“Direct is best”; “101 ways to avoid paying OTAs”; even “How to Win The OTA War”. We’ve all seen countless taglines and blog posts of this nature. In fact, we’ve written a significant number of them ourselves!

Alas, times have changed.

Hotel booking engines are vitally important. But they’re now secondary.

There, I’ve said it. This should come of little surprise (no matter how hard it might be to read), when you consider the habits of the millennial generation. According to data from Expedia, millennials tend to be less brand loyal than their parents, and appear to be drawn to the simplicity and choice offered by OTAs.

Put simply, they’re far more likely to book a hotel room via an OTA, and that’s important, because they’re the biggest generation in existence.

Yet still large chunks of the hospitality sector stick out their bottom lip, stamp their feet and sulk their way through the OTA relationship, while thinking nothing of buying their airline tickets, hire cars or insurance through the online consolidators.

The story of 2017

It’s not all about the millennial generation. Our own statistics also reflect the habits, needs and wants of the modern day traveller.

During 2017, Welcome Anywhere processed £74m of hotel reservations. Over fifty percent of those bookings came from Booking.com with the number of direct bookings decreasing by almost £2m in value.

These figures may be alarming to some, but to us, they offer a key insight into how the modern hospitality industry - and the guests that fuel it - operates.

Old rhetoric

Hotels that cling to the old rhetoric are effectively saying “we don't want to provide what our prospective guests want”. I find that astonishing; it’s no more out of step with the times than saying “sorry, we don’t take contactless payments”.

And then there’s the whole ‘cost of acquisition’ thing, which is easier to summarise than some might lead many to believe; the OTAs are the de facto cost of acquisition these days. Period.

While the cost of using OTAs is often quoted, the cost of not using them gets little airtime. It’s absolutely possible for a hotel to market its rooms without OTAs, by taking a few small steps. These include:

  • investing in effective digital platforms for e-shots, graphic design and social media output;
  • the purchase of royalty-free images;
  • producing professionally designed leaflets and mailing them out;
  • effective use of a decent CRM system to monitor results;
  • a full SEO campaign and expenditure on Google Adwords;
  • use of a local ad agency; and
  • someone to do all this stuff.

Actually, that’s quite a large list, isn’t it?

OTAs just take a booking and top slice it, right? Well actually, no. Most OTAs also provide extra tools - sometimes chargeable, sometimes not - to help hoteliers. These can include rate intelligence and management modules, yield management and comprehensive reporting. And let’s not forget that the guest gets a booking experience tailored to them thanks to clever use of language support, currency conversion and POIs.

How can hotels seek to obtain loyal customers by seemingly doing everything right with their property (the decor, facilities, F&B operation, friendly team, etc), yet fundamentally be at war with those same customers?

Are hotels at war with their guests?

By turning their noses up at OTAs, some hoteliers are effectively at war with modern guests and their booking preferences. How will that endear guests to those hotels and convert someone from a one-time guest into a regular booker and passionate advocate the hotel’s brand?

Over the years, guests’ expectations have changed and the hotel industry has responded admirably. Tea and coffee making facilities in the rooms? Pah, old hat. Modern comfort cooling? Tick. Mood lighting? In-room phone charging, USB sockets and mirror TVs? Been there, done that. Free wi-fi? Yep. Locally sourced artisan breads and Fairtrade cotton duvet covers? All of these came at a cost to hotels but as hoteliers we provided these services over the years because the guests wanted them.

So, why the outcry over another service which guests want (the ability to book by OTA)?

Some hotel software providers are looking increasingly stale, thanks to their anti-OTA rhetoric, and are either blatantly or inadvertently ignoring the facts.

Us? Well, we’re not cosying up with OTAs or desperately seeking their affections via candlelit dinners - we simply want to provide a platform for hoteliers that enables them to deliver the best guest experience possible.

That experience starts from the moment they book, which is why we have long since walked away from the old rhetoric and started to think positively about the role OTAs play in the modern customer’s booking journey.

Isn’t it time that hotels and PMS vendors buried the hatchet with the OTAs? Sure, providing guests with what they expect costs, but the cost of denial could be far higher.

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When I was an 11-year-old kid in the seventies, we had a book club at school. Every month, we’d be given a pamphlet from the incomprehensibly-named 'Scholastic Book Services' (I thought it must have been the same company my mum bought her corn plasters from) and asked to choose a book for delivery next month. It was a proper treat, as we had to pay real money for them - a fact that always had us eagerly awaiting their arrival.

Some weeks later, the class members and I would sit patiently as the teacher handed out our orders from a box containing not only lovely, shiny books but what looked like a massive bird’s nest of shredded cardboard. The smell of those books will stay with me forever.

