Learn how to navigate the world of OTA’s and increase the success of your listing.
Anyone who has worked in the hospitality industry for any time has had to work with Online Travelling Agencies, better known as OTA’s, and has no doubt been frustrated and at times mystified with how they work and how to create the best listing. There is no standard, meaning you have to learn how to work with each separate one. Ranging from fairly simple to extremely complicated – often you are left feeling like you need to be a tech mastermind to effectively navigate them. It’s not always clear, either, why one property ranks higher than others in search results. It can be a time-consuming nightmare for hoteliers, but there’s no doubt about it, they can generate a high volume of bookings and in the current market, they are essential.
So what even is an OTA? OTA’s are websites where you can create an account and they promote your property across the globe, advertising rates, rooms, photos, and descriptions. Travelers can see all their options in one place with a simple search and hotels can advertise to a wider range of potential guests.
The majority of OTA’s work with a commission model where the property does not pay anything for the account; they only pay a commission per successful booking – the average at the moment is 15%. There are hundreds of different OTA’s, from smaller location-specific ones to the larger ones we have all heard of. In this article, we will focus on more general tips that can be applied to most, if not all, OTA’s.
One important thing to know is that you are not just appearing on that site when you list on one OTA. Most of the bigger OTA’s have merged with many other companies meaning that you will appear on those other sites as well. Then there are metasearch engines, the biggest being Tripadvisor and Google. Metasearch engines typically get results from many sources on the internet, all major OTA’s included, and display the results in a ranked list. This means that you may also appear in these lists if you have a listing on an OTA, though unless you are investing in metasearch management you have no control over where on the ranked list you appear or how often and the guest will be directed to the OTA listing rather than a to a Booking Engine for a direct booking.
Once you have a good understanding of what OTA’s are and what they can do for you, choosing which ones are the best for you to list on is the next step. Generally going with the most popular is a safe bet, but looking into some smaller ones specific to your location could also be beneficial.
General tips for all OTA’s
While each OTA is unique, there are some general rules to get the best out of your listings that will apply to all channels.
One of the biggest factors in choosing where to stay when potential guests are searching is the photos. This is the first impression they get of your property and what it offers and the photos you display play a much larger role than you may believe. When scrolling through listings, the photos can take up to 50% of the listing space so they need to be the best they can be to attract the guest. Professional photos that are updated every few years are the best but with smartphone cameras these days, it is possible to take good photos yourself, you just need to be mindful of a few things first.
Make sure the lighting is good, there is nothing worse than a dark photo, making the room appear smaller and unclean. Then check your decor; make the beds, place towels/toiletries, put a vase with flowers on a desk, etc, anything to make the space appear more inviting. Now be mindful of where you are taking the photo from and where things are placed in the photo. Try taking one from a corner and with the camera held up higher angled down to the room, helping to make the space appear larger or at least not smaller than it is. If there is a view from the window, open the curtains and see if you can take a photo of the room while also showing the view from the window. Try to take at least 4 good photos of the room, 1-2 of the bathroom, and 1 or 2 of any extra facilities you have in the room whether it is laundry, tea/coffee station, view from the window. You should also have photos of the property as a whole, some of the reception/lobby area, kitchens, living rooms, restaurant/bar, front of the building, parking spaces, etc.
Once you have the best possible photos for your listings, upload them and decide for each room and which photo is the best to be the main photo. Remember this is the first photo potential guests will see, so it is important to choose the best. Then make sure you order the photos from best to worst after the main photo. If the OTA allows it, write a short description of the photo for the guest. Now your photos are updated, time to manage your reputation.
The first thing you think about when you hear reputation is generally reviews, and this is a big part of it but not the whole picture. There are 3 phases or stages of managing your reputation; pre-stay, during the stay, and post-stay. Reviews are the last step of the reputation process, post-stay, and a bad review indicates a breakdown or a lack of attention paid to the previous steps.
When considering how to manage your reputation pre-stay, transparency is key and should be topmost in your mind at all times. In your OTA’s there are sections where you can update your facilities and policies and many people rush through these sections, as they can be slightly tedious to go through. Whatever you do, DON’T rush through, consider it all carefully and make sure it is up to date. Manage your guests’ expectations before they arrive, and you will avoid bad reviews. Imagine booking a hotel that advertises that pets are allowed, only to arrive with your cat in tow, and turns out they don’t allow pets. Conversely, imagine if you do allow pets, but when the guest is searching it does not say pets are allowed at your property so they book elsewhere. In both cases, there is a lost reservation and in the worst situation an unsatisfied potential guest. Up-to-date facilities and policies that reflect reality will keep your guests happy and avoid miscommunication.
Next in the reputation process is during the stay. This is all about providing the experience that you have advertised you will. If there are facilities that are currently out of service put a guest management strategy in place. Guests should be notified upon check-in of the out-of-order facility and offered a solution or compensation whether it be a discount or an upgrade. It is also extremely important that your staff are trained correctly so guests have a good experience during their stay with you.
