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A Greek Lesson

I think that one of the overwhelmingly consequential stories of 2011, was that of the Greek financial and social issues. The topic has been covered very thoroughly by the world media, so I am guessing that just like me, you will have mixed emotions about my fellow countrymen as a whole.

On the one hand, the irregularities (ranging anywhere from innocent mistakes all the way to blatant stealing – from both Europe, but also from the poor to give to the rich) have happened within the country itself. Unquestionably it has been the Greeks making their own bed (albeit messing up everyone else’s as a result) and that apportions blame squarely and wholly somewhere within the country.

On the other hand, under several very misguided and very unfair governments for almost 30 years now, it is typically the “non-thieving” hard-working type of Greek (majority) that is paying a very disproportionate price for all the irregularities that went on. Which is also hard to forget…

To use some culinary parallels to explain my views: whatever your position on the matter, I believe that the whole mess can be boiled down to a few key ingredients that have been cooked by certain people (from what in Greece is now called “the elite”) for almost three decades; unfortunately these were the same people that also happened to be in control of the books which were also thoroughly cooked.

From these few ingredients, the one that is very easily underestimated is complacency. And in my experience complacency is a very contagious disease.

“The Greek physics law of Inertia” – AKA the Greek version of “mañana”

The one thing for which I will dare to “throw a stone” to my countrymen is that us Greeks are pretty much governed by some cultural imperative, similar to the physics law describing inertia. When we aren’t doing anything, we are very likely to maintain our state and continue not doing much. (Incidentally, although much more rarely, the opposite also applies: when we somehow find ourselves in motion, we can find it difficult to stop). All this can make us relaxed company and great party friends, but in business it can be a disadvantage…

During the autumn of 2007, when our BABEL Multilingual product was still in its infancy, I was starting talking to hotels about multilingual versions of their websites, and international marketing packages. Knowing that Greece attracts people speaking foreign languages in their millions every year, I did some research in new hotels in the country that were more likely to use and benefit from our services.

Amongst many potentials, I remember finding a wonderful candidate. It was a five star property with some 450 rooms, in a prime location in Crete, near an airport (but far enough) and by a superb sandy beach. The hotel was independently owned, and only on the second year of its operation – which to me it meant that there would normally be a lot of room for growth of business. To cut a long story short, this property’s vital statistics made them an excellent candidate. According to my guestimations at the time, they could find themselves generating some pretty impressive profits within the first season of using us. I couldn’t wait to talk to them..

Unfortunately, my initial enthusiasm quickly evaporated by the hotel’s lack of a booking engine on their website. In fact, there was no way to make a reservation at that hotel, other than calling them, or emailing them and hoping for the best. Obviously there is very little point in pursuing, finding and getting visitors to your website from abroad if you don’t have a way to convert them to customers!

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the issue of booking engines, I should briefly highlight here that for such a property having a booking engine is an absolute necessity. I don’t want to send anyone to sleep talking about a the different pricing models of agencies and the comparative costs; so let’s just say that in a country like Greece, a decent-sized independent hotel of this type on its second year of operation, would easily pay the equivalent of 30% for a reservation in commissions to all manner of agencies. Forgetting about the numerous benefits that further enhance the argument and necessity for a booking engine, I will just mention that when someone books a hotel on the hotel’s own website, the commission costs for that hotel would drop to anywhere between one and five per cent. It is relevant to mention here that agencies already squeeze hotels as much as they can, and as hotels have costs associated with servicing a room, bookings over the hotel’s own website represent a staggering benefit in  profit levels – a 25% reduction in commission payments could be very nearly the entire profit on a room sold!

So why on earth would anyone not have a booking engine – I hear you ask. I didn’t know either and I was too curious to let this go, so I decided to find out. I picked up the phone, got through to the General Manager, and basically asked the question.

Well, someone would have to manage it..” – came the answer.

[What? As opposed to bookings from agencies that are OK to be left unmanaged?!!]

I was shocked. That was a prime example of (these days already hard to find) old-style Greek public-sector complacency having permeated the private sector. Of all the people to show such lack of interest in the hotel’s well being, to hear such a blatant statement of laziness from a General Manager… To me, that was just wrong.

