The mobile e-commerce space in the hotel industry is growing and changing rapidly. With the massive influx of new distribution apps and mobile sites, it is vitally important that hoteliers stay educated and able to make informed decisions about their hotel participating (or not) in these new channels. Hoteliers must be able to take a pragmatic view of both their hotel(s) and these channels, with their specific customer profiles and compensation structures, to determine if they will be able to benefit from their participation.
Last Minute Booking Apps
One of the hottest topics in mobile hotel distribution at the moment is the rise and prevalence of last minute booking apps. Examples of this type of distribution channel include HotelTonight, Groupon Getaway Tonight and JustBook, among others.
From a consumer perspective, these apps provide the opportunity to book a room at a significant discount from what they might expect to pay on traditional distribution channels or through the hotel’s website. The tradeoff is that the guest can only book these discounted rooms on the day of arrival; they are essentially trading uncertainty about specific hotel availability and rates for the chance at booking a room at a significant discount. In some ways this is not dissimilar to the tradeoff offered by more traditional opaque Online Travel Agency programs, such as Priceline and Hotwire. However, what we’re seeing now is the same day booking restriction loosening on some channels.
From a hotel’s perspective, the benefit of these apps is decidedly more mixed. While they provide a unique opportunity to potentially fill distressed inventory, these bookings tend to come at a very heavy cost by way of the discount (in many cases there is a required minimum discount) and commission rate. Typically the commission rates for these last minute distribution channels exceed those of traditional OTAs and can range from 20-50%.
Another consideration when a hotel is contemplating participating in a last minute booking app is the customer profile of these channels. These customers are actively seeking out deep discounts and tend to be brand agnostic. If these channels are used to convert last-minute customers into repeat customers coming through direct channels, they can be a wonderful acquisition tool. On the other hand, if these simply provide a steady stream of one-time, short-window bookers, the economics of the discounts and commissions make it difficult to rely upon them.
There have been a number of recent developments in the last-minute app arena. In July, Groupon launched its long-awaited, last-minute hotel booking functionality – Groupon Getaway Tonight. Groupon has long been in the hotel distribution space, including a partnership with Expedia, which ended earlier this year. However, this is their first foray into last-minute booking. This launch was telegraphed by Groupon’s 2013 purchase of the Spanish same-day hotel booking app, Blink. The offering is mobile-only and facilitated through the Groupon and Groupon Getaways apps. The Getaway Tonight deals appear in the Hotels tab. According to Skift, Getaway Tonight’s inventory is sourced through an extranet that hotels can load inventory into at any time. The discounts available through the Getaway Tonight inventory ranged from 30% to as high as 60% off published rates. These steep discounts, combined with the commission payments to Groupon, make this an expensive channel in much the same way Groupon’s traditional flash sales are.
Beginning in October, HotelTonight has expanded its available booking window to seven days from its previous same-day restriction. This sea change for a company that previously had kept a narrow focus on same-day bookings could have wide ranging implications for other, similar companies and for consumers. This expansion may set a precedent for similar, ‘last-minute’ booking channels and may stretch the definition of a ‘last-minute’ booking window. Whereas previously, the same-day booking window would have limited share shift from a hotel’s less expensive direct channels, this change may cause real shift to these discounted channels. This lack of opacity could also undermine consumer confidence in a hotel’s brand.com website as the place to find that hotel’s best range of options. So, even if a guest is loyal to a specific hotel or brand, that relationship could be harmed by the availability of cheaper rates on a third-party that are not subject to traditional caveats like opaque OTAs or true same-day booking.
There is certainly significant value in facilitating the booking of last-minute inventory. In some cases it may be better to fill a room than to allow it to go empty, but this is not a simple rule. Hoteliers must be aware of the costs and issues inherent in channels providing this service and enter into any agreement with open eyes and reasonable expectations about what they are receiving in terms of net revenue, customer profile and consumer perception in the market. A head in a bed can be important in the short term, but not if it undermines the rates charged every day because guests expect a deal and know they can wait until the last minute to book. Forecasting is essential to optimizing prices against expected demand and last minute bookings wreak havoc with this process.
