Working with the OTAs? Let’s learn some pros and cons

As a hospitality accommodation owner, it is very difficult to escape the influence of the Online Travel Agents (OTAs). They loom over all of our forays into online marketing, dominating the search engines, seemingly ever-present in the eye line of potential customer’s initial searches.

As an independent business, you cannot directly compete. OTAs have massive marketing budgets and spend a huge amount of money on online advertising and web developers. One in three people use an OTA to book a hotel room in the UK, so it is important to work effectively with them.

Having a solid plan for dealing with OTAs is vital. If they can stick to it, many hospitality owners actually find that they have a very positive relationship with OTAs and that ultimately even Booking.com can be a force for good. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s plain sailing for every aspect of the relationship!

We asked seven hospitality owners about what they thought were the positives and negatives in their OTA relationships and to give examples of their interactions. 

The Responders

Which Online Travel Agents do you work with?

Want to boost your direct bookings?

This question gave us a list of twelve different OTAs that the responders were working with.  The most significant information it told us was that five out of seven of the responders worked with Booking.com, showing it to be the most popular OTA in the survey. 

Out of the remaining eleven OTAs, only two were mentioned more than once, Guestlink and Homeaway, the others were mostly made up of OTAs which were particularly relevant to the accommodation in question, such as Pitchup.com, or were geographically targeted as in iknow Yorkshire.

Other relevant information showed that four out of seven responders worked with more than one OTA. 

Of the three people that worked with just one OTA, two of these worked solely with Booking.com.

Which OTA brings you the most bookings?

OTAs

The clear winner here was Booking.com which produced the most bookings for four out of our seven responders.  Of the remaining three, two of them don’t use Booking.com anyway and one is a caravan site who gets better results from a camping and caravan specific OTA.

In other words, four out of the five accommodation owners who use Booking.com get the best response from it, but out of these four, two of them use Booking.com as their sole OTA.

Why do you list your business on the Online Travel Agents?

The most succinct and positive response of all was simply “They bring in a lot of bookings,” but generally all of the responses were positive ones where people could see at least some value in using the OTAs.

Enabling accommodation owners to fill in off-peak times was the response of a couple of responders, with one pointing out that it was also a good way to fill rooms that had suffered last-minute cancellations.

Responses received

Two responders advised that they felt the OTAs provided them with great exposure, given their prominence in the search engines and one felt that it was “cheap” worldwide advertising, given the pay as you go nature of it.

One responder was resigned to the fact that the OTAs are recognised worldwide. They are trusted and popular, and besides, they produce bookings without having to deal directly with emails and phone calls. This leaves the hotelier time to get on with the business of running a hotel!

One responder advised that they had had an excellent long-term relationship with OTAs, but found bookings dropping in the last year.

On a scale of 1 – 5 (5 being good), how would you rate their customer service on the phone or email?

OTAs

Given that most people see OTAs as a necessary evil, one that they would do without if they possibly could, it was interesting that among all of these replies from hospitality owners, there wasn’t a single negative response.

That’s not to say that all the responders were singing praise from the rooftops for the customer service they had received. Indeed the majority of the responders, four out of seven, rated their customer service experiences as average. Out of the remaining three, however, two gave customer service the highest possible marks.

What is the worst booking story/experience you can remember when having to deal with the OTA?

Nick Palmer – Crows Nest Caravan Park

We have very strict terms and conditions for OTAs.  All bookings are paid in full at the time of booking.

Unfortunately, not everyone reads the terms, especially about facility opening times and this can lead to problems.  But as we have full payment and it is non-refundable we are in a position of strength.

The worst experience was when one customer claimed that it was fraudulent and appealed to their card company. Despite us having evidence of the agreement, their appeal was successful.  We had to give a full refund and pay costs of appeal with no explanation and right of appeal ourselves.

That experience cost over £120, which was very annoying.

The Cottage, Staithes

I have had 3 bookings cancel, whose contact details are subsequently removed so I can’t contact them. In all 3 cases they had not actually cancelled, they had just changed credit cards. By the time I found them, or them me, the property was rebooked.

