By Doug Kennedy
For veteran hoteliers who are experiencing our industry's fourth economic down-turn in the last twenty years, it is interesting to see how consumers are reacting to the latest media-driven 'fire sale' stories that 'hotel discounts are there for the asking.' In past down-cycles, such as in the early 1990's after the savings and loan crisis, again after 9-11, and once more in spring of 2003 when we were facing the treat of the Iraq war and SARS virus, guests increasingly turned to the Internet to find what they perceived as the absolute-best available rates.
Not surprisingly, during the most current economic down-cycle, guests still check the Internet first, although this is no longer a simple task. With the emergence of 'meta-search' engines such as SideStep and Kayak, with more than 20 million guest reviews on TripAdvisor alone, and with new information being posted every day on social networking sites, prospective guests now have an overwhelming amount of information - and misinformation - available to them.
After spending countless hours online reading every hotel review, looking at every hotel photo (including seeing the real truth by visiting the 'traveler photos' at TripAdvisor and video shorts at YouTube), and even trying to take the mask off opaque channels by visiting websites such as BiddingForTravel.com and BetterBidding.com, many of today's value-driven deal-seekers eventually become very confused and even stressed by their decision-making process.
Here in 2009, an increasing number of these multi-tasking maximizers in the end revert to a very old-fashioned tactic that is 'so 1980's', which is to call the hotel directly and talk to an actual live person. What a concept! For evidence, just ask those fielding reservations calls how often they get asked right up-front 'Where are you?' by callers who have checked YellowPages.com for a local phone number just to make sure they can reach an on-premise agent.
According to numerous travel experts, the most famous of which is Peter Greenberg (a.k.a. The Travel Detective), this is the very best way to get the absolute lowest rate. Many guests are also discovering that this is a great way to get a feel for the level and style of service they will receive as a guest.
As a result of these trends, it is more important than ever to carefully train your reservations (and front desk) salespersons to capture and convert every possible inquiry, while simultaneously increasing average rates by better-presenting higher-rated accommodations, packages and promotional offerings. Here are sales training tips for your next reservations meeting:
- Level The Playing Field On Rate Parity. Despite all of our focus as an industry on this issue over the years, all too often callers want to book with a voice agent they've connected with personally, but the reservations agent's system doesn't show the same rate the caller sees online, frustrating both parties.
- Train Your Staff In 'Channel Conversion' Techniques. So many of today's hotel reservations sales inquiries occur only because consumers want to double-check a best-rate. Converting these calls into bookings not only saves distribution costs and OTA commissions, but it also ensures the caller won't end up selecting a different hotel off a menu at an OTA website.
- Don't Give Up When Caller's Say 'Just Give Me The Rate.' It cannot be denied that a segment of today's callers represent the extreme version of our value-driven deal-seekers who start off with a direct, blunt question of 'I just need to find out the total price...' spoken forcefully. Step One is to seemingly-concede: 'Certainly, let me check that for you right away...' and then to ask the Inventory Search Questions needed for quoting availability and rates, such as the dates and number in the party. Step Two is to then ask 'While I'm checking that rate for you, are there any questions I can answer for you about the hotel or area?' which will often open the door to a conversation vs. fulfilling a transaction.
- At the same time, we must honor caller's who respond with 'No thanks, just give me the rate.' Let's' remember these callers have like already invested precious time researching price online, so we need to respect their quest to price-shop for the best available value. When caller's insist on a rate and decline information on the hotel, Step Three is to proceed with quoting the lowest available rates first. But then after seemingly conceding, agents can immediately resume control by then asking questions such as 'How does that sound?' and/or 'Will that meet your needs?' and/or 'Is there something special you are looking for?'
- To the extent possible given your reservations systems and procedures, provide your agents with the ability to reference 'Normal' (such as 'rack' or 'high season') rates to position lower rates as already being a good value. For example: 'This rate normally runs X, but for the dates you are looking at we can extend you a special rate of Y.'
- So many hotels are running special rate offers, discounts, and promotions. Of course many callers seek these rates over periods of peak demand, such as during holidays, events, or other special circumstances. When callers ask for these rate offers by name, indicate that they are 'sold out' vs. 'not available.'
- If you can't secure the reservation during the first attempt, train your agents to leave the 'next step' on their to-do list. At minimum, invite the caller to become a guest and express interest in having them call back. Where operational systems allow, offer to e-mail links to the accommodations discussed, and add a short personal note regarding their situation or story. (This is an especially important step for resorts and luxury hotels who want to outsell their competitors.)
Certainly, today's callers are more aggressive than ever in seeking the best rate. Some reservations agents - and even a few managers - seem convinced that 'all the caller wants to hear these days is the rate.' So what are we to do? Just give up selling and quote rates all day? Well if you want just as much business as all of the other hotels in your market are getting, just keep doing the same things the other hotels are doing, which is conceding to