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10 Tactics to Drive Direct Bookings and Take Power Back from OTAs

by | Mar 1, 2022 | Guides, Hospitality & Vacation Rentals

Introduction

It’s evident that vacation rental managers globally wish to have autonomy to manage their guests’ boosting experiences and want independence from relinquishing control of their data to OTAs like Airbnb and Vrbo. Nowadays there is an abundance of content written and recorded on the topic; it’s even taking over trade show speaker sessions and spawned a full-on conference.

If you’re a vacation rental manager, there’s one thing OTA’s all have in common – your data. They treat your guests as their own customers. As a result, they’re blocking you from controlling the full guest experience, thus making it difficult to create the loyalty and advocacy that helps businesses thrive. 

Now that’s not to say these online travel agencies aren’t an incredible tool and channel to use in the right ways. But for VRMs who want more direct bookings – and for those who are trying to build a longer-term customer database and enjoy the corollary independence – we need to strike a balance.

The aim of this guide is to provide you a clear, no-fluff breakdown of methods you can use to take back (at least some of) the power from OTAs and focus on driving more direct bookings. Download the full guide here.

Overview: Costs, Benefits, and The Big Decision

OTA’s are a powerful channel for VRMs; their convenience can’t be denied. Plus they provide major benefits to the population of travelers at large. If you prefer to lean heavily on Airbnb and Vrbo to book your properties, you’re not alone! 

Core benefits of using an OTA:
  • → They take care of the whole customer acquisition process: compiling leads and generating bookings. 
  • → They can reach a wider audience because they aggregate from so many property managers. You may likely gain guests that otherwise wouldn’t have found you.
  • → The familiarity of their major brands also creates comfort and assurances for guests who want to spend less time researching.
  • → They also help take care of some front-end and back-end pieces, such as website maintenance, insurance, payments, etc…
  • → Your costs are generally performance based, meaning you only pay when you get bookings.
The major costs we have to deal with:
  • → The fees! These can be up to 30% of the total booking fees paid by guests.
  • → They own and control the data about your guests and bookings for your entire revenue funnel.
  • → They control the booking experience for the guest, instead of you. 
  • → Your properties get commoditized as they are grouped together with every other listing in their standard layout. 
  • → Using OTAs creates a dependency on their services to operate your business. This creates a centralized risk point. If you have a dream of long-term independence – this dependency pulls you further away from that idea.

In casinos we say that “the house always wins”. In the digital world, the aggregators of information and content tend to behave the same. Google’s search engine; Youtube’s videos; Facebook for your friends’ photos; Airbnb for vacation rentals; Amazon for goods. The bottom line is “the house” comes out on top whether via ads or fees. 

While we may provide the content – or properties – these aggregators control the audience. 

However, it’s important to recognize there are no quick fixes to take back this power and drive direct bookings. In order to be successful, your short-term rental business must decide to commit to this initiative and be ready to invest the time to see it through. Once the decision is made, your team can begin planning your strategy and executing various tactics.

Your big decision is: Do you want to commit to a focus on direct bookings and data control to gain long term independence?

10 Tactics to Drive Direct Bookings and Take Power Back from OTAs

Below we provide some major areas to invest in and list some specifics so you can get the ball rolling. Use this list as a guide to refer back to as needed.

(1) Put brand identifiers and clues on your OTA listings. Remember the “Billboard Effect”.

Get Creative! Any brand-identifying, educational, or “nudging” information can help urge guests to find you directly. 

  • If you’re able to add your company name and direct link to the associated website listing, that’s a no brainer! But some OTA’s won’t allow it. Instead you can subtly brand every photo with your logo in the corner.
  • Create a unique, memorable Title for each property, so it’s easy to search later. Use that title across every channel, and list it several times on your website’s listing to improve SEO. (Keep in mind the “Billboard Effect”: How easily can someone find your site based on that initial interaction?)
  • Use the same exact language and theme across all OTA listings and your website to simplify the process of identifying the same property for guests that want to compare costs. Include a property ID number as well for more savvy travelers. 
  • Include supplemental “photos”, such as an image that describes your brand’s standards and establishes a commitment to a high quality guest experience – mentioning that direct booking makes them eligible for cost savings and other benefits. You can also include an image of a welcome card on the table, hinting a dive deeper into your brand.

(2) Provide an excellent, differentiated, and special experience for all of your guests when they stay!

You’re already doing this one, we know, but this is where you give guests a reason to want to book with you directly again and again! Make them feel like your company is special – enough to return and to tell their friends about you. 

