Simple tips to boost online visibility and direct bookings

At inthevendee.com we have been fierce supporters of direct bookings versus OTA (online travel agency) bookings long before it became a movement. It's painful seeing small businesses in our community commit a significant percentage of their income to online travel agencies whilst losing a grip on direct bookings. We understand the Internet. We understand that the relationship between hospitality businesses and OTA's can become toxic. Hospitality proprietors need 100% of their booking revenues to live, to reinvent, and to maintain their business. We're not saying not to use OTA's. We're saying, get in front of them. Here are some tips and tricks to take back control over direct bookings. Internet marketing is a long-term strategy. So, start now!
1. WEBSITE IS YOUR TOP MARKETING TOOL (but not the only one)

We're not making this up! You need to have a modern, responsive and active website for online marketing purposes. If your website is more than 5 years old, it's time for an upgrade. Even if it's less than five years old but doesn't conform to modern standards, it's time for an upgrade (e.g. "brochure" type websites are passé. websites with tiny images are out!) Don't be afraid of the expense. A good website with nice photography is an investment that will pay for itself even if you don't feel it directly. Can you create your own? Of course, you can! But there are some things to look out for:

  1. Use a WORDPRESS site. WordPress drives 30% of the Internet and Google loves it.
  2. Don't use website "kits" or "free websites". They have no traction on Google which is exactly what you do need. Free themes often don't receive necessary security updates (they should have a "last updated date" and that date should be very recent. Secure and updated websites to do business with matters to social media platforms and to Google. We understand wanting to save money but using the free/templated stuff is going to hurt your online visibility rather than help it. 
  3.  Make sure image content is WEB OPTIMISED and fits correctly in the intended spaces. More detail in our article here
    1. Be bold and beautiful
    2. ALT-TEXT is filled out for each picture in the media library
  4. WEBSITES NEED FRESH CONTENT REGULARLY TO THRIVE ON THE INTERNET
    1. Install updates as needed
    2. Show Google and other search engines that your website is ALIVE with
      1. seasonal images
      2. seasonal offers
      3. special offers
      4. social media feeds
      5. add a blog (and use long tail keywords - see #4 Google below)
      6. list reviews on your website (home page) and rotate them frequently (no more than 3 or 4 at a time)
2. FIX THESE COMMON MISTAKES ON YOUR WEBSITE TODAY!
  1. The content of your website should SPEAK DIRECTLY TO YOUR AUDIENCE e.g. people looking for a peace; history lovers; family parks; niche sports activities; nature time and learning etc... On your homepage say:
    1. This is who we are
    2. This is why you should book with us
    3. This is how you book direct with us and the payment methods accepted
  2. The homepage should also include "DIRECT BOOKING" info: how does your guest benefit by booking direct?
    1. Personal contact with the owner is a huge plus but there is more!
    2. Better rates
    3. CREATE SPECIAL INCENTIVES like early check-in and later check-out --
      1. booking site 4pm check-in; direct booking 2pm check in (THIS IS HUGE!)
      2. different cancelation policy (flexibility in covid-19 times)
      3. offer a breakfast voucher or a free picnic or a bottle of local wine upon arrival (= great to work with and promote other local small business plus if you buy direct you can negotiate a discount for you too!) (be inventive at minimal cost, certainly less than what you pay OTAs) 
  3. REMOVE ANY REFERENCE TO OTA SITES. Take away any opportunity for the shopping tourist to click away from your website
    1. The longer a user stays on your own website, the higher the chances they'll book with your directly
    2. The "rating API short codes" OTA's like Trip Advisor and Booking.com want you to install on your website only sinks their claws into your direct bookings.
      1. We want you to really think about it with this metaphor: Imagine you're selling pears that you grew yourself... Along comes a pear seller who doesn't have an orchard. He buys your pears to sell to others... Then this seller asks you to put an advertisement to their business, selling your pears... on your website.
    3. OTA's are effectively your competition. Sure, they are doing you a service, on the surface. Given the GDPR and its potential pitfalls, a third party buffer may be attractive. But if you don't do everything in your power to gain direct access to that guest (e.g. through newsletter sign up for future contact) the OTA has stolen opportunity right from under your nose. That is how your online visibility goes out of balance. 
    4. Do the test. In an incognito window (three dots to the right of the URL bar), type the name of your business in your area. If you rank below your OTA Google Ads in the search results, you're losing the battle and it's time to fight back to a/ keep a balance and b/ tip the scales back into your favour. (see also #4 Google below)
3. IS SOCIAL MEDIA WORTH YOUR TIME?

