WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM our friends in the Alps

Using technology to scale the heights of successful marketing.

FOR the past few years B&B owners and innkeepers have expressed a sense of despair at the fact that just the opportunity to market themselves online has been hijacked by the online travel agents. The reality is that despite investigation and action by the Competition and Markets Authority into breach of anti-competitive regulations, this business disruption is not going to go away, any more than traditional black cab drivers are going to find themselves freed from the competition of the likes of Uber. Here, in the first in a series of articles on the issue, we speak to property owners from beyond the confines of your sector who have embraced the opportunities for digital marketing, taken on board the commission rates they have to pay and discover innovative ways to use OTA platforms to make a decent living. Dominic Johnson catches up with Neil Symonds, who runs Chamonix Holidays. For anyone confronting the challenges of online booking today there are lessons to be learned from Neil’s experience in Chamonix.

 

HOW THE BUSINESS STARTED.

Neil Symonds grew up skiing. As a child he went on family ski holidays and school skiing trips. When he left school at 18, he headed to the City to make some money before going to university – solvent – in his mid- 20s, before travelling around the world for a couple of years. Eventually he tried to settle down with a job working for BA. Such a career was not for him. “I hated working for a big union company and pushing late hours. I wasn’t used to any of it at the time. Back then I was far more accustomed to a small working environment with smaller businesses, where you actually got rewarded for doing something well.” So, he moved back to the slopes and became a ski host. “I worked with a couple companies for winter and summer events before being promoted to assistant manager. Then I went on to manage a hotel for them, and I loved the job!” But before long he left the company to start running his own business. He spent six months touring European ski resorts, focused on the Alps, before opening up a small, town-centre bar. in Germany. The bar proved an excellent place to start a lettings / property management business and before long he found himself in Chamonix running around 50 self-catering properties.

 

REACH BEYOND YOUR COMFORT ZONE

Just as this magazine arrives off the press the ski season is kicking off in earnest in Chamonix, and the town will become a magnet for visitors for the next five months. Snow or no snow, Neil Symonds lets out his 50 Chamonix Holiday self-catering properties all year round, and he successfully manages this thanks to his deployment of state-of-the-art booking technology. I catch up with Neil in October, weeks before the busy winter season kicked off. He has just taken an enquiry by email. Four guests booked into Chamonix the following week and have approached him to ask if it is going to be empty – whether there will be anything for them to do there in October. “There’s actually plenty going on,” he says. “The weather can be cold and wet in the mountains, but there is always a cable car open for sight-seeing, biking and walking and so forth, even when there is no skiing. All the shops, cinemas and sports centres are open, and there is plenty else to do. After all, it’s a proper town. People associate Chamonix with skiing and they just see it as a mountain resort for winter activities, but in fact it is much busier in Summer than Winter.” His properties are let pretty much all year round, which is testimony to the great marketing job he and others have achieved selling Chamonix as an all-year-round destination. “Many people don’t generally associate Chamonix with self-catering chalet businesses and see it simply as a mountain ski resort,” he says. His marketing model is changing that.

 

LOOK FOR REASONS FOR PEOPLE TO VISIT

You mentioned a friend who tapped into mountain biking and you have tapped into local sports. Do you have any advice for people on how you can tap into those local activities? Providing a link to such local services means supporting them. Go and try it – they will often let you try for free if you promise to pass on details to all your current or former guests. It’s a bit like the old days when if you stayed in a hotel, they’d always have a big notice board with flyers brochures pamphlets of local activities but putting your client directly in contact with them through media and social networking. Join your local community Facebook group or local area mountain bike group or yachting group and link into it because you never know where your next booking is going to come from.

 

LOOK FOR THE UP-SALE OPPORTUNITIES

His Chamonix business caters to clients that want to do their own catering; he says. “There are chefs here that work on a per meal basis or just get booked for a week, but generally we market the property of self-catered. I it’s a property that warrants it like a chalet then we can provide meet-greet services or maybe even things like a Champagne reception fridge fill-in.Chamonix Holidays also provides assistance for ski passes for guests travelling from Geneva airport, or car-hire or ski hire along with lessons/mountain guides, which of course all the clients can book and pay for along with the accommodation. “More often than they just book the accommodation, and we do some slight up-selling because we provide this service for free but then we get payed a kick back by these companies for those individuals for pushing business their way,” he adds.