  • Use all best practices that you’re already an expert in for cleanliness, design, support, and logistics. Give your guest a smooth and stress-free experience.
  • Provide personalized welcome items when guests arrive in whatever ways you can. Add gestures that are low cost but where the small touch goes a long way.
  • Everything else hinges on this. Go the extra mile for your guests! 

(3) Take advantage of every marketing channel. Create interactions with your brand across the entire customer journey.

Every stage of the customer journey adds value – from top to bottom. Analyze each tactic and reinvest where you find value. Put effort on higher-funnel awareness, as it sets you up for an easier time converting at the low-funnel stages. 

  • It’s an obvious choice to reinvest in the channels that directly lead to bookings and revenue. However, other channels are worth analyzing to discover different types of impact. For example, some marketing campaigns might drive more content subscriptions or account-creations (but not bookings). Investing in those campaigns can help you to fill up your lead database. Now you have new leverage to use those lead email addresses for direct contact.
  • Engagement rates are good leading indicators – not only conversions, but even clicks, time spent on pages, or other metrics. Direct bookings often rely on brand recognition, so don’t be afraid to test out “branding” campaigns that are a longer-term investment. 
  • Create touch-points across every part of the funnel. Meet customers where they’re at: social media, podcast promotions, search, Youtube, direct mail, etc. Measure and analyze what works, and re-invest. Facebook tends to work very well for eCommerce, and Instagram has been growing as well – both are worth testing with some of your budget.
  • Once a prospective guest has engaged, follow up! Email them if you have their email address. Use remarketing via site display or social media to get your beautiful properties in front of them again. Ask for a cell phone number and follow up with timely follow up and promotions via SMS.
  • While digital marketing is always necessary nowadays, you should also employ real humans to pick up the phone, use website live chat, or text to answer questions and close more bookings. These are powerful ways to differentiate and connect with a personal touch.

I suppose we have to mention these two as well:

  • SEO optimization! We say: win where you can, but it’s hard to compete against the giants for some search terms. Play to your strengths.
  • Branded Search Campaigns! Bid on your company’s brand name through Google Ads so you always show up first when people search for you. But if Airbnb is also bidding on your company name, don’t over-spend! Invest intelligently.

(4) Get more out of your website – use it creatively for data, leads, and positive experiences

Your website is an immensely powerful asset; used correctly it can be a powerhouse to support many of your long term goals. Introduce creative ways to grab attention, capture contact information, and personalize the guest journey. Don’t waste any of your hard-earned web traffic!

  • Capture email addresses in as many ways as possible using forms and sign-ups: Subscribe to Newsletter. Account Creation. Save properties for later. Polls and Quizzes. Creative lead generation content. You can also use tools to launch timed opt-in forms and exit intent forms to grow subscribers – such as OptinMonster or ConvertBox. Do everything you can to turn an anonymous site visitor into at least an email address.
  • Add banners and call-outs that explain the benefits of booking direct: loyalty programs, exclusive deals, discounts, and more. Include educational material to teach prospective guests that they have an option to book directly. Some VR managers use very blunt and direct messaging on their website to explain why booking direct is win-win for everyone.
  • Personalize the experience to each visitor – no matter if they’ve booked in the past, are a 2nd time website visitor, or are completely anonymous. Use technology to provide customized landing pages, drop-down banners, and property recommendations for each individual person. Utilize machine learning software like Jarvis ML to dynamically update the website experience based on real-time behavioral and contextual data while each person interacts with your website.
  • Leverage your inherent strengths by sharing your expertise on fun activities in your local markets that provide SEO-focused content, earning organic traffic from travelers looking for “best surfing spots” or “things to do while camping”. When competing with the giants, it may be easier to win first page organic ranking on this type of content versus on high-intent search terms.
  • Look for ways to optimize your listing sorting algorithms, display the right recommendations, put your policies in the appropriate locations, and create “urgency pricing” using strikethrough or discounts. These optimization techniques can keep guests on your site and speed up their ability to find what they want.

(5) Incentivize direct bookings by giving your guests extras and bonuses

Layer on inexpensive but special bonuses and experiences for customers who choose to book directly on your website. Give them another reason to skip the big OTAs and come directly to you.

  • Educate your guests about the benefits of booking from your website directly and building a relationship with your brand. This could be through discounts, add-ons, welcome gift packages, or even the ability for them to request a free shuttle service. Add this information to your website in key locations.
  • Offer a “lowest price guarantee” on future bookings when guests come back to you directly.
  • Build a loyalty program that gives guests more reasons to want to stay with you (and come back for round 2). Loyal guests should be treated like royal guests. You can provide discounts for referrals as well to turn their loyalty into advocacy and even more direct bookings.
  • Be transparent that booking directly saves money in both your and the guests’ pockets. You pass along your savings to the guest. Highlight that the savings could further elevate vacation experience. Honesty from brands is becoming more valuable amidst a sea of deceptive marketing 
  • You can also provide different welcome packages for direct vs OTA travelers: OTA sourced guests could receive a coupon for direct booking next time if they fill a quick questionnaire with their email address. Direct bookers might get a fun welcome gift, such as fruit or candy basket, fridge full of beverages, bottle of wine, or something for the kids.