A year after this conversation took place, the financial world imploded. Today travel agents control the business for that hotel (and so many other hotels like it) and have forced the General Manager to drop her prices and increase the commission she pays to them. The owners were probably far too removed from the day-to-day decisions to identify the missed opportunity, and have now fully blamed the Greek corrupt elite for their misfortunes. Complacency and lack of understanding are a poisonous mixture for a business.

Following that incident (and a few more like it), and seeing the  suffering of Greek hotels in these trying times for Greece, I have quickly developed a strong aversion to complacency. It is therefore with considerable worry that I share with you my suspicion that this affinity to a “mañana” approach to life is not entirely alien to Britons either…

Having worked with hotels from all over the world [and aware that I have no other evidence than our own contacts with the markets (hardly a statistically acceptable sample)] I would suggest that British hoteliers are on average less keen to move forward with international marketing than their international counterparts.

Despite us being a firmly UK based company, today only 23% of our clients are located in the UK – the rest are based pretty much everywhere else around the world. The hoteliers around the world to whom we sell our services seem to be much more aware that hoteliers sell to travellers and that these days travellers don’t come from the hotel’s neighbourhood, and they don’t always speak the neighbourhood’s language.

Looking at the flickering lights of the world economy today, I am strongly advising hoteliers to go after international business even if they do well domestically. Every incremental demand point is of benefit not only to the hotel’s pricing and yielding flexibility. It is also another point of safety in an unsafe world.

If the pessimists of this world are correct, there is a lot of pressure for everyone in the not too distant future, and it will be only those who are prepared that will stand a chance to thrive.

Thank you for reading,

Yannis Anastasakis

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Filed under eCommerce, Hotels, International, Marketing, Multilingual, Return On Investment, Sales Strategies

What I wish my iPhone could (and will) do

The future is not impossible to predict. A quick look at where influencing technologies are heading is usually the recommended first step in any effort to unlock its secrets. And there are no examples of obvious future trends that are as vivid, (or as appealing to a technophile such as myself) as those coming from Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch new operating system.

The iPhone OS3 doesn't seem like much, but it WILL change the way we do business

The iPhone OS3 doesnt' look so different.. but the hidden tricks, and most of all the open communications protocol it offers, will change the way customers interact with you.

The iPhone is a peculiarly ignored medium for reservations and guest interaction; and almost never seen as a different segment in internet business segmentation – even from the most aggressive and methodic specialists. Possibly a slightly uncomfortable subject for CRS firms (who usually educate on what they can deliver and forget to talk about the stuff they can’t do) even the most obvious features of the trend-setting platform (because that is exactly what it is) are frequently ignored. Look around (on the net) and see the signs.

There are many examples of full Flash websites without an html alternative… which will not work on an iPhone, making the expensive choice of full Flash design less high-end than what it might have looked on paper… (and don’t expect any great improvement with Microsoft’s Silverlight technology either)

With the new iPhone and iPod Touch related developments around the corner, there is a lot more that is coming our way that should worry us. A lot more than just presentation and usability of our website on such a great demographic (who do you think can afford an iPhone?).

Alarm bells starter ringing about a month ago when Apple invited developers (people that write applications for its Apple Store) to talk to them about the tools that it is now giving them for the next operating system (3.0) for the iPhones and Touch iPods. In their presentation (tailored to the less technically minded person – so don’t be shy if you don’t know your class from your object, and do watch it here) they didn’t fail to point out that their market is just superb. And growing really, really fast.

A few facts of interest:

In less than two years, a completely new and different – and in most places rather very expensive – phone is being sold to over 80 countries around the world.

Just in the 12 months of 2008, Apple sold 13.7 million (yes, million) iPhones and another 16.5 million iPod Touch units. That is a combined 30 million units (did I mention these things don’t come cheap?).

If you are not already getting interested in the size of this market, maybe I should mention that there is over 50 thousand individuals and companies working to produce independent applications for these two machines.

And today, there are well over 25 thousand applications for it.

And over a billion (yes, billion) downloads that have taken place by iPhone and iPod touch owners by the end of last month (in about 8 months since the shop where you can buy them went live).

