Live chat, loyalty and incredible guest experience

"Our number one priority is always customer service."

That's the view of Amy Munoz, AGM at The Whaler's Inn in Mystic, CT. Amy is one of the hundreds of hoteliers who attended our Direct Booking Summit in New York this September, where we brought hoteliers from across the Americas (and beyond!) to talk concerns, strategy and solutions for all things direct.

But it wasn't just the hoteliers doing the learning. By speaking to professionals like Amy, we were given an insider insight into the state of the industry from a hotelier's point of view.

Guest experience, Google rankings and OTA clout

The hotel industry is not a homogenous group. The problems faced by those at the top are a world away by those grappled with by the six-room B&Bs. So, it's no surprise that almost every hotelier we spoke to had something different to say when asked about the main challenge facing their hotel.

For Amy Munoz and her colleague Amanda Arling, GM at The Whaler's Inn, the challenge is ensuring a great guest experience for both their traditional customer base and the younger audience they're starting to attract. "We have a base that is ageing up, and we want to start focusing on younger clients and getting more up to date with technology and marketing," says Amanda. Amy nods. "It's about keeping the same feel for the customers that are returning while looking for a newer, younger clientele as well. We want to keep the older clients who've been coming year after year comfortable and happy with the service and quality, while trying to bridge the best of both worlds (and keep younger guests happy too)," she adds.

Michael Zayas, Corporate Director of Digital and Ecommerce for Real Hospitality Group, focuses on feedback. "I think the main challenge is keeping up with the amount of information that comes in from guests and potential guests," he tells us. "There are so many different ways that a guest can give feedback, or send messages to the hotel, or try to reach out the hotel, that it's no longer a one- or two-person job. It has to be a hotel team focus." Eden House's Elizabeth Ross, on the other hand, told us about her grapples with SEO for her new property, the Princess Anne in Asheville, NC. "Right now we're in the middle of re-doing our website and taking care of keywords, SEO, all that kind of stuff, which has been challenging. A big concern, especially in Asheville with all the new competition, is being highly ranked."

Deborah Hansen of Pike's Waterfront Lodge in Alaska told an all-too-familiar story. "Our OTA fees keep going up, and we feel like we're being bullied by them. We're a small hotel in a third-tier market and we just (feel like) we have no market power. It's been interesting to hear people comment (at the Summit) about how they negotiate with OTAs."

Unsurprisingly, the Direct Booking Summit was a hotbed for ideas about dealing with OTAs and rebalancing that relationship. From cutting them out completely to taking a no-nonsense approach to bidding on keywords, hotels big and small had an opinion on the best way to maximise that all-important direct business. As it turns out, it's not just about the OTAs...

Live chat: conversion machine?

The Summit is an event for hotels of all sizes, so it's not surprising that some people we spoke to had been using live chat for years, while others were only just setting up their website. But hoteliers kept returning to the subject of messaging and its potential for the Direct Booking Movement. The Resort at Pedregal's Jorge Villareal is a proponent of live chat, and its power to convert - but has a word of warning for hoteliers expecting it to be an instant solution.

"The technology is definitely part of the solution (to getting direct bookings). But just having the tool doesn't mean you're effective with it. You might have it, but if you're not engaging with the audience on the other side then you're losing potential clients.

I think people will be clever over the next two years and start to explore live chat. It's an area that hotels need to explore. There's a lot of conversion you can do on a live chat if you're really managing it well. I think, honestly, that hotels need to own that portion of business.

Even though there might be companies that do that for you, they'll never give the level of customised service you need for this audience. No-one knows your product better than your own staff. You need to find out, inside your business, who the right person is to be in that position. But even then it's still just one part of the overall solution."

Other hoteliers expressed a desire to employ live chat, but concern over how they would put it in place. Amanda Arling of The Whaler's Inn told us she would "absolutely consider" live chat on their newly revamped website - but noted the "resistance" that could come with "overwhelming" longstanding staff members with too much technology, too fast. "We've definitely been throwing a lot at (our staff) lately, and they've been champs!" she laughs.

There's life in loyalty yet

Given today's largely price-savvy and brand-agnostic traveller, there have been more than a few rumblings among industry bods that loyalty schemes as we know them could be on their way out. Well, where better to explore such a hypothesis than in a room full of hoteliers?

For Elizabeth Ross, it's about flexibility. "We have both a points scheme and a returning guest discount of 15%," she tells us. "The discount is nominally for regulars who've stayed before, but we're happy to give it to any guest because we'd rather have them book than not! We don't turn people away. And then, when they make a reservation, they enrol in the points programme and start earning points at the hotel. The points eventually add up to a free stay."

Sometimes, she continues, there are unexpected surprises. "We had a guy who had booked through Expedia call to ask for the 15% discount. We told him we couldn't do it as the discount was only for direct bookings. Well, an hour later we saw that he'd cancelled his Expedia reservation and rebooked through our site - and added rewards on. I think people see that, if they're going to be coming a lot or coming for a longer stay, loyalty is worth it."

Around a quarter of Real Hospitality Group's portfolio is made up of independent hotels. We asked Michael Zayas whether loyalty schemes were worth it for this type of property.

"I think the nature of independent hotels is that they do things their own way. Loyalty is absolutely something to consider. I think people who gravitate toward independent properties are more sensitive and aware - more appreciative of the little things. That's where independent hotels can do things differently with loyalty."

Looking for more?

We haven't even scratched the surface of our learnings from the Direct Booking Summit Americas. Over the coming weeks, we'll be releasing videos, full-length interviews and recordings of the most important talks to our subscribers - make sure you're on our mailing list to be first in the know. And, if you're based across the pond, you can experience the real thing!

On the 18th and 19th October, we're bringing the Summit to Barcelona. Check out the full website and agenda for all the details, or go ahead and book your ticket below.

About The Author

Lily is Head of Content at Triptease. When she's not investigating the industry or spreading the word that #DirectIsBest, she enjoys music, cycling, and obscure radio quiz shows.