You already know Bookalet from the many times that this excellent booking manager has appeared on Boostly. It’s among the most popular software of its type in the hospitality industry and I’m a proud supporter. I’m also very happy to report that I’ve had a chance to talk to Bookalet founder Ross Hugo about his amazing software and how to boost direct bookings. He’s a great guy who I really enjoyed talking to, and he really gave some great tips on success in the hospitality industry. In case you’re not familiar with Bookalet, it’s an amazing booking manager with an even better mission. The description from their own web site sums up why they’re leaders in the industry:
“bookalet has been developed by people who understand the holiday home lettings business. We have worked in the industry, we have our own holiday homes and we are experienced in developing online systems to help promote and manage bookings.”
Where Ross Gets Ideas
Mark: Where do your ideas come from?
Ross: I was running a holiday rentals portal called holidaylets.net, which we sold to Homelidays a good
while back now. This was during the period that HomeAway were going around buying up all the established players around the world. At the time, all these portals were just sending out booking enquiries to the owners via email. Providing a means for owners and agents to take online bookings just seemed like the logical way forward. I also needed something else to do!
Mark: What were you doing before Bookalet?
Ross: I started a web development company back in 1996. We were the first agency in town, and as well as doing general web development, we ended up specialising in the property sector. We started an online estate agency in 1999. As a result, we attracted the attention of a large estate agency chain who commissioned us to build a platform for them. This duly turned into RightMove and we ended up looking after the site for the first few years of its life. Eventually, they took the development in-house. Realising we missed a huge opportunity by not having an equity stake, we decided the next venture would be 100% ours. Hence HolidayLets, which is now a HomeAway property, was born.
New Issues for Hospitality Owners
Mark: What is the biggest issue you see for hospitality owners in 2019?
Ross: I can only really comment for the self-catering sector of hospitality, as that’s all I’m familiar with. With that in mind, I think this is an interesting period for owners and agents as they grapple with competing forces. Corporate interests have now surrounded this once cottage industry. They have spent big bucks buying up real estate and they are now looking for a return on their investments. Trying to run a holiday cottage rental business today in the same way that you did 5 years ago no longer works.
Hospitality Success Options
Today, the hospitality business owner has essentially 4 options:
- Rely on online portals such as Airbnb, HomeAway, and Booking.com
- Use a traditional holiday lettings agency such as Classic Cottages, who will look after all the marketing for you
- Do everything yourself via your own website and booking engine
- A combination of at least 2 of the above
If you’re new to the game, options 1 and 2 are quite attractive. There is massive public awareness of Airbnb and similar businesses and that can help generate bookings relatively quickly. The downside is that these portals know how to squeeze the lemon and total charges for both guests and owners soon mount up. These can fall in the region of 20%. This knocks a big hole in holiday affordability and business profitability. We also see a degree of ill feeling from owners towards these portals, as they impose new terms and conditions, increase charges, and make it difficult to communicate directly with their guests.
It’s also fair to argue that treating holiday rentals like hotel room units isn’t a sensible long-term business plan. These cottages, villas and glamping pods belong to real people, not corporate bodies. In the main, they have been lovingly restored and refurbished. They have individual character and their owners are very proud of them. I know because I’ve done it. Giving that property to one of the corporate portals, where it will appear alongside thousands of other properties, makes it virtually impossible to differentiate yourself in such a crowded market, no matter how much love you give to your property.
What You Need To Succeed
Success in today’s discerning and crowded market requires a combination of things:
- Pay close attention to quality standards. Customer expectations have risen in recent years. Guests now expect quality all around. Forget this at your peril.
- Differentiate yourself. Add value through quality, customer service, personalisation, and
anything else you can think of.
- Build your brand. Don’t rely on 3rd parties to do this because ultimately you will not be in control.
- Use portals to supplement your business, but if you boost direct, repeat bookings, that will be the one thing that makes your business sustainable and gives you longevity.
- Use subscription-based online portals. These are beginning to make a comeback. There’s
nothing better than direct communication with your guests, not only for repeat bookings but also for firsthand feedback. It’s important to find out what they really think of your property.
There’s a great example of how to build a successful holiday lettings business in Isle of Mull Holiday Cottages. We’ve been working with them for the last four years and have watched them grow from 20 properties to over 100. The vast majority of their bookings are direct and they have a fabulous following and relationship with their guests – remember, it’s important to boost direct bookings to thrive as a hospitality. They have invested heavily in their website and offer personalised service and great customer care. It should be noted that they perform well in the search engines.
I would hate to see our industry become even more dominated by a few corporate players. I genuinely believe that both individually and collectively, we have so much more to offer.
Mark: What mistakes do you see hospitality owners make?
Ross: There are an increasing number of owners who provide a quality product coupled with a really professional service. Standards are increasing by the day.
That said, it still amazes me how often the basics are overlooked. I still see poor photos on websites, for example. That can lose you a tremendous amount of business, but I still see so many owners just making do with poor photography! Extras are important too. Simple things like a welcome pack can create that all-important first impression. Even decent access to WiFi is sometimes neglected by hospitalities to their detriment. To me, these are just entry level essentials. They’re expected and if you don’t provide, it’s a black mark before you even start!
Mark: What has been your favourite mistake that Bookalet has made?
Ross: I don’t have a favourite mistake. I hate all mistakes, even the ones we learn from. However, to be fair, there was a period when Bookalet should have been growing faster than it actually did. I took my eye off the ball because I had been asked to become a Non-Executive Director for another business. I accepted the offer and spent too much time on it rather than focusing on what was needed to grow Bookalet. Thankfully, in the last few years, we’ve returned to pretty strong growth.
New Bookalet Features
Mark: What have you got planned for Bookalet in 2019 as far as features?
Ross: We have a whiteboard in the office broken down into four sections. We review these twice a
week. They are as follows:
Urgent is generally any bugs which have been discovered and need an immediate solution.
Suggestions are the constant stream of ideas and requests that come in from our user base. The ones we approve are added either to Developments or to Housekeeping.
Developments are the bigger projects, that more often than not, take several person-weeks of development effort because they require significant modification of the platform.
However, we don’t want to hold up some of the simpler mods because we’re working on Developments, so we work on Housekeeping in parallel. These are typically things requested by owners that add value to the system and are also pretty straight forward to implement. We try to do these mini site updates every two weeks.
Some of the Developments currently being evaluated or worked on are a modified pricing model, Booking.com API integration, owner invoices, multi-unit bookings, and an extension of dedicated iCal exchange channels.
Big thanks to Ross Hugo for giving me this amazing, detailed interview! Remember to visit Bookalet’s website and check out their amazing product.
Remember that Boostly is also a great resource for hospitality success! I have created a free, 5-step email guide to help you boost your direct bookings! Click here to get your copy.