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Hotel Reservations Over The Internet - A Star Waiting To Be Born
November 5, 2003

9/11, SARS, Bali and the `War on Terror' have left their mark on the region. The gloom is now slowly dispersing and the hospitality industry is emerging from the aftermath. The industry's `wait and watch' attitude is slowly changing to one of cautious optimism. In such circumstances, the focus now shifts to attracting the largest pie of the corporate traveler and the upwardly mobile travelers segments. Closer home, the market is slowly evolving as the competition heats up. Value addition and cost cutting are the operating mantras. In this context, there is one medium which has the potential in helping the hospitality industry to excel in both these areas. The Internet. Across the world, the airline and the hospitality industry swears by this medium.

Just why is everyone raving about the Internet? As an hotelier, if you are unaware of the potential power of the Internet, then you could be missing something important. You should know that the Internet has the ability to deliver your hotel's sales pitch on the customer's desktop wherever he may be, convert the customer there itself and close the sale with the customer's money safe in your bank. Even before the customer steps into your hotel! And if you are already choking over your tea at that, wait till you hear this. You can close this sale at cost of about one quarter of what it would cost you to do this by traditional marketing methods. Impressed? So where's the catch? The catch is in the reluctance of the industry to adopting new methods that are still unproven.

So, can the Internet really make that much of a difference? A good example to consider would be the online effort of the Indian Railways. Remember the last time you wanted to take your family to your home town for the summer vacation and wanted to book long distance train tickets? The arduous journey to the station, the long sweaty wait in never-ending queues and the suspense about whether you could still manage a reservation by the time you reached the window. With Indian Railway's online reservation service (irctc.co.in) starting up, the scene changed dramatically. Indian customers were thrilled that they could just sit at home, check the status of berth availability, reserve the ticket, pay for it online and have it delivered to their doorstep. Some citizens went to the extent of acquiring credit cards just so that they could pay for the rail tickets online.

While nobody can deny that the process of booking a hotel room is not as vexing as booking a rail ticket at the station, nobody can also deny the powerful attraction of a proposition, where the end customer can confirm a room of his choice, in a hotel of his choice, at a fair price along with the assurance that there will be no surprises, or shocks, when he lands up at the hotel. No agents, no middlemen, just the customer and the hotel, direct interaction-one on one.

So how does the hotel gain in all this? First, let's start with Reach. By putting up a part of the hotel's inventory on the Internet and empowering it with the right tools, the hotel will have acquired the power of a new distribution channel that is not limited by geography, political boundaries or cultural and language barriers. It is like having a front desk operating 24 X 7 with the ability to close a reservation and get paid by any customer, anytime, anywhere in the world. In fact, even the hotel's offsite Branch offices and Agents can login to the centralized Reservation system and confirm to customers in their region instantly.

Second, there is the advantage of direct interaction with the customer. When the reservation happens through the hotel's own website, the brand communication to the customer is unbiased and untainted by outside interpretations. Traditional third party selling channels tend to put up the hotel's inventory in `hotel malls' where the hotel's pricing comes under pressure. This could not just undermine the hotel's rack pricing strategy, but also erode the brand identity of the hotel in the long run.

Third, in markets where the corporate customer forms a substantial part of the customer base (like India), the Internet offers a tremendous opportunity to put in a robust CRM programme. For instance, the hotel can empower the corporate customer with a unique Corporate Login IDs with the facility of not just booking a room at special rates, but also making changes to an existing booking itinerary. Such features can go a long way in cementing the relationship with the hotel. The hotel can also implement some innovative promotional schemes. For example, like kicking off a tactical email campaign to market a special package offer to the Management of a corporate client. This could coincide with a significant event in the client company's history - like an annual day or even a simple annual sales conference. The possibilities of exploiting the direct contact nature of the Internet will be limited only by the imagination of the hotel management team who uses the medium.

Fourth, in a highly volatile marketplace, maintaining flexibility in managing your highly perishable online hotel inventory is essential. The hotel should have the ability to put up for immediate online sale any room, in any property, at any rate of its choosing virtually overnight. Only the Internet can allow the hotel to do this in a cost effective manner. To do this, you need a good online sales partner who will allow you to exploit this flexibility.

So what are the dangers of using the Internet to market your hotel? The biggest danger of using the Internet to market your hotel is false expectations. It would be very unwise to get taken in by the hype surrounding the success of the Internet and expect it to be a panacea for all your troubles. Industry figures have indicated that worldwide, booking over the Internet accounted for 10% to 12% of the annual sales last year. This figure is expected to go up to about 18% - 20% in four years or so. So clearly, online sales are not going to replace the traditional channels of sales. However, the cost effective nature of the Internet as a marketing medium definitely makes it an attractive proposition to invest in. In India, this is especially true. The Corporate customer forms a significant chunk of the client base in India. This customer can be rated high in terms of willingness to spend as well as comfort with technology. Using the hotels website to build franchise with this segment would bring in significant dividends in the medium to long term.