YES!! If you want online (and free) marketing, you must have your website linked to 2 or 3 social media platforms. Let's try another metaphor. Imagine a train. The locomotive is Google, and the caboose is social media. The wagons in between are your website and your business. Of course the whole thing isn't going to start moving down the tracks unless you throw coal on the fire. The coal is the work you do to create steam. The more steam, the faster the train rolls down the tracks! Now, how do you make steam? Social media provides you with indirect (and mostly FREE) marketing opportunities every single day.

  1. Adopt the "CHEERS philosophy"! Do you remember the theme song to the very popular TV show "everybody knows your name?" Pick 3 to 5 groups in your niche e.g. Camping in France or a great group local to you (like inthevendee) and spend 5 to 10 minutes engaging every day.
    1. answer questions  and offer advice
    2. participate some content of your day
    3. sell sporadically when invited or on the occasion it feels right
    4. BE CONSISTENT - soon... everybody will know your name!
  2. On your BUSINESS PAGE, give your followers a glimpse into your day-to-day life. Why? This creates a personal connection, which is crucial to direct booking.
    1. show your personality - e.g. if you're creating a new recipe, don't just show the end result, show the failures and show yourself in the kitchen.
    2. show your area
    3. show you're living like the locals do e.g. market shopping
    4. See also item # 4.4 SEPARATE BUSINESS FROM PERSONAL
  3. BE VISIBLE! POST DAILY, TALK ABOUT YOUR OFFER, USE HASHTAGS!
4. FIX THESE COMMON MISTAKES ON SOCIAL MEDIA!
  1. OLD PERSONAL PROFILES. Be sure to keep your  "about" personal profile accurate and fresh! So many make the common mistake to use this space "to be cute" with Harry Potter sorting hats and whatnot. Fix it TODAY. Why?
    1. Because of the above mentioned Cheers philosophy! People are curious. When everybody knows your name they will look for your personal profile on social media
    2. Your personal profiles should be visible, up-to-date, even professional: say what you do in clear terms. What is your job, where do you do it and what do you provide. Give your website address (one or more) -> results in more online visibility and website traffic
  2. SHARING A WHOLE SERIES OF PICTURES IN ONE POST followed by not posting content for days. Stop! Why?
    1. Anytime we suggest that daily social media content/ engagement is crucial to your business, the #1 complaint we hear is "I don't have time"
    2. But if you take 20 pictures in one day and share them in one post, you have missed the opportunity to engage customers or guests over the course of several days with content you already have. 20 pictures is enough for 5 lovely collage posts on Facebook and 20 posts on Instagram!
      1. People scroll fast. How many do you think will actually stop scrolling to look through 20 images? Probably your immediate family, who are are not your customers.
    3. What you'll do INSTEAD:
      1. crop images in your camera app to 1:1 aspect ratio (square pictures) and use filters to enhance them
      2. post 1 set of 4 images several times per week
      3. any time you leave the house, you will take new pictures to build your image library
  3. MAKE USE OF THE PRE-SCHEDULE POST FEATURE. Continuing with the example of 20 images.
    1. Set up your posts to auto-release! It is a game-changer! Schedule time 1 day per month to do this.
    2.  You'll be posting new content even on the days you're nowhere near social media and you are free to engage with comments when you do have five minutes to yourself
    3. Another option is to use a 3rd party post scheduler like Hootsuite - but it's only free up to a point.
  4. SEPARATE BUSINESS FROM PERSONAL. At first glance you might think this contradicts item # 3.2. Actually, there is a big difference.
    1. Profile image. Don't use a picture of your dog in your business profile picture spaces. Use your logo (best), or a mini-image of your business
    2. Header image. Use ONLY a crisp image of your business, cropped to the size of the space
    3. Keep personal family pictures off of your professional social media feeds. Your business page is for announcing special offers, early-bird direct booking incentives and your work e.g. creating recipes,  restoring furniture, business upgrades/ refurbishments, gardening and sightseeing. Show your day-to-day life, without forcing us to look at family pictures (think about your uncle breaking out his vacation slides!) It's okay to include the occasional family picture in the context of living like the locals do.
4. RANKING HIGHER IN THE GOOGLE SEARCH ENGINES

Ranking higher in Google is one of the top questions posed by hospitality business proprietors. Truth? It can take years! Online visibility and search engine ranking is a long term game. A website alone isn't going to help. Social media alone isn't going to help. It's a combination of circumstances that you create that is going to do the trick.

