use OTC to their advantage, hotels must look at these OTC programs and out perform them with superior customer service, more region specific information and specially designed family packages.

Matthew G. Rosenberger is a family travel consultant and publisher who works with hotels that want to be recognized as the most family friendly in their region. He is publisher of ABC City Guides for Kids, an all-in-one alphabet book, activity guide and souvenir. The books are customized by hotels and resorts to feature their images, logo and address on the book's front and back covers. Mr. Rosenberger also promotes his selection of family friendly hotels at his website and family travel related assignments through his "We Love Kids" and "TOP FIVE" pick selections. Mr. Rosenberger can be contacted at 215-242-4011 or mgr@kidstravelguides.com Extended Bio...

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