Now let's look at some of the guidelines for a healthy strategy to market a hotel on the Internet. A good Internet marketing strategy is the one that builds on the Ps of traditional marketing and applies it to the Internet. The 7P Strategy is a balance of:

Product, Pricing, Place, Promotion, Pace, Partnership & Perseverance.

Product: Define clearly what your brand experience stands for and reinforce it in all aspects of the communication on the Internet. Your hotel website should truthfully reflect your brand experience for what it is - no more, no less.

Pricing: It is cheaper to reach customers over the Internet and to market to them. A judicious policy in rewarding the regular online customers will go a long way in cementing relationships. The temptation to offload excess inventory at discount pricing in third party trade channels for short term gains may be strong. But they do have serious repercussions on not just the rack rates but also on the brand identity in long term.

Another important aspect in managing pricing is optimizing the cash flow. Your online model has to generate funds quickly, efficiently and cheaply. It is a good idea to seek partnership with an efficient payment gateway to ensure that the money flows in smoothly. A good payment gateway is the one that offers your customers multiple payment options and, given the global nature of the hospitality industry, one that offers multiple currency denominations with no hidden currency conversion costs. The fine print to watch out for is the commitment that a payment gateway makes with respect to the payout period and the Transaction Discount Rate (TDR) it levies. The faster the payouts and lower the TDR, the better it is for the hotel.

Place: A smart online distribution strategy is the key to the success of the operation. Deciding how much of the inventory to release online and for how long and at what terms can be very tricky initially. But going by the experience of the global online majors, it is just a matter of time before the hotel's management team gains enough expertise to manage this aspect of the business profitably.

Promotion: Probably the best feature of the Internet is your ability to strike a one-on-one relationship with your end customer. This opens up immense possibilities for you as a marketer. As your database of information on the preferences of regular customers keeps growing, your ability to create customized offers to strengthen your relationship - and your bottom-line - will grow.

Pace: Since the basic hotel product is highly perishable, your ability to push your unutilized inventory at very short notice becomes imperative. Choosing an ideal balance in the placement of your inventory between the direct channel and the indirect third party channels to speed up sales is tricky. In such a situation, if you have invested in developing your hotel's website, and have made it very visible online among your core target customers, then short notice selling of your inventory directly becomes easier.

Partnership: Currently, in India, what most hotels do is put up a website with a reservations page on it. When the customer wishes to book a room, the entire process moves offline and confirmations happen through expensive faxes and telephones. The better hotels do it with email. But the truth is, a reservation is not a reservation until the money is in the bank. Your bank. A mere reservations page on the website is not good enough. You need to provide a payment link on that reservations page so that the sale is closed there and then. To do this you need enable your website to handle eCommerce. And there lies the problem.

It is a fact that the cost of putting up an eCommerce component to your hotel website is heavy. It is an exercise that involves high entry costs, integration of complicated software components and maintenance of huge hardware infrastructure, technical staff and complicated logistics. The smart thing to do is to outsource it and yet, exercise total control. This is where the right partnership can be invaluable. A good multi-lingual Internet Reservation Solution with a multi-currency, multi-payment options payment gateway built-in such as ResAvenue can be make a big difference. The good thing about such a partner is that it hosts the entire operation on its secure servers and manages the back end operations. It empowers you with all the management tools and functionalities you will need to manage your online sales and payments. Such partnerships are also more cost effective for the hotel, since the internet reservations and online payment partner has multiple hotel clients and it can spread the cost of the infrastructure across multiple properties and enjoy the economies of scale. Thus as a hotel, you can start your eCommerce operations at a fraction of the cost of what it would normally cost you to set up a system of your own and with practically no effort.

Perseverance: The Internet as a medium of commerce is just gathering momentum in India. It is important to understand that it will take some time to achieve its full potential. In such a situation, it is natural that the early adopters will gain from the experience and the head start. However, those who wish to enter this arena with short term gains in mind may well be disappointed. Hotels who intend to be long term players must invest in building a strong web presence. They need to work on creating a website that is highly visible to their target customer. They need to invest in the study of customer behavior and to track his methodology of hunting for a hotel room. They need to invest in Search Engine Optimization Campaigns with good partners to maximize their presence on the web. The road is not easy, but the rewards are worth the effort. Success will come to those who persevere.

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