By Max Starkov
Throughout our nearly 15 years of hotel Internet marketing experience, we at HeBS have been consistently concerned about the increasing level of disparity between savvy Internet/Web2.0/Mobile marketers in hospitality and travel, and the Internet/Web2.0/Mobile Marketing-inept players in the industry. In recent years, with the advent of social media, Web 2.0 technologies and the mobile Web, this disparity has accelerated dramatically.
On one side there are the extremely Web-savvy:
- OTAs (Online Travel Agencies like Expedia, Travelocity, etc)
- Most major hotel brands’ e-Commerce departments
- Some e-Commerce departments at smaller and mid-size hotel and resort chains
- Some very bright individuals at marketing departments of full service hotels, resorts and casinos
On the other side there is everybody else, which unfortunately means the majority of hospitality executives and sales and marketing professionals.
HeBS defines “Web Marketing Ineptitude” as the lack of hands-on experience in Internet marketing and all of its formats: website re-designs, SEO optimizations, search marketing, email marketing, strategic linking, banner advertising and online sponsorships, social media and Web 2.0 and more recently, mobile marketing. In addition, this ineptitude is also a lack of understanding of best practices and latest trends in the direct online channel.
During the infancy days of Internet marketing back in the 1990s, it was “normal” that only a few hospitality and travel marketers were proficient in the online channel. Less than 3% of travel reservations in the U.S. were booked online back in 1999.
In the 2000s, and especially in 2001, when Internet usage exploded and online travel bookings reached 5.4% of all travel reservations in the country ($23 billion in 2001 – Andersen LLP/Accenture), hospitality marketers and the major hotel brands began to pay closer attention to the Internet channel. Over the following years, Internet travel adoption increased dramatically, and in 2009 alone over 55% of all travel reservations in the U.S. will be online (45% of all hotel reservations) to the tune of a staggering $116.1 billion (eMarketer).
Yet, to our dismay, over the past 15 years the level of Internet marketing expertise in the hospitality industry has not kept up with this remarkable growth. On the contrary, we are witnessing whole new generations of hospitality executives and marketing professionals that are unfamiliar with Internet marketing in general as well as best practices and trends in the Direct Online Channel.
This problem has been exacerbated by a) the social media and Web 2.0 phenomena, and b) mobile marketing. Both of these new marketing and distribution channels introduced an entirely new level of complexity and skill set requirements, as well as new best practices and trends.
- Social Media have changed how customers plan and purchase travel, how customers access information, and the way customers perceive the credibility of information. How can hoteliers create/monitor/take advantage of the social media “chatter” around the hotel, target receptive audiences, and ultimately stimulate hotel website visits, interactions and bookings? What type of Web 2.0 and interactive features and functionality do you need on the hotel website?
- Mobile Web is expected to surpass the traditional Web within the next 5 years. The promise of “immediate, anywhere and anytime” Internet access, instant information and transaction capabilities, location-based services and personalization are some of the key factors for the “explosion” of the mobile Web. Hotel guests-past, current and potential-are increasingly becoming mobile-ready and hoteliers have to respond adequately to this growing demand for mobile services. This is the reason why hoteliers and travel marketers need to have robust mobile Web initiatives in place, including mobile brand websites, mobile apps, m-CRM and mobile marketing.
Why is there a Growing Web Marketing Ineptitude in the Industry?
There are many reasons for this “Web Marketing Ineptitude” among the ranks, but here are some of the most important:
- Many major brands control all Internet marketing initiatives at the corporate level , including property-level initiatives, thus depriving staff at the property from any meaningful experience in Internet marketing.
- Since 2004, some major brands have created field marketing teams (Starwood, and more recently Marriott) that take over the property-level online initiatives. The problem with this type of inner-brand outsourcing is that the property is being “kept in the dark” and the property staff does not gain precious Internet marketing expertise in the process.
- Some brands do not allow, or in some cases proactively discourage, any franchisee-level Internet marketing initiatives: from having a property vanity website to email marketing and social media at the franchisee level.
Hotel Management Companies and Small-to-Midsize Hotel/Resort Chains:
- Many HMCs with franchised properties in their portfolios trust that the hotel brands are doing “everything possible” on the Internet and do not realize there are so many local Internet revenue opportunities.
- Back in 2008, HeBS published the research article “Local Internet Marketing Strategies for Franchised Hotels,” which presented a compelling case about the need for franchisees to launch a robust Local Internet Marketing Strategy that would help them weather the economic storm and complement their traditional revenue sources and brand contributions.
- We have seen a trend among HMCs and small/midsize chains to establish small but vital e-Commerce Depts. In many cases these companies outsource whatever online marketing they do to outside vendors. Here again, when outsourcing, HMCs make a crucial mistake by not demanding professional development to be part of the Internet marketing vendor’s responsibilities. This results in Internet marketing expertise not being disseminated to the properties in the process.
Independent Hotels and Resorts:
- Apart from the e-Commerce departments of the major hotel brands, smaller hotel chains and HMCs, the biggest concentration of Internet marketing knowledge is at this level.
- Many big full-service hotels and resorts have some form of Internet expertise in house. We are working with a number of excellent Internet marketing experts at the property and HMC levels. However, due to staff turnover and constantly decreasing budgets, these properties tend to have a very spotty Internet expertise retention rate.
