In two weeks, the inaugural Direct Booking Summit: Asia-Pacific will open its doors in Singapore. We couldn't wait to hear from our speakers, so we asked them about direct bookings, the APAC hotel industry and what the future holds.

In today's interview, we speak with Aida Merdovic, Director of Online at Hamilton Island. On February 28, Aida will use her keynote speech Managing your rate parity to share how hotels can achieve a significant shift to direct despite intensifying OTA competition and rate undercutting.

Aida Merdovic

Director of Online

Hamilton Island

Triptease: Hamilton Island's multi-channel user-generated content (UGC) strategy has tripled your ROI. How do you make the most out of UGC?

Aida: Identify, Encourage & Amplify. At times, as marketers we are guilty of undervaluing UGC compared to professional brand photography. Arguably, given the right lighting and situation, an amateur Instagram user can capture a more impactful and meaningful shot than a professional photographer. I believe that some moments simply are unable to be staged - and authentic, UGC moments often have strong resonance with followers.

Hamilton Island invests in interaction with our hashtag and identifying advocates to create UGC. Two years ago, we ran a fully integrated campaign that consisted of OOH, print and online advertising which featured images captured by an amateur photographer who happened to be working on the Island. Being based on the Island, this staff member had access to the island at all times – allowing him to capture authentic moments that showed the natural beauty of Hamilton Island.

Generally, once we have obtained permission for the use of UGC we always make sure we get lots of mileage out of it, just as we would with professional photography. We have created a two-fold strategy, which sees UGC and professional photography working in harmony to create maximum engagement with our followers.

Triptease: A few years ago, in an interview with Eye for travel, you've mentioned that Hamilton Island planned to launch a UGC-powered ad campaign. What did you learn from it?

Aida: UGC powered advertising attracts a much higher engagement and click through rate. Due to relevance (current and persona based) – it has become a very quick way to get an effective and efficient campaign to market.

In 2017, Hamilton Island released the ‘One Million Memories’ campaign which was strategically based on UGC. Past guests were more inclined to re-engage with the brand when given the opportunity of 50KB of fame. We ran a competition that provided past visitors with a reason to share their old Hamilton Island stories and images with their followers. We received thousands of quality entries, a proportion of which translated into new direct bookings.

Triptease: Is UCG still your secret for attracting direct business?

Aida: It certainly ranks in the top five ways we attract direct business. Social media is present as a touch point in a large portion of the conversion path. Our social media imagery is now almost entirely powered by UGC.

UGC is one element of our strategy that cannot be replicated by third parties, as it is 100% authentic and demonstrates genuine engagement with our brand.

In saying this, it would be naïve of us to think that in an environment of fierce undercutting, brand engagement is going to trump a discount every time. We always need to look at new opportunities and strategic frameworks to uphold our competitive advantage.

Triptease: What will Hamilton Island's digital strategy focus on in 2019?

Aida: In 2019, we will be looking at targeted discounting, where offers will be based on customer insights and will be persona-driven. We anticipate that this will avoid drastic reduction of our rates and maintain our premium brand positioning.

We are in discussions with Triptease in relation to some exciting conversion optimization possibilities. An additional core aspect of our focus is to utilize our channels in a more one-to-one manner.

Triptease: What will be your biggest challenge this year?

Aida: I suspect controlling undesired distribution will remain a challenge for some time. There are more and more unauthorized online travel sites promoting deals and it is becoming easier for them to source the cheapest wholesale rates via the proliferation of more advanced distribution technologies.

We are actively and continuously working to combat and mitigate the risk this presents to our direct business.

Triptease: What trends do you personally observe in the hospitality industry?

Aida: In the last few years, we have observed a strong interest in loyalty and membership programs. A number of global hotel brands credit much of their direct success to such strategies.

This approach has been adopted by many small hotels that do not have large databases or the same level of repeat visitation of a multi-destination hotel brand. In my opinion, these hotels may be susceptible to the risk of eroding their margin through heavily discounting their product, both directly and through OTA membership programs. This will be a very interesting trend to watch in 2019.

Larger players in the market have also been dabbling in flight and hotel packaging which I predict will become a bigger focus over the coming years with advancements in technology. This is certainly a space we are watching.

Triptease: Hamilton Island has achieved a significant shift to direct online business despite intensifying OTA competition and rate undercutting. What can the attendees of the Direct Booking Summit in Singapore expect to learn from you?

Aida: I’ll be sharing a number of initiatives that we have put in place to attract more prospects, improve our conversion and re-engage more past and current guests with the ultimate outcome of exceeding our direct online KPIs and expectations.

Hotel businesses come in all shapes and sizes, so the specific activity that works for Hamilton Island may not be relevant for everyone. However, I’m hoping that all delegates will be able to take away something from the presentation, even if it is just a possible approach to getting started on a direct journey, prioritising initiatives and selling in the required expenditure.

To hear more from Aida and to meet her in person, join us at the Direct Booking Summit at The Fullerton Hotel in Singapore on February 27-28. Will we see you there?

Register now