The lad Cousins got a book about river monsters and my mate Bass one about Spain. I couldn’t wait for mine to be given to me, because I'd chosen one that was mysteriously called something like Technology of The Future. After school, I rushed home and sat looking at my new purchase with my brother.

How we laughed! There was an artist’s impression of a household robot which, we were told, would do your ironing come 1985 (it looked like an upturned ice cream cone with vacuum cleaner pipes for arms). Clearly, this was ridiculous. A house-cleaning robot? Pull the other one!

Another page revealed a personal jet car, complete with a business-like dad with massive sideburns, strapped in for his early morning commute through the stratosphere to his workplace at Hong Kong Plastics Inc. To my 11-year-old eyes, this looked far more plausible.

The page which had us falling about in hysterics at its ludicrousness, however, was one which alleged that the TV (the big piece of oak furniture which mum polished with Pledge every Sunday) would actually become as slim as a picture frame and hang on the wall at some point in the future.

How we laughed.

And we laughed some more.

TVs on the wall indeed...!

Then, we chucked the book and went out on our Raleigh Choppers to perform skids, just like Barry Sheene.

Fast-forward to now. Some hoteliers scoff at what is said to be coming next, and even at stuff that's already here. Customer profiling via social media feeds directly into the hotel booking system; mood lighting controlled from the hotel’s app; receptionless check-in and smartphone door keys; in-room comfort cooling temperatures set by social media profiles; food and drink preferences known before the guest’s arrival. The list is endless.

And then we have the guest journey, which is unrecognisable from what it once was. Driven by online reviews and a multitude of booking channels, modern guests have full control over the booking process and expect nothing but the best. When they enter the hotel reception, they bring with them preconceptions about the experience they'll have, derived from tech-laden journeys on commercial flights and devices in their pockets that deliver serious computing horsepower.

Hoteliers should ignore these predictions and emerging trends at their peril. I was reminded of this unavoidable fact as I watched TV last night; mine is now two inches thick and hangs above the fireplace.

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I don’t often get angry, do I? Hopefully I don’t, or if I do, I hope I don’t show it.

Sure, I have my moments, like when I flick to another channel during the Simpsons’ advert break, only to find that all of the other stations are on their ad break at the same time. Burning or cutting myself on microwaved ready meals due to stupid packaging design also makes me cross (in my experience, getting into a cottage pie when it is near thermal melt-down should really require a first aider on hand), as does the disappearance of my favourite screwdriver from my garage, only to find it re-appeared some time later.

Generally, though, my grumpiness towards these kinds of things lasts just a few minutes. Seconds, usually.

Folks, I am really mad about something and will be for some time. Today we were contacted by a prospective customer who wanted to move to the Welcome Anywhere platform from her current PMS supplier. The vendor in question is a relatively new entrant to the market with a big media presence.  The lady had evaluated Welcome Anywhere (and a number of other products, to be fair) but decided that she liked us and liked the product.

That's a case of “the best vendor wins”, in my book.

We didn’t win, though. The contract she was tied to with the big hitter was just outrageous, for a product which failed to deliver. Customers will vote with their feet and buy what they feel works for them, and reject what doesn’t. Would you believe that the PMS provider concerned had gotten the B&B owner into a contract which effectively had a three year tie-in with twelve months’ notice, for what is a software as a service ("SaaS") product?

Yes, I am sorry that we were not able to take on this customer, but I'm mortified that some of our competitors s in the industry – below the glossy exterior of their ads -  feel the need to secure their customers not by the quality of their product, but by bully-boy tactics and punitive contracts.

We don’t feel the need to do that, as the Welcome Anywhere range stands up to scrutiny and we know that we don’t need to ensure longevity by tying people down. That premise keeps us on our toes. Customers should be free to make their own PMS choices, with the emphasis on the PMS provider earning the right to service the customer’s business. We don’t have punitive clauses; we don’t need to and we have a rolling one month commitment.

We love our customers and if they don’t love us, we do everything we can to make it right.

Let me be clear: there is no place for these kinds of restrictive contracts in the SaaS PMS world. Glossy competitors - let your product alone do the talking, and the keeping.

Gosh, that was a bit of a rant. Apologies. Now where's my 13mm wrench?

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It’s a small world, isn’t it?

I don’t mean that I know your next-door neighbour or went to school with your aunt - I’m referring to the fact that the world is literally quite small. Or so it appeared to me this week when I left Birmingham and arrived in Amsterdam an hour or so later.

Sure, there were a few obstacles I had to factor in; the Christmas hoards at BHX, out-running the perfumery consultants in the departure lounge and finding somewhere - anywhere - to sit. But, still - it really didn’t take that long at all.

