This past year, the discussion of booking engines on DMO sites came up very often in conferences and webinars: Should we have one? Does it really work?
In order to answer this question, many turn to studies on consumer behavior claiming that “very few consumers actually book on DMO websites.” But does that mean we should abandon having consumers book on DMO sites?
I’m sure that in 1997, studies showed that most customers rented their movies at Blockbuster. I’m also sure that in 2001, studies showed that most people listened to music on a Discman. Nevertheless, Netflix and Apple were able to successfully change consumer behavior by providing them with a benefit for doing so. And as an industry, we can too.
Challenges of Our Current State
- Stiff Competition. Capturing online bookings is a very serious and competitive business, and Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) have deep pockets – huge financial, technological, and human resources dedicated to increasing online bookings, resulting in a far superior booking experience for the consumer than a DMO website.
- Similar Goods. Likewise, the products being offered through DMO booking engines are usually the same or inferior to what is being offered elsewhere, so it is no secret why consumers have been taught that a DMO site is not where to book hotels and attractions.
- Passive Approach. DMOs look at the booking engine on their site as an add-on: a tool that is needed in case a visitor to the website wants to book. Most DMOs attract an audience at the top of the sales funnel and haven’t mastered re-targeting methods to bring those people back when they are in the booking phase of the purchase cycle.
Our Industry Opportunity
To me, the OTAs are like the Wal-Mart of travel. They are appealing to the mass market and sell everything. But some people don’t like shopping at Wal-Mart. They already know that they want a specific type of product, and prefer to shop at specialty stores. So what’s our specialty?
The latest inventions in online travel do not create any new product for the consumer, they have just invented new ways of searching through existing product. Booking travel online has become an endless maze sending the consumer running in circles and arriving at the same results. Studies show that consumers check up to 22 sites on average prior to booking their travel. Since there are really only three major OTAs now (Expedia, Priceline and Orbitz), this statistic suggests that consumers are willing to check sites that are not as well-known as the major OTAs in hope of finding a good deal or something unique.
So let’s think of ourselves as the ultimate local experts, capturing a very specific audience that’s looking for something more when they book through us, because we have the greatest opportunity to involve our partners within each destination to create unique products for sale. DMOs have invested a lot of money and time building strong, recognizable and credible brands that in many cases do resonate with consumers. I believe this brand equity is strong enough to attract bookings with the right tools and strategy.
A Call to Action
First, everyone has to recognize and agree that achieving this goal is worthwhile. Within the DMO industry, I can’t imagine a better way to make DMOs more relevant, and more essential to the livelihood of their partners.
- Education. Hotels have been mired in the complex world of online selling long enough and are now focused on attracting consumers to their own websites. But consumers will always need a place to shop and compare options, which has cemented the big three OTAs’ position. However, DMOs can collectively provide an alternative, hyper-local shopping experience rather than simple rate and availability comparisons, and it’s our job to convince our community of the value of doing this.
- Teamwork. As a DMO, you have the unique advantage of having all of your partners working closely with you, and the opportunity to have them working with each other to formulate packages that truly showcase your destination.
- Perseverance. The magic formula is simple, but the execution will take time. Attract the right audience to the DMO site, offer them a superior search and booking experience, and give them access to unique products that cannot be found elsewhere.
The End Game
Regardless of which solution provider DMOs work with, together we can slowly educate the consumer that they should not book their travel without first checking the DMO’s website. The potential for an effective booking engine strategy aligns with what DMOs seek to accomplish in the first place when serving their communities:
- Show an undeniable, empirical economic impact on hotels and attractions in each destination.
- Provide DMOs a way to track and measure the ROI on marketing efforts.
- Access consumer data to improve the research experience and visits of future travelers.
While driving bookings would bring DMOs the glory, with it comes an increased level of accountability. When bookings are strong everyone will be cheering and when bookings are weak the phones will be ringing to ask why. It takes courage to take on this challenge, but achieving this goal would be a positive change for the DMO industry, the partners they serve and consumers.
Ashwin Kamlani is President and Founder of Regatta Travel Solutions, a company dedicated to helping hotels and destination marketing organizations use the internet to increase direct sales. Their model increases the profitability of hotels, gives consumers more variety and flexibility when booking hotels, attractions and packages, and gives DMOs the data they need to measure ROI and produce results.