Ed Blakeley – Atlanta

A guest did not show up and we had only taken the deposit, even though we were entitled to the full amount of the 3-day booking.

Unfortunately, we missed the deadline to tell Booking.com that it was a “no show” by a couple of hours. Therefore they had already sent the “guests” a review request.

I can only think that out of spite, as we had taken the deposit, they left us a VERY negative review on all aspects of their stay (which was amazing as they did not actually stay).

I thought the removal of this review would be a simple job for Booking.com to sort out.  Therefore I called them, followed by an email.

They were very unhelpful, almost not believing us when we said the guests had not turned up. They said their policy was then to allow the “customer” seven days to respond.  This is despite me pointing out that WE are the customer as it is us who pay money to Booking.com. In the meantime, the bad review stayed public.

It was eventually removed after 10 days. We found Booking.com totally unsympathetic to the damage potential to our business, not good service at all.

Alison Smith – Woodside Cottage

I have always sorted out a problem.

However, last week I was very upset that HomeAway /Owners Direct threatened to deactivate my listing.  Especially after I have played their “service fee” game. I pointed this out to the customer services agent who said he would forward my complaint. 

The following day I, and many others, got an apology.

Julie Ballantyne – The Old Cafe

I had been fortunate up until the point when they changed their platform.  When I queried how the service fee was calculated I was more or less told it was none of my business.

Anne Richardson – The Thoresby

Generally, the fact that you cannot change descriptions yourself.

Guests are often surprised when they arrived that their room was on the top floor. It took a few emails and lengthy phone calls but eventually, I got the floor level added to the description for each room.

What are you doing right now to try and boost your direct bookings, so you don’t have to spend so much on commission?

The most popular medium that people were using to boost direct bookings was Facebook.  Four responders used the social networking platform in some way.   

Other general online efforts included increasing blogging activity, dropping credit card charges for direct bookings and improving the online booking process, specifically for the mobile website.

Most were general responses. Only two responders seemed to advise that they actively targeted OTA customers directly to encourage them to book direct next time. 

One advised that they have a targeted campaign. They offer discounts and incentives to book directly as well as targeting these customers on email and social media.  The other advised that they encourage OTA guests to book direct for their next stay.

One of the most annoying things for me as a hospitality owner is when a guest who has stayed at The Grainary in the past has rebooked via an OTA. What are you doing to prevent that?

Two respondents advised that they use the rooms or accommodation to clearly advertise the fact to guests that had they booked direct, the room would have been cheaper, and will be if they book direct next time. 

One respondent advised that they rely on telling the guest verbally when they stay. But then they admitted that this was difficult due to the sheer volume of check-ins and check-outs.

Other ways that they used were through general social media announcements and a clause in the terms and conditions which contacted guests by email after their stay. They communicated discounts are through a newsletter.

One responder admitted using online methods that OTAs frowned and punished.

Two responders advised that they don’t offer any incentive at all for direct bookings. They do not pass on the commission fee to customers who book via OTAs (removing it when they book direct).

If the OTAs were to do just ONE thing to improve the relationship between independent hospitality owners and themselves, what would you recommend?

Nick Palmer – Crows Nest Caravan Park,

Stop using our brand name in Google AdWords to appear higher than our organic listings.

The Cottage, Staithes

To be more reasonable when it comes to unfair reviews.

Ed Blakeley – Atlanta

Treat the owners with more respect.  Accept that their knowledge of the industry is probably much better than their own!

Alison Smith – Woodside Cottage

Make the service fee a standard amount.  Thirty-five pounds for example.  I charge a lot for my top weeks and when the enquirer sees the add-on fee, especially from an OTA, they don’t book.

If it was a more reasonable amount we and the OTA would get more bookings.  I haven’t had a booking from Holiday Lettings or Trip Advisor for my smaller property for 2 years!

Julie Ballantyne – The Old Cafe

Go back to how they were before they changes their rules.

Anne Richardson – The Thoresby

Give us the freedom to amend the advertising we have with them.

Thank you to everyone that took part in the survey, I hope that if you’re reading this, it has helped you get a better understanding to what it is like to work with the online travel agents.

Boost your direct bookings!

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