 

MULTIPLE MARKETING CHANNELS

Many hotels now market their properties via a number of channels, typically websites, or online travel agencies (OTAs). Booking.com, Expedia, Airbnb and others help put heads on beds that might not have found you via more localised marketing methods. Managing your property on multiple websites can be a challenge and this is where the booking engine can help. It sits above the various OTAs and maintains availability and pricing is consistent and up-to-date.

 

What is a booking engine.

DEFINITION: A hotel booking engine is an application on hotel websites used to securely process online reservations. The purpose of a hotel booking engine is to allow reservations to be made: Directly on your hotel’s own website; and, Third party websites like Booking.com, on which your hotel is listed.

 

A Q&A UNVEILS THE DETAIL

That up-selling – is it worth it for your bottom line – is it quite a nice little revenue earner?

Upsetting is definitely a route worth taking to boost your bottom line, he says. “I can effectively employ someone simply to do upselling. We are not a particularly large company, but if we make less than 5,000 euros on commission for ski pass sales, I’d be disappointed.” Transfers will offer 10% commission; and ski equipment hire companies will offer you commission to send business their way, he says, but ski lessons and mountain guides can take some time to organise. “Families staying somewhere may want to go to a particular local spot offering morning or afternoon lessons, or they may be booking for the whole week, which takes a little organisation. But for other things like selling a transfer, you simply provide the details to the transfer company which goes ahead and books directly.” He adds: “They keep a record of the amount of business we push their way and they pay us a nice little commission at the end of the season.”

Is there no need to handle money?

I almost prefer not to handle cash. With ski passes, you can either choose to take the payment directly. You pay the company in Mont Blanc while you retain your commission, or you can use their booking system, thus effectively booking the clients using their payment methods directly with the company in Mont Blanc and then at the end of the season we do a reckoning. So, the model is they don’t charge the client anymore, but they give you commission taken out of their side. We’ve found it’s desperately expensive to live here and to employ people, so rather than doing a lot of the work ourselves – if we provided all the supporting services, we would need to employ lots of people. As a business we are qualified to do transfers ourselves. But we are not a transfer business and if we were it would lead to all sorts of problems. We are in the business of taking care of owners’ properties

Where do your bookings come from?

Depending on the time of year about 35% is direct bookings, then the big players such as Airbnb booking.com and home and away, which is owned by VRBO in the US, there are many other websites and companies such as TripAdvisor and owned by other companies, as well as plenty of other individuals in the process of starting up now using the same sort of model. So, there are a few creeping in and that takes up the remaining 5% or so.

In total how many OTAs are you on with?

If you include homeandaway which has about 30 partners that equates to 30 different websites. Combine those and Airbnb and booking.com and a few others with which we are synchronised with our booking management system, you are able to synchronise with lots of other OTAS facilities where our availability and property details and photography are automatically synchronised with their backend system and website. In total we are with around 50.

How difficult is it to setup a new OTA?

Now that we are set up with a booking engine, adding a new OTA now takes about 10 seconds.

Is there a limit to the number of OTAs you are happy to work with?

We can always just switch them off again if they aren’t taking the bookings. We are not completely synchronised with booking.com because they are such a vast engine. When we synch a property with our booking management system, we then have to go into booking.com and add extra features and facilities that booking.com requires for it to be 100% active. If we synchronise, we are 87%, so we do synchronise then we go in and update aspects of booking.com to meet the 100% level and thus feature high up on their pages when people are searching rather than further down where some properties are not fully functional. For Airbnb and homeandaway, it’s almost complete synchronisation.

 

Are you working on Expedia at the moment?

If so, do you have a timescale? We are about to synchronise with Expedia. They are an expanding big business, so we are hoping to get some bookings from them. We could list with Expedia tomorrow if we wanted to. However, our system of working with Avantio is working very hard on a full synchronisation package and we are reliant on them for that. We could do it now, but it’d mean that if we got a booking through Expedia, we’d need to react pretty quickly to block out our website so that it doesn’t get booked that particular week or so that particular property doesn’t get booked out elsewhere. Then we’d also have to go in and update certain aspects of our properties on Expedia as well – it’s a bit of a time element for us, which is why we haven’t done it yet, but we also realise they are an important channel for us to utilise, so I’d expect to be with them by 1 January 2020.