Given that the iPhone is invariably one of the most expensive phones to buy (yes, I know I mentioned this before, but it is important enough) there is probably a lot of mileage in the demographics behind it. I don’t think there is data for it, but I suspect that in their majority, people that have an iPhone also have money to buy a hotel roomnight somewhere. And that makes them oh, so very interesting to us…

So we know that this technology is here to stay, and we know which way it is going to go (from the presentation Apple did, telling us all about it). And in my personal view, there are a few interesting factors that will make this market an arena for differentiation and profit of those of us that find the means to tackle it early.

The main changes are:

  • iPhone will now allow in-application purchase.
  • It will allow for push technology to be taken advantage of, and
  • peer to peer over Bluetooth is going to be supported.
  • Stereo Bluetooth is going to be supported, and
  • maps can be widely used by everyone who is writing an application for the iPhone.

All in all, if successfully implemented, the way that we interact and relate to our customers has just been opened up to endless possibilities for dramatic, and really cool changes.

In-application purchase means that if you are making a booking over your iPhone through an “App” dedicated to the job, you don’t need to browse a hotel’s website in order to buy add-ons. And third parties with their technology and budget requirements fulfilled, (companies like Expedia and Travelocity, but also hotel chains and representation companies) will be able to offer add-ons dynamically, at any stage of the booking (before or after) and without giving their app customers any extra work to do in the process. In fact, it should be easier for the consumer to be offered and to buy add-ons over the phone, rather than on his or her computer. Naturally, these add-ons can also be free, allowing for post booking customisation of the stay (something not dissimilar to what BA does with their offering to their customers the ability to choose their seats and set meal preferences. Not dissimilar at all in fact – just much, much, much cheaper to develop).

Push technology means that a firm with an app handling the booking on the customer’s phone, can now send messages to its customer without needing to know their mobile number (although consumer permissions will be needed at some stage – so I suspect a new process of licensing will be introduced in the app purchase process). So, in our example of a hotel chain, if the reservation happens through an app, it is easy for the hotel to send all sorts of interesting stuff (calendar notes, location pins, important news etc.) to the consumer – without the need for anyone to be reading e-mails, or agreeing to being sent texts (that are both expensive for the sender, and apparently massively annoying for the consumer). No resistance in “pushing” messages to consumers is in itself a huge subject, but it should suffice to say here that we expect it to provide a new channel to consumers’ mobile phones. Consumers that would otherwise decline receiving that message (at least through text) are now going to seek them..!

Bluetooth peer to peer – using Apple’s brilliant Bonjour – could mean that when a customer is in range, the iPhone can register them with reception, and even receive a key to open the Bluetooth enabled or docking port equipped door of their room.

When in the room, the customer won’t even have to take the earphones off to listen to the TV (thanks to Bluetooth Stereo). The customer could in fact use the iPhone to control every electronic item in the room, from a specially adapted interface for the lights, to radio clocks, to channels on the TV, to ordering room service or booking a table without talking to anyone. Even feedback can be given on the spot – giving you a greater chance to fix the problem before you read about it on TripAdvisor!

Sounds like science fiction? It shouldn’t. Because the hardware is here, and the platform on which the required software (Apps) can be developed is here. The only thing that is needed at this stage is time for the development and the market forces to kick in. And yes, initially these services will be offered separately – one imagines that it will all have to progress from one App per service; customers will have to dock their phones rather than working with them wirelessly. But things will move on and improve as hotel chains will start standardising their software.

So the future looks bright… bright, apple shaped, on a back-lit touch screen hand-held with automatic dimming and a platform that – barring minor annoyances – is better than all of the rest of them.

Yannis Anastasakis

eHotelworks

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Behavioural difficulties and the multilingual antidote

A global marketplace, however close and intimate it might be, is still global and complex

Tim Ash, in his very interesting book “Landing Page Optimization” (1) briefly – but always eloquently – summarises the difficulties associated with identifying the type of user that visits a website. In fact, the entire on-line commercial world seems to be struggling with customising their websites to match their clients expectations. It is almost unfair how mercifully privileged we – the hotel industry professionals – seem to be when it comes to knowing our visitors. With very little effort, we can know so much about our on-line visitors, before they even turn on their computers.

The very simple and obvious fact that sets us aside from most of the rest of the electronic marketing world is that with even a single property, we can (and should) organise our electronic marketing efforts in the same way that otherwise only multinational corporations could! For we have one great, merciful advantage: Travelling is all about people coming from far away and looking for something that is similar to our specific product. Knowing the source, and the product requirements is so useful, that it would be greedy to wish for more!

