Online travel agents, also known as OTAs, are wrongly seen as the big bad wolf, the inevitable evil in the hospitality world. In fact, if you use them smartly, you can take a great benefit and pay only an acceptable amount. Do play their game - it is worth it. But don't be mad on OTAs - they pay a lot to promote your business and tell the world you exist. From there on, the ball is in your court.
Do think of your listing as a trampoline
Often, travellers use the online travel agent sites to find and compare properties and read reviews. Then, when their choice is reduced to a couple of hotels, most people visit the property's website to look for more information or for a better deal. Here is your chance to grab their attention and make them stay. Make sure your website is well designed, responsive to all devices and provides all the useful information. Try to build upon their initial idea of your property with more attractive pictures, additional information about your services and other things to escalate their positive attitude to your business.
Do what OTAs do
Once your potential customers are on your web site, feel free to put all their wiles into action. Visit an OTA site, go through the whole booking process and watch carefully. They use some general tricks to force travellers into making a booking, like assurance that the greatest possible deal was just found, or the message that a lot of people are also looking at that property at the moment, or that there is only one last room left available etc. All the time OTAs promote your own prices and cancellation policy as a great deal being only available on their site, at that particular moment. Do the same - tell your customers why you will give them the best possible rate, what you won't charge them for, how helpful and responsive your staff is etc. Promote the same things, just word them even better. Because you are the supplier, they are only a mediator.
Do play smartly with rate parity
Most OTAs require you to do so and some can cause you troubles if you don't. But you still have other legal ways to attract your actual or potential customers and acquire more direct reservations. Some OTAs would hide the email address of the guest from you till the very last moment. Well, that's not very nice. A good reason for you to offer customers personal incentives and tell them face to face that they will always get more if they book directly with you the next time. Your published rates remain the same, the rate parity is doing well, but with bonus codes, for example, you can grant the extra service or discount and stay safe and unharmed. Put your efforts on converting OTA bookers to direct customers. This is probably the most important part and the great idea behind getting listed.
Do sell only a limited number of rooms
This would be enough to get the benefits from the massive exposure but lets you keep the share of direct booking significantly high. Smart online distribution is what makes the difference. It is worth thinking on a sophisticated channel manager to help you control your OTA sales. If you are able to set a minimum number of free rooms or other sales restrictions to your rates, the channel manager will automatically stop selling through the OTAs once you've reached the minimum capacity. Thus, you will avoid selling rooms at a price below the optimal and miss the revenue from last minute bookings.
Do NOT underestimate the exposure
Without trying to insult you, but you probably don't have the money to pay Google and other search engines the huge amounts they receive from online travel agencies. If you are not familiar with the numbers - we are talking about millions of USD. So, if you think that your very-well-optimized website would do the job as good as OTAs, honestly - you are wrong. Besides, you are not very likely to gain much popularity if you can't provide a wealth of genuine user reviews about your business. And TripAdvisor, for example, is considered a trustworthy source of client evaluations that is hard to be manipulated, in opposite to your Facebook fan page. So dont underestimate OTAs like a sales channel.
Do NOT leave a negative review unanswered
Ignoring bad feedback is like admitting your fault in the worst possible way. If you have received a negative rating for a reason, answer the review posted, apologize and say what you have done to not let it happen again. Penalized employee, service updated, whatever it is - shout it out, so everybody can see that you care for your customers and take immediate actions to make sure your service is always top notch. Everyone makes mistakes and we all know that, but in order to be excused you have to handle the situation gently and generously. Do NOT forget to publicly offer your apology bonus or incentive.
Do NOT play Mr. Offended in case of unfair negative rating
Remember, the review area is a great marketing opportunity. And negative reviews are the most essential part of it. Even unfair reviews from some big moaner can become the ground for a great activity and make you shine. Think well on how you answer those. Politely remind the customer about their fault in the situation, saying you are not mad at them, but clearly stating your point of view. It is always a matter of wording to stay polite but also protect your image and tip the waves in your favour. Make sure you sound confident, choose whether to be calm or funny but avoid sarcasm and malice.
Do NOT let OTA bookers come back to the OTA
The idea behind your OTA listing is to get exposure that you can not pay for. And this i s why you don't have to be upset with online agents or call them robbers. Once their role is done and you've got the customer in your property, it is only up to you to keep them yours and never let them go back. Provide personal bonus codes for incentives - discount, fancy dinner, free sauna - there are surveys available on the customer preferences on hotel incentives. Make it clear that these incentives are only applicable for direct bookings and promote your website where they can book. Build the personal relationship and engagement OTAs won't ever be capable of.
Do NOT believe in free gifts
OTAs exist to get profit from your work, not vice versa - this is the core of their business model. When they provide free tools for you and promise to help you succeed, be careful! Each rating or write-a-review widget you place on your website is designed to link to the OTA website and bring your visitors there with a little chance of return. Once there, your customers are being cannon-balled with ads of your competitors and the agent's website gets a wonderful, relevant dofollow link from you without providing one back to your site (TripAdvisor provides a no-follow link for Business listings using Google updates as justification). With this they boost their SEO and may beat you in search results even for queries containing your own brand. Be clever, call your web designer and figure out a way to show your great ratings and encourage your visitors to leave reviews, but skip the link juice passing part. Hint: Put the widget in an iframe, for example, and disallow the crawlers to follow the link there using your robots.txt.
You could hardly avoid dealing with online travel agents completely. They have been here for a while and are going to stay even longer. Unfortunately for hoteliers, their business model is bound to succeed because end-consumers want them and like them for being a perfect time-saver when it comes to hotel bookings. OTAs will keep trying to take more business from hotels in the future, involving new techniques and approaches to squeeze as much revenue as possible. What hoteliers can do to stay in the battle, is to find new ways to outsmart them, to offer guests what OTAs can't - being just digital mediators in a human driven industry, even unite with their competitors to obtain more influence on this hate-love relationship with OTAs.