Is Chamonix holidays.com your own personal booking engine, or is it a service you brought in?

We bought this one in. We did used to have our own booking engine, developed by a company that we paid a fortune for, but it did mean that whenever we wanted to make improvements or change it was costing us an absolute fortune, £60-£70 an hour to provide those services. The model these days for companies small or large is to bring in the professional again. The start-up fees are zero. If you already have your own website, you can simply add on the booking management system, but often these companies will provide you with a website too, at a vastly reduced price, because they have already got the template. They have half a dozen templates and you pick the one you want. They simply take your photo and description and away you go. Then they have the booking management system behind it. It’s an internal system where the property details and the owner details, your bank details, reservations and availability are kept up to date along with things such as the pricing. Clients can either enquire or book and pay directly online using their credit card or they can use the banking services we provide, and for which we pay a monthly fee. There are add-on services you can buy that may cost 1 euro per property per month. You are effectively paying a monthly fee proportionate to the amount of business you have. The fewer properties you have proportionately, the higher the fee but even if you have one property it is affordable. It enables you to quickly grow to add further properties. In other words, you are not having to change your model just because you are adding to the existing ones.

What booking service do you use?

We use a Spanish company called Avantio based in Valencia. They are very forward-thinking. Although they are based in Spain, they are now in the US and UK. We entered business with them in their lovely, plush offices in May. There they have a team of 120 staff, of which more than 80 were developers. They are developing these links with Airbnb and booking,. com and finding ways of improving the guest experience or easier ways of people to search for properties or improving the look and feel of your website or the management system or the reporting functionality or the back end management system where you are managing booking and maintenance issues or cleaning on departure. There is no way I’d be able to compete with them and their eight development staff by developing my own system. I just wouldn’t be able to keep up with them. Unfortunately there has to be a time where you must let go and accept that someone else can do a better job than you can, allowing you to focus on what is important to you – on looking after your guests and your property. That’s what you are good at, with a management system helping you manage your property and your bookings, and they are good at helping you find guests by synchronising with all these other companies which is what they are good at doing. So, it’s realising what you are really doing – looking after your property and making clients happy and providing you with an income. All the other bits you let the other people do. Five to ten years ago, for you to have any way this complex a setup would have cost you £100k and you’d have to be an IT expert. Yet you are doing this as an element of the entire business. Obviously, you are tech savvy.

REPEAT & DIRECT BOOKINGS

Incentives for direct bookings? What are the steps to follow to get more?

The ideal solution is obviously for you to get direct bookings from your own website with repeat bookings and retain those clients. Repeat business is slightly down because people are just queuing and buying – they are not necessarily loyal to the same owner, the same property the same company or the same location. The challenge is building that loyalty and getting that repeat business, and that is the focus for our business now. The booking management system gives us the time to do that.

REVIEWS

How important are your online reviews?

The name of the game with all the OTA websites, and the only way to generate bookings, is positive reviews and price. You need to be sensitive with your pricing especially at the beginning and not to be too greedy because you want that client to leave you with a positive review. Usually a review is based on half a dozen things: was it value for money, clean and tidy? were you looked after? was the owner responsive to any request or concerns? was the description on the website accurate? and so on. If you get positive reviews then you put these on your own website, but they are also visible on the OTA site. This will automatically bump you up the listing on their site. There might be 1000 apartment properties in London on Airbnb. If you are just starting out and you don’t have their features and facilities, you are going to be at the bottom of the list. If you have updated them, you will be slightly up but unless you are price sensitive people aster going to search other cheaper properties. You might not even be listed in the first 100. You then need to really go for those positive reviews. It’s a bit like google ranking – you are never quite sure exactly how you can remain higher than someone else and get on that home page, and the same can be said of OTAs. You can be sure price is one of these things and positive reviews another. On reviews for your direct bookings do you rely on the individual OTAs to review, or do you push everyone to TripAdvisor or google? For direct bookings we send them an email for a departure and we ask them how their holiday went and ask all the things above, and offer them an incentive, so if they provide a review we will give them a discount if they choose to stay next year. That is just a personal email from our system to them. We don’t advertise with TripAdvisor, but we have done so in the past. It is linked to holidaylettings. We’d get TripAdvisor reviews if people booked via holidaylettings. They’re review the individual property rather than the business.