If you are reading this article, you are most likely the interested-enough type to know that the statistical and even geographical data that you can get from your web analytics engine is wonderful. Nevertheless, knowing what an individual first-time visitor wants is something that you either never find, or something you will find out well after they have left your site – most frequently without having made a booking. In most other industries the game is then usually played with the painful gathering of statistical and usability information and the drawing of conclusions over time.

Statistical analysis and usability reporting (quality work can help ensure that you bypass the dangers highlighted in the well known cliché claiming that “in this world there are lies, there are damned lies, and then there are statistics”) is a solid and scientific method of measuring results and basing design decisions. In fact, those rare birds amongst us that have the budgets, run concurrent websites measuring visitor behaviour in each of them, which leads to some solid designs, based on what really works best for their clients.

Despite all this being a really, really good way of approaching the best possible website layout and structure of what is called landing page optimisation (the promotion of the flow of on-line visitor action, so that they end up doing what you want them to do), the fundamental difficulties remain when you want to open up your hotel to new markets. Increasing numbers of new visitors is easy – yet not the actual goal. The trick of the trade is exactly on this point – not just getting them to come, getting them to book too. And for that, it would be wonderful to be able to optimise your website so that the additional visitors you have just brought over, actually like, trust and book your hotel.

Behavioural enthusiasts will often go down the route of applicable psychological models, or “behavioural styles” like those of Myers-Briggs or Keirsey-Bates (2). The idea here is that accepting there are several specific types of visitors, will get you a guideline that will allow you to address different types of needs and wants through different designs.

Despite this sounding like a really clever way of driving incremental conversions of lookers to bookers – there is a certain impasse (actually two) that make things disproportionately tricky.

First, these  models have to remain fairly crude to allow for applicable website-related decisions to be taken and implemented. This means that for you to have something specific to ask from your designers that will help them understand your website is aimed at getting more business, and not just have cool stuff on it, your potential online customer base has to be placed in psychological “pigeon-holes”, usually reserved for extreme personalities. So, when most of us would fit somewhere in between, reality is forcing us to use caricature-like personalities.

A an example comes to mind which is constructed on imaginary scales, but which should help pin-point the difficulties we have here:

Think of visitors to your website as “30% workaholic” or “45% independent thinkers” and you will get the picture. We have given a percentage of “workaholic” and “independent thinker” to measure “normal” visitors, but we still have no way of accurately designing specifically for these people. We can make efforts and gestures, but we can’t be sure. An analysis of our visitors on these imaginary scales (lazy – workaholic and dependent – independent thinker) would probably end up sending us to our website designers with a brief asking for a website for rather lazy people that are rather dependent thinkers. Assuming that our website designer can do something to satisfy our brief (which is very unlikely to say the least) we have clearly not addressed our audience very well. It is arguably going to be better than what we have done so far, but the cost-benefit ratio of actually changing our website is going to be tough to argue with the GM when we are asking for the money to pay for all this…

The conclusion is inescapable. It may be intelligent, complex and all in all down right impressive pigeon-holing, but it is pigeon-holing nonetheless. Any such crude segmentation will generate psychological profiles with diametrically opposing wants and needs. So, you will know that your visitors have different needs, but it won’t be easy to know which to go after – let along how to go after them. Imagine for example that you have very similar numbers of Extrovert and Introvert users, as well as Thinkers and Feelers (both scales from the Myers-Briggs psychological types). What would your brief be? And even if you don’t you still won’t immediately be very certain how to address their different needs (if you are doing this for the first time it will take time and effort for you to find out).

Naturally, with psychology and consumer behaviour having been around as academic subjects so much longer than internet consumer behaviour,  there are theoretical alternatives; but when viewed from the angle of “having to do something with your website to influence them” all segmentation approaches become somewhat unrealistic.

Even if you are an avid fan of behavioural modelling, and you completely disagree with my views here, you will most likely still agree with the second, rather more tangible impasse in question.

Doing it properly often means doing it the expensive way. Conducting market research on your visitors, be it with questionnaires (brrrrr), or through concurrent running of multiple versions of your website, or in any other way, will require the involvement of experts and time. In other words, it will not be cheap to do. So imagine the conversation between the keen hotel DOS when he or she is asking for the budget from the GM.