(6) Focus heavily on prospects you already know: previous guests and existing leads

This is a critical mechanism to boost direct bookings dramatically. Ultimately, the long term strategy of boosting direct bookings is owning and controlling your guests’ data – and thus, their experience. By following up with travelers that you know, you can generate revenue repeatedly: with lower acquisition costs and fees, and while maintaining your brand’s unique experience.

  • Repeat bookings are the best bookings. They are the lowest cost customers and will promote your business by word-of-mouth. Keep them happy by engaging them appropriately.
  • Email, email, email. This is at the core of engaging your known audience. Whether it’s a “Welcome Sequence”, “Abandoned Browse ” or “Abandoned Booking” campaigns, email marketing promotions help drive leads down the funnel. Once you have a lead’s email address, treat it like gold and provide well crafted and personalized follow up campaigns. Email should also be used to drive previous guests to re-book, such as through “Seasonal Promotions”, personalized offers such as a birthday coupon, or one-off campaigns.
  • Texting through SMS is also a newer way to engage. Gather the phone number on a web form and use it to give prospective guests a highly engaging method of answering questions and engaging with your brand again on the same day. Build a relationship with those who have offered their valuable information.
  • In every interaction with your known leads and guests, use personalization in the messaging, content, offers, and recommendations. It may be a bit more difficult to segment and personalize ads and other external marketing channels, but your emails, texts, and even website flow should be highly personalized based on each individual person. 
  • A known person in your CRM should have plenty of data to use for customization. Use machine learning automation to identify the unique attributes of each individual customer to individualize their experience. In the worst case – without much data – you should segment your audiences into similar groups based on anything you do know about them. 
  • Your database of known leads and previous guests have a lot of data to use for this type of optimization-through-personalization. We’ve heard cases where VRM’s targeted previous leads who had indicated their reason for not booking was due to high cost. By reaching out at times of low demand, they were able to drive meaningful conversions from the price sensitive travelers. The more data you collect, the better you can target in personal ways.

Once you get a booking from Airbnb, what are you doing to turn it into a loyal repeat guest? 

(7) Capture as much data as possible. Deploy it to connect with your guests

More data empowers you to serve your existing leads and customers better. Guests prefer personalized experiences, which re-engage them to book directly with you. But more data also helps optimize for anonymous prospective guests on your website.

  • Collect more data! Wherever you can, gather as much information from your prospective guests as possible. Personalized experiences convert better, and you can only personalize when you have quality information.
  • Your website is the primary place to capture contact information: using web-forms, polls, quizzes, pop-ups, account-creation, booking flow, etc. Get creative. 
  • Web analytics tools like Google Analytics capture a lot of valuable information automatically from each site visitor, such as: website referrer, campaign sources, device type, location, page-views, time-on-site, custom conversion events, etc. Very, very useful.
  • Always use UTM parameters when linking back to your website for ads or paid channels. This ensures you track which campaigns, content, and keywords that person engaged with before your website.
  • You can track what campaigns customers saw before calling-in by using dynamic toll-free (800) phone numbers. Not only does this work for source attribution, but tells you something interesting about the guest.
  • If you employ a sales team, set them up with scripts of customized questions they should ask in a friendly way to learn more about prospective guests. Gather nuanced and specialized information – the more specific you can get, the better you can target and personalize with relevance, segmentation, and messaging. 
  • While plenty of other mechanisms can be put in place to capture more data online, there are also offline methods to capture data from the guests while staying in your properties. Tablets (e.g., YourWelcome) to keep in each home that guests can interact with – or Wifi Routers (e.g., StayFi) that require a sign-in – are two examples which create data you can use to better personalize the customer experience for the next booking. You can even provide a QR Code to an online questionnaire to capture information.

Data is core

You may be noticing: data is core to many of these direct booking tactics. Why? Well simply put, when you know something about your customers, you no longer have to treat them generically. You can create a relationship and experience that drives better conversions.