- Smaller hotels and resorts are most vulnerable due to limited budgets and difficulties with hiring and retaining employees with expert knowledge.
Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) and CVBs:
- In this space one can witness some of the brightest Internet marketing stars and some of the most inept marketers.
- In many cases among DMOs and CVBs, ignoring Internet marketing best practices is not even a matter of budget size, but a result of inertia and commitment to traditional advertising formats.
- The government or quasi -government nature of CVBs and tourism offices does not help with the hiring and retention of Internet expertise.
So what is the verdict?
HeBS believes there are different levels of Web Marketing Ineptitude in the industry regarding three important marketing media: Traditional Web, Social Media/Web 2.0 and Mobile Web. Here are our estimates of the ineptitude rates in each of these media:
Internet Marketing/Traditional Web
- Nearly 15 years of existence of the traditional Web
- Internet Marketing Ineptitude Rate in Hospitality: 65%
Web 2.0/Social Media Marketing
- Nearly 5 years of existence of social media
- Web 2.0/Social Media Marketing Ineptitude Rate in Hospitality: 90%
Mobile Marketing/Mobile Web
- Nearly 10 years of existence of Mobile Web (with the introduction of NTT DoCoMo’s i-mode in Japan back in 1999). In reality, the Mobile Web in the U.S. exploded with the introduction of the first iPhone in June 2007.
- Mobile Marketing Ineptitude Rate in Hospitality: 97%
How is HeBS Helping the Industry to Overcome Web Marketing Ineptitude?
We at HeBS are sincerely troubled by the growing level of disparity between savvy Web marketers and Web Marketing-inept players in the hospitality industry.
We take the professional development of our clients and the industry in general very seriously. HeBS’ experts are recognized “thought leaders” in Internet strategies for the hospitality and travel verticals. In the course of nearly 15 years we have pioneered many of the “best practices” in hotel Internet marketing and direct online distribution.
Here are only a few of HeBS’ professional development initiatives to educate the hospitality industry:
- HeBS’ principals are frequent guest speakers and presenters at industry events, industry association events, major brand conferences and annual GM meetings, hospitality marketing conferences, university-sponsored associations, and government and state-sponsored tourism events.
- HeBS conducts an annual “Benchmark Survey on Hotel Internet Marketing Budget Planning and Best Practices in Hospitality.” The purpose of the survey is to assess hoteliers’ Internet marketing priorities and strategies and to provide the industry with insights on how Internet marketing strategies for the hospitality industry are developing.
- Every January HeBS publishes the “Hotelier’s Top Ten Internet Marketing Resolutions,” identifying the most important Web marketing initiatives and trends for the upcoming year.
- Every year HeBS publishes 10-12 groundbreaking research and blog articles, focusing on latest trends, best practices and concrete case studies. Here are only a few of the articles we have published in 2009:
- The HeBS Blog is one of the most popular Internet marketing blogs in the industry, featuring the latest industry research, case studies and Web marketing trends.
- HeBS maintains an “Internet Marketing Strategies” discussion forum within the hospitality industry’s leading professional community www.WIWIH.com, which has become one of the most popular discussion forums in the industry.
- Since 2001, HeBS has published its monthly “HeBS eBusiness Report” with latest articles, research and case studies that goes out to more than 4,000 hospitality professionals.
- HeBS maintains a Twitter profile to alert its many followers of new research, articles, case studies, etc.
- Professional development is at the core of HeBS’ client services. We operate in a “full transparency mode” with our clients:
- We utilize Omniture Analytics for each of our clients. We train each client how to use this cutting-edge website analytics and campaign tracking technology and provide them with 24/7 access to their account. HeBS’ clients can see for themselves which Internet initiatives work, which do not and what the ROI is from every single initiative.
- Every month we send our clients a professional development article on the latest trends, case studies and best practices.
- HeBS often conducts for its clients Direct Online Channel Latest Trends seminars and workshops, educating both corporate and property level staff of the latest trends, best practices and case studies.
As a result of HeBS’ pro-active professional development efforts, within the first 12 months of HeBS’ engagement, our hotel clients get what amounts to a full year of graduate school in Internet marketing education.
Hoteliers should strive to gain a crystal-clear understanding of what the best practices and latest trends are in hospitality Internet marketing: what works, what doesn’t, and why. Hoteliers should recognize that they do not have all the answers in-house and that there are thought leaders and other proven industry experts who can help them and their property stay competitive in these economic times, to preserve and increase market share, and generate the highest website revenues and ROIs.
Hoteliers should take a hard look at how Best Industry Practices are being utilized by their corporate offices or major brands, as well as by the hotel’s Internet marketing vendors. After almost 15 years since the first online hotel booking, best practices have been established in practically every aspect of hotel Internet marketing. Hoteliers should not allow their Internet marketing vendors to “learn the business on the hotel’s dime.”
The prospect of professional development should become the main criterion when choosing an Internet marketing vendor. Hoteliers should hire experts who are able and willing to teach the hotel and staff best practices and keep the hotel appraised of the latest Direct Online Channel trends. Hoteliers should work only with Internet marketing experts who can help them acquire new core competencies and adopt best industry practices in the Direct Online Channel. They should provide crucial professional development as well as guide the hotel’s direct Internet marketing strategies, online brand building strategies, e-CRM, website re-design and SEO optimization, search and email marketing, social media and mobile marketing initiatives.