Additionally, there is always a very, very good chance that when the analysis is run, the resulting recommendations will require additional investment. I can see Expedia doing something about offering something to make their extrovert customers feeling at home on their website, but I can’t see the same happening at a 3 star independent hotel around the corner…

As it is often the case, the travel industry – in its usual idiosyncratic manner – will once again throw us a surprise. This time, it is a good one. To fully identify its value, we have to have a quick look at the theory and practice of the basics:

The theory of marketing suggests that you look at the market, and you create a product that will satisfy a niche.

On the other hand, the reality of a marketing is that almost invariably you are given a job “pushing” an existing product, and you have to figure out who is most likely to buy. Then, the battle is to find a way to communicate to them efficiently. With most hotels being built and designed before their internet strategy is formulated, the reality scenario is almost always the way things are done…. But that is OK, because in our industry, we know our customers are coming from somewhere else.

This simple fact – speaking from the point of view of the internet marketer – is the equivalent of gold-dust. The power of that knowledge can give us remarkable agility and accuracy. It is an advantage over most other products and industries, and one that can produce profit.

Each country usually comes with its own language. Consequently, each language is a tool to address each country. Given that we have some good information on the vastly different needs and wants of each culture, languages – or more correctly multilingual websites – can be superb conduits for each hotel to touch different markets with unparalleled simplicity and accuracy.

With multilingual websites, there are simple steps that you can take to make reasonably certain that you are going after the right people, whilst cutting down your costs.

In the hotel world, you know your product and you can easily see the origins of your market’s visitors. Rather than having to wait for your visitors to leave your site before you can start aggregating a general view of how they think and what they are looking for, you can put experience to work well before you start devising your individual messages for each segment. If your market doesn’t get any Chinese visitors (frequency of direct flights from/to China at the nearest airport would be a good guideline if you are not in the middle of a metropolis – not to mention the multitude of reports like the absolutely excellent Hotelligence by Travelclick) you probably don’t want to re-built your site in Mandarin – at least not before you build it in the more urgent languages (those of the international visitors to your area).

Apart from the obvious simplicity and applicability to our industry, and the consequential simplicity of the brief to your designers (e.g. I want a website for German and French travellers), international multilingual websites are a triple win for hotels that implement them.

First, you get to offer your international visitors a tool that will allow them to book from the comfort of their own language. Few would argue against the benefit of offering such a convenience to their international travellers (according to some studies, up to 70% of hotel bookers would prefer not to have to make a booking in English). If your CRS allows for the language, the market can be very easily reached and their need satisfied.

Second, you get to have your website seen in countries where you would otherwise be invisible. With search engines in each country behaving pretty much like right-wing extremists, a site that is in the language of the country (when done properly of course) will have massively higher chances of coming up and being seen than a website based in another language and country. This is absolutely true even when someone is looking for a specific hotel’s name…! This doesn’t just drive the visitor to you, it pulls him away from the local on-line agencies that will invariably capture this traveller, for the usual high percentage costs – and of course the infinitely higher risk that the booking will end up in one of your competitors.

Third, you have a wonderful tool in your hands to market to each country separately. A Mandarin website will be a great place to offer an appropriate message during the Chinese new year, without taking prime space away from the British and American travellers who can be offered a .co.uk and .com website respectively. Imagine the ability to promote per country… your toll free telephone numbers to the Russians and Greeks (who don’t like to use credit cards), your best rate guarantees to the Americans, and your Halal cuisine to the Arabs.

There are surprisingly few companies that will offer multilingual SEO (and not just claim that they do it once asked) from the world go. It (multilingual SEO) and International PPC are vital to your success and will be one of the fastest growing trends for the years to come This means that the early entrants will have similar benefits to those that had a website sooner than the rest so prompt action will yield good results.

Please accept our best wishes and kindly do remember to let us know if you think we can help.

Yannis Anastasakis

electronic Hotelworks

1. Full Title: Landing Page Optimization – the definitive guide to testing and tuning for conversions, Copyright © 2008 by Wiley Publishing, Inc. Indianapolis, Indiana

2. Ash’s Landing Page Optimisation provides great summaries for those as well.

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