  1. You have a website but no social media business pages
    1. Set them up. Then link your website and social media platforms together. It is essential. (remember the train metaphor?)
  2. Make sure your "business with Google is in order". We wrote about it here
  3. Create a Google ads account and learn how to use it.
    1. Use long-tail keywords. Long-tail keywords are keywords  (or phrases) that are more specific to how the user looks for information on the Internet. They are longer and while they will generate less search traffic, they have a higher conversion value because they are more specific. This is an effective SEO tactic for one simple reason: that makes Google very happy -> results in more visibility.
    2. Bidding on your brand name in Google Ads will rank you higher than the OTAs
    3. If you are advertising on social media - Google ads are more effective and cheaper (30 to 40c per click). It is also much more user friendly to set up than Facebook or Instagram
    4. Watch this free tutorial - it is excellent!
  4. Did you do the test we asked you to do in item 2.3.4 (see above?) If your property listing on booking.com shows above your website, it's probably because they bid on YOUR brand. They are deliberately leading the customer away from you to your business on their website. These types of strategies are employed by OTAs to lead direct bookings away from you while using your business for a revenue stream. Most hard working hospitality small business folks are not aware of this and we feel that you should know. OTAs have their use. They DO! IF you are competitive with very good images on their platforms so that you stand out from the noise. But this is what we call "the dark side" of Internet marketing and online travel agencies.
    1. Learn how to fight it. Take back control by bidding on brand. Google's explanation here
5. WHY IT'S OKAY TO CONTACT GUESTS DIRECTLY!

Because in desperate times such as a pandemic it's much better to be proactive than reactive.  It's been a tough twelve months in the travel/ hospitality industry. So, what are the tools you already have in the toolbox that you can use to get in front of the tourist shopping around for a vacation spot this year?

  1. Ask your most loyal, recurring guests for help by posting some pictures of their past stays with you on social media, and tagging you. Share!
  2. VIA YOUR WEBSITE MAILING LIST. create attractive newsletters with your logo, a few nice images. Show people why they'll want to book with you. Tell them you can't wait to see them!
    1. Talk about cancelation policies
    2. Show them the things you're doing to keep their family safe in the pandemic
  3. WHO WAS FORCED TO CANCEL their stay with you in 2020?
    1. Contact them by phone and ask them if they are ready to re-book, mentioning your booking direct incentives like flexible cancelation
  4. Talk about it on social media: how much you've missed your guests (tag images) and how much you're looking forward to seeing them -> they'll share which will increase visibility
6. HITCH A WAGON OF YOUR BUSINESS TRAIN TO A LOCAL POPULAR WEBSITE LIKE inthevendee.com
  1. On your website: in your page resources, post a link to our website through mentioning an interesting article or travel guide, or just a link to the home page as a local resource (if you do, let us know and we'll find a way to link back to you!)
  2. On your OTA platforms, post a link to inthevendee.com as a local travel resource. No, you will not be hurting yourself, on the contrary.
  3. Social media: share our articles as they benefit your business e.g. share our market guide, windmill guide, daytrip guides etc... Your guests will love you for it!
  4. TOGETHER WE ARE STRONGER. By linking ourselves to you and you to us, we are propelling ourselves forward as a community. So far (as of Jan 2021) we have been referenced on OTA's well over 60 times and nearly 300 times on various other websites including a listing as a top local blog in France. Our goal is to increase your direct bookings, that's why we work so hard. FOR YOU!
7. JOIN THE #BOOKDIRECT FORCE!

We have been advocates of direct bookings over online travel agents for years, actually long before we inherited inthevendee.com. In our work creating websites, we started noticing just how toxic the relationship of hospitality businesses with OTA's could become and how much money it was costing our clients. We are advocates because we understand the inner machinations of the Internet. But explaining it was (and is) very difficult because local tourism offices are pushing them to use OTAs. To be clear, we are not saying not to use them. What we are asking is to do everything you can to stay in front of the online travel agent bookings. Imagine our relief when about three years ago, other small business owners got on board with our logic. They saw how much money they were losing and decided band together to do something about it. Inform yourself here:

  • DIRECT BOOKING SUMMIT : the Summit brings together best practices for revenue, marketing and distribution
  • BOOK DIRECT SHOW: an event dedicated to helping short-term rental managers and hoteliers to generate more direct bookings.
    • Get your free tickets for online presentations here.
  • Recommended reading: StoryBrand by Donald Miller (you can find it on Amazon etc, also in audiobook)
  • The first Wednesday in February is the "book direct guest education day... it is a worldwide effort to educate guests about the advantages of “bypassing third-party platforms to book directly with you”. On 3rd February 2021, present your special offers and incentives, and use the hashtag #bookdirect. You can also send out an email campaign.

To show you how serious we are, we're offering space to our Vendée hospitality businesses on our Holiday Rentals page. Just have a look at the listings already there and provide all text and links and one image to admin@inthevendee.com. This page provides you with a FREE opportunity to get direct bookings via our website. It's from the heart. For YOU!