SEARCH ENGINES

You are ranked #2 on google natural search for Chamonix Holidays. Do you put much effort into natural search?

We are starting to. When we published a new website in mid-2018 you’d have to expect a big drop in your ranking as a result of the new ranking – it’s just what happens. It was a website created using the Avantio template.

Our previous website had 60-70 information pages on it, which made it hard to manage, hard to keep updating and hard to keep fresh and current. The new website really just focuses on what we are doing which is marketing the properties we have on our website for our owners and there are other websites that we will link to that have current and up to date information about travel, about Chamonix, about weather, webcams, things to do, places to visit, places to eat and so on. We can link to those and recommend other websites that provide much better information, so we perhaps lose a bit of ranking for that reason. Then we can focus on certain key words and certain terms and positive feedback and things like that for or website.

 

Natural search is absolutely worth going for. It’s the end game. It’s for repeat bookings, direct bookings. If we pretend booking.com was 80% of our business, if they suddenly increase their rates from 15 to 30 or 40% then we couldn’t afford not to pay it. So, make sure you work with a number of providers, so you don’t get stuck and held to ransom, but crucially if you are having to pay those fees to OTAs then reinvesting in your own website seems like a good plan. You can’t not use them, but at the same time you got to be smart to be able to reinvest in your own business.

Are there other ways to connect directly with your future guests? Yes. For example, via Facebook and Instagram. We have just started to work more with them so we are assembling a better database of people who have booked or enquired with us in the past so we can send regular emails, let them know we are still here and let them know of any promotion As well as keeping us fresh on social media we have specific Google campaigns. For example, at this time of year we have a number of properties that owners like us to rent out for the entire season. Because we had a new website our presence on google is quite low, but we have a special season advertising campaign to help us with that, so we run specific campaigns as well as general campaigns about self-catered apartments and chalets in Chamonix for summer or winter.

HOW TO FIND THE TIME.

Do you need to be available 24/7?

Airbnb and booking.com have come in and completely changed things around. Five or more years ago, people really did prefer to have an email or phone conversation before committing to booking. Now they almost prefer not to. “I want to see a property [to stay in] and buy it.” Therefore, it’s no longer necessary to make yourself available to call all the time, so long as you can reply to messages promptly.

If you split your day into marketing vs operations, what percentage of your day do you put into marketing and is it a fair amount of your job?

If you have one property, how many enquiries are going to deal with on a daily basis? 10 a week perhaps. That’s’ probably two hours of your day. Putting in the bookings, another 15-20 mins. You are probably spending in total half a day a week on managing your one property. You have to spend at least 25% of that time on marketing. You have to spend an hour doing it in the evening, just a Facebook message, a campaign with a list of everyone who has enquired about the property before – drop them an email about what is going on in the local area, telling them you have a free week over the new year do they have any friends that’d like to come and stay. A little bit of marketing and doing it regularly – set yourself a goal of once a week or every fortnight – drop email FB update Instagram. Even if it’s not directly about your property, it might be cross-marketing someone else’s property or something else going on in the local community, because it will all be useful.

VOUCHER SYSTEMS?

Have you considered a voucher system?

Many boutique hotels use voucher systems. There are now boutique websites where you have to be a member to advertise your property, and where you must be a member to book a property. The guarantee is you advertise your property on there, and you offer to give the client a discount from your normal rates if they book that property – late deals for example. It’s like the back of magazines. If you buy a magazine for £10 there’s usually £50 worth of vouchers in there, rather like the easyJet inflight magazine – two parts is bigger than the sum of the whole. The idea is it’s a bit of publicity: the company operates in this way on the basis that they can guarantee all these discounts and they get benefit in kind from both the guest who pays perhaps £10 a month to get £50 of vouchers which they might or might not use, spread across lots of different companies. I can see it working. It’s a different concept using exclusivity and five-star treatment as a unique selling point which will work for the boutique hotel. For us as a business we want to be special and different from our competitors but at the end of the day the product we are offering it’s -property and holiday accommodation from a rental point of view, and we want to be as successful as possible rather than exclusive.