New Efforts from Existing Companies
More and more existing companies in and around the travel space are recognizing the value in facilitating an easy hotel booking experience through their mobile apps and sites. Reducing the ‘friction’ of mobile bookings has become critical to mobile hotel distribution success; HotelTonight stands above in this regard by requiring only three taps for a user to book a hotel room.
In June of this year, TripAdvisor officially rolled out what they refer to as ‘Instant Booking’ for hotels on their mobile app. This feature gives users on the TripAdvisor app the ability to complete a hotel booking without ever leaving the app through inventory partnerships with hotel brands and various online travel agencies. This allows users to go from researching a destination to reading hotel reviews to booking a hotel without ever leaving the TripAdvisor app. In addition to TripAdvisor’s dominance as a review site, this seamless booking option for the user makes them extremely powerful in the mobile distribution space. Yelp, a user-generated reviews site, and Hipmunk, a flight and hotel meta-search site, recently announced a partnership wherein Hipmunk would facilitate hotel booking directly through Yelp’s web site and app. This gives Yelp users the ability to easily book Hipmunk’s extensive direct and meta-search inventory. The Hipmunk partnership follows naturally from Yelp’s acquisition of OpenTable, a restaurant reservation booking tool, in that it gives their users the ability to go from researching a hotel/restaurant to booking it without leaving Yelp’s ‘eco-system’, similar to TripAdvisor’s ‘Instant Booking’ feature. An additional consideration for hoteliers is that Yelp’s increased focus on hotels gives more importance to yet another consumer review site that must be monitored.
Skyscanner has primarily been known as an airfare meta-search site with additional hotel meta-search capabilities. In August of this year, however, the company launched a standalone hotel meta-search app. This continues Skyscanner’s stated focus on mobile, evidenced by their acquisition of Budapest-based mobile developer Distinction earlier this year. The launch of a standalone hotel meta-search app allows Skyscanner to capitalize on the increasing trend of mobile hotel booking and keep their customers who use their flight search apps and web tools in their ‘eco-system’.
These developments show the increased importance of easy mobile hotel distribution and power of third-party suppliers and meta-search engines. The number of outlets through which third-party inventory is surfaced is ever-expanding. All of these channels command commissions of 10% or more depending on where the inventory ends up actually coming from when the booking is made.
Parallel to the mobile advancements being made by third-party distributors and review sites, the major hotel brands are enhancing their own mobile offerings. The goal of brands like Marriott, Hilton and IHG is to offer services through their mobile apps that third-parties, like the OTAs, cannot match and thus drive customer acquisition and preference to the brand apps and booking channels. Examples of these offerings include mobile check-in, keyless mobile room entry, meeting space rental and in-room services. These services are being fenced behind loyalty program membership and the use of the brand’s mobile app.
Despite the brands’ attempts to fence in these services, specialized third parties dedicated to this kind of functionality are also entering the space. Checkmate, a third-party mobile check-in service, is one example. Checkmate offers hotels an alternative to developing their own mobile check-in functionality and provides a ready-made solution for them. The hotels are not their only potential partner however, as Checkmate also provides this functionality to OTAs for guests coming through those channels. Third parties are not only disrupting the distribution space, they are working to become ingrained in the guest experience as well.
Hoteliers will be faced with differing levels of choice in participating with these new channels and disruptors.
In the case of last-minute booking apps and sites, hoteliers should evaluate all the facts around required discounts, commission rates and customer profiles and match these factors up against the needs of their property and long term risks. There are many situations where taking business through those channels may be beneficial, but the decision to do so can only be made when evaluating both the short term advantages and the long term effect on the rest of the hotel’s demand streams.
While there has been a spike in new entrants into the mobile hotel distribution market and pivots from existing companies including the OTAs, the major hotel brands are also making strides in mobile functionality. Put together, it is clear that the mobile traveler will change the hotel distribution landscape. Users are becoming more comfortable using mobile for hotel booking as well as for check-in and elements of the guest experience. Hotel brands and third party mobile vendors are competing for consumer adoption and the contest has just begun.
Reprinted from the Hotel Business Review with permission from www.HotelExecutive.com.