  • → By knowing what campaign they came from, you have a second chance to follow up if they didn’t convert. 
  • → If you have their amenity preferences from filtering on your site, you can email them property recommendations that will catch their eye. 
  • → If a cohort of past travelers hailing from the Pacific Northwest tend to book at certain times of year, you can target them with the right message at the right time to capture their interest.
  • → Machine learning will ingest and process huge data sets and surface insights and paths to revenue that a human analyst may not have thought of. The more data, the more fuel for the intelligence engine! 
  • → Just imagine what type of optimization you’d be able to cook up if you owned all of the searching, filtering, and source data that Airbnb and Vrbo currently have on your guests.

(8) Evaluate your tech stack. Using the right tools for the right jobs

All the data in the world won’t do any good if it’s not put into action. Ensure you have the tools in place to both collect the data you need as well as put it to work to drive more conversions on your website. 

  • Assess your technology stack. You likely have the basic tools managing properties, channels, CRM, marketing campaigns, emails, web analytics, etc. It’s recommended to have a data aggregation tool as well to bring everything together and visualize all of the data.
  • Integrating your data systems (PMS, CRM, Google Analytics, Emailing Service, etc) allows you to identify granular cohorts of demand, determine relationships and probabilities between guest traits and revenues, and put those insights into action. When OTAs own your guest data, you have no way of using it to grow your business. So take every opportunity to utilize data when you have it.
  • Collecting the personalized data is important, but you need a way to deploy those learnings. This can be done manually via regular analysis and manually making changes, or automatically through software.
  • To drive more direct bookings, use a high leverage technology like an intelligence engine to generate personalized recommendations and experiences for your website and marketing campaigns.  A machine learning platform like Jarvis ML can adapt email, SMS, website, and other experiences according to each guest’s history, behavior, preferences, and more. Investing in optimization technology like this ensures you aren’t wasting any of that valuable traffic that hits your website or gives you their email. Treat every anonymous visitor, lead, and guest like gold!

(9) Design, test, and adopt creative ways to drive net new traffic to your website. Then iterate!

This is the ongoing effort of getting more demand into your funnel. Employ tried and true marketing, testing, and iterating.

  • Build content on your website that will capture organic demand… for certain activities, travel tips, hobbies, property information, and other relevant subject matter for your brand. Optimize with SEO techniques and post regularly to stay relevant – making your pages show up higher on search engine results.
  • Buy ads on social media, Youtube, search engines, and other platforms to test what channels work, what sources work, and what messaging works. Images and graphics are important, but so is the wording. In fact, GIFs have been found to be 20% more memorable than images. Facebook and Instagram are also both powerful drivers of traffic. A/B test to take what works and use it again.
  • Talk to your peers, figure out what is working for others in similar locations or with related demographics. Do research within your own website – for example, which areas on your website does Google Analytics say are the hottest and most relevant this month. Use those topics to launch new campaigns and create interest. You can even capitalize on viral trends and topics if you can find a meaningful match.
  • This is a creative process but it is also analytical. Make sure you have the right people and tools in place to test, iterate, and improve.
  • Partner with local businesses for discounts on experiences, tours, or anything that will be fun for your guests. 

(10) Bonus! Find additional audience groups that you can use to fill your properties

Do some research and build some relationships to create new demand. Find a group of people that you can market to more directly and build a repeatable booking channel. 

  • One example of this bonus method is building a relationship with a corporation to house their employees for business trips or sponsored travel. Once you’ve established a relationship, you can rely on a main point-of-contact (in Human Resources or Mobility departments) to find new travelers to book direct over and over for any company needs. 
  • Another option for some markets could be contractors who come into town for 3-4 days at a time for projects. They may need accommodation mid-week when you tend to have some availability. If you understand what projects may be going on in your locations where housing is necessary, you can figure out Google search terms or contact people to help house those people. 
  • A few other ideas of audiences to target for direct booking could be: Travelers who are visiting a city for legal proceedings or specialized medical services. Couples who are going through divorce or other domestic challenges. Events around university campuses, such as graduation, parents weekends, or sporting events. 
  • Related, you can systematically search Google for the top keywords that indicate demand for your properties and write out every website that shows up on the first results page. Then you’ll be able to easily find any sites that might be good places to get promoted or listed for new demand. 

Concluding Thoughts

At the end of the day, you and your team will have to commit to the process of taking back the power from OTAs to drive direct bookings. It starts with optimizing your OTA listings, your website, and your campaigns to bolster all the important areas in your marketing funnel. 

The whole process is fueled by more and more control of your data, which allows you to connect more and more with your guests. The process takes meaningful analysis, creativity, and a team of great people working together. 

We recommend that you keep using OTAs as a channel wherever you think it’s the most valuable for your business over the longer-term, but don’t be afraid to invest more in your own marketing, data, technology, and booking flows. These are your guests. They are interacting with your business and brand. Give them the personalized experience they’re looking for. You can take control of your own destiny.

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