The last step is post-stay and this is where reviews come in. There is not much to be done for your current reputation once you get a bad review but it is important to reply to these reviews and make it clear that you have taken their concerns seriously and have a plan in place to avoid the situation in the future. Avoid dismissing the concerns or replying in a rude manner as all your future potential guests can and will read your reviews and how you reply. Once you have replied, now you have to actually take action and do what you have promised to manage your reputation going forward and avoid the same comments again. Remember, if a potential guest is reading your reviews and the same comments come up in the majority of reviews, they can clearly see that you are aware of a problem and not doing anything to fix the issue. There are cases, however, where a bad review is left that you feel is not accurate. If the person leaving the review never stayed in your property, or they have made false claims in the review, most OTA’s have a system in place where you can contest the review, you may just need to contact them or turn to their help and support pages.
While it is important to manage your reputation to avoid guest disappointment, it is equally as important to set the correct rate plans to avoid disappointment for you when dealing with cancellations, no-shows, and guest expectations.
Your rate plan is the parameters or requirements you set for a particular rate and room. There can be multiple rate plans for one room or just one. OTA’s vary significantly when it comes to the control they give you over setting rate plans, but even the most basic will allow you to choose the cancellation policy of the plan.
There are three ‘main’ cancellation types; free cancellation, non-refundable and flexible. Free cancellation means that the guest can cancel anytime and won’t have to pay anything and is generally the more expensive option as it carries the highest risk of last-minute cancellations for properties. Non-refundable means that no matter when the guest cancels, they will have to pay a fee. The fee they have to pay is generally decided by the property and can be the total price of the reservation, a percentage of the total, or a certain number of nights of the reservation. Flexible policies combine the other two where you can set a certain number of days before the reservation where the guest has free cancellation available, and after the allocated time period has passed the reservation goes to non-refundable. For example, a ‘Flexible – 2-day’ policy means the guest can cancel for free up to 2 days before the reservation but if they cancel less than 2 days before the reservation they will have to pay the allocated amount.
On top of the rate plan setting the rules for no-shows and cancellations, they can also include different ‘packages’. The most common being breakfast included, but some others can include; weekly stay discounts, monthly stay discounts, all-inclusive, etc. Again, different OTA’s allow different levels of control over these different rate plan types, so for each one, you will have to familiarise yourself with the rate plan section and what it allows.
Choosing the correct rate plans for your rooms and what it includes is a very individual choice. No one ‘rate plan’ is best for every property. There are so many options so there is a tendency to want to set up one for every situation e.g. non-refundable, free cancellation, room only, bed & breakfast, weekly discounts, monthly discounts, etc. Try to remember that if you try to set up a rate plan for every option, managing all these rate plans will become much more complicated and you are likely to get confused with what each OTA allows and what you have set up in each different channel.
Think carefully about what you offer and what people coming to your area want, and just choose 2 or 3 different rate plans at most. If you have a lot of last-minute cancellations and don’t receive many last-minute bookings, choosing a stricter rate plan such as 5 days may be the right choice for you. If you are in a high-traffic area where you get many last-minute bookings, a 1-day or even free cancellation policy will give guests more flexibility and increase the likelihood of them booking.
Having multiple different rate plans in different channels can start to get confusing so using a channel manager to manage all of these different rates and different channels will help significantly.
A channel manager is just what the name suggests – a program that allows you to manage all the different channels/OTA’s you are listed on. The way it works is that you connect the channel manager to each OTA and ‘map’ your rooms and rates so they are all in the channel manager. Then you can set your rates and availabilities in the channel manager and it will update all your channels for you.
Traditionally, if you have 5 OTA accounts for example, and you receive a booking from one, you now need to login to all 4 other channels and update your availability so you do not receive an overbooking in that room. You can imagine that if you are receiving a lot of bookings this can take up a lot of your time. On the other hand, if you want to change your rates, you also need to log in to all your OTA accounts and update the rates in each one. If you are connected to a channel manager it will receive all your bookings and update the channel’s availabilities automatically and you can also update your rates in one place.
This is a game-changer for anyone wanting to be listed on more than one channel but not wanting to spend all your time constantly updating each one manually. The chance of mistakes leading to overbookings is significantly reduced and your guests will benefit in the end. Many hoteliers make the mistake of thinking this technology is expensive and just for big chain hotels, but small-medium businesses can benefit just as much, if not more, and there are many options out there that will not break the bank. A little research into the options out there is all it takes.
Slow and steady wins the race:
The world of OTAs may seem overwhelming at first glance, but with a little knowledge and research, it can be managed effectively.
It is tempting to go out and immediately open as many accounts as you can to maximize visibility, but without the knowledge on how to manage all these accounts you will quickly crash and burn and the business will suffer. Start slowly and scale up as you are ready – start with one and take your time to learn it and when you feel like you have a handle on how it works, open another one. Regularly update your photos and information to reflect reality and don’t underestimate the benefits of a channel manager to help manage it all.
There is the opportunity to benefit greatly from these online channels, and with a little knowledge, you can utilize them to your advantage and boost your business’s online presence.
Author: Emma Flynn