The flight itself was quite enjoyable and I settled into that warm, sleepy fug unique to air travel and which brings on dozy thoughts like “will the plane still fly if it loses one propeller?”. When awake, I amused myself until landing by watching other passengers’ behaviour (and why, may I ask, are some people obsessed with getting up and down every five minutes to rummage through the overhead lockers, mid-flight? Do they do this with their cupboards at home?  I just don’t understand it and never will. I call them ‘locker people’).

[caption id="attachment_14322" align="alignnone" width="669"] Hello, Amsterdam![/caption]

A relatively short transfer followed, tempered only by an unfamiliar ticket machine into which I accidentally fed some litter and the constant need to dodge the myriad of trams and bicycles. But you know what? It was totally worth it, as I was visiting one of our key partners - Booking.com’s BookingSuite.

Following our project which saw Welcome Anywhere become the first UK-based hotel booking system to integrate with BookingSuite, both sides wanted to celebrate the partnership. We use the “p” word a lot here at Welcome, and we make no apologies for it. Partnerships are an essential part of our business and we firmly believe that we are stronger together if we work with strategic partners. The relationship with BookingSuite is an exemplar of that thinking.

Meeting the guys who have helped put this partnership together was incredibly rewarding and it really felt like we’re among friends; nothing quite beats the warmth of the Dutch people, and I was instantly made to feel at home.

[caption id="attachment_14323" align="alignnone" width="1000"] John Jones, Welcome Systems Ltd (left), Bernard Willems, BookingSuite (right)[/caption]

Nuno Sequeira and Bernard Willems showed me proudly around their offices, plied me with tea and when I’d stopped admiring the fabulous vistas, sat me down and went through a fascinating presentation which had clearly been meticulously put together. We talked plans, technology, consumer habits; we discussed next moves in the relationship, further projects and drank more tea. I liked these guys - they clearly shared our values.

Towards the end of the afternoon I had the honour of presenting to all the BookingSuite staff a synopsis of where we see the market, what excites us, and Welcome’s role as a hospitality original. Topped off by a very engaging Q&A session, I realised that we are all going to get on just great.

Returning to Birmingham via trains, thick fog and thwarted in my efforts to leave the plane quickly by a man who took twenty minutes to put his coat on while standing in the aisle (I bet he was a locker person) I dodged the perfumery consultants again, rubbed my eyes and found myself spat out into a sea of arrivals.

For the sake of extending a partnership, would I go on another trip like this? No.

I’d go on a hundred.

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Sometimes I curse myself for being too stubborn, although others may say I am tenacious. To be honest it isn’t clear to me where the distinction between the two begins and ends. All I know is that my Triumph TR7 (yep, they didn’t all rust away) is still being rebuilt after 22 years in my garage and last weekend I removed the engine from my motorbike for the second time this month, in an effort to cure a backfire which didn’t really need curing.

Despite the garage floor now being littered with camshafts, anti-roll bars, nuts, sprockets and bushes, I tell myself that this is all in the pursuit of excellence. To a petrolhead, a car or a bike is never “finished”, it just gets fanatically improved. Sometimes there are backward steps needed to go forward (for example, accidentally dropping a washer into the bowels of the Aprilia engine didn’t do much for its smooth running, so a part-rebuild was required) but generally we push to the point where further improvement isn’t possible. And that point, of course, never occurs, because we always seek further excellence so that people will say “hey, cool car!”.

I was chewing over the above thoughts when an email came in from a Welcome customer. Here’s what he said:

“Firstly some great feedback from our team in regards to the new additions - Group booking is so much easier to put on the system now! You have potentially saved me hours editing different rooms so firstly I'd personally like to thank for that.

"We're really excited that you guys are taking on board feedback from clients like us, and issues such as reliability, slowness and features missing are soon becoming a thing of the past!”

That got me thinking. It appears that online booking systems are rather like the vehicles I dote over. They have to perform to a certain specification in order to satisfy the user. Under the skin they are full of digital cogs, valves and wiring, plus, of course, their development never stops. We try things here, add functionality there, or tweak something behind the scenes all in the spirit of achieving excellence. It doesn’t always go to plan, and sometimes we have to undo something in order to go forward once more. Hearing our customers complement our products gives us a real thrill.

We’re a pretty tenacious bunch here at Welcome, but we’re not stubborn. Our product is all the better for incorporating ideas suggested by our customers, and we’re not afraid to undo something if it isn’t quite right. And with that happy thought radiating within me, I picked up a spanner and started to plan when the bike will be finished, after the engine is back together, exhausts attached, carburettors re-fitted and so on.

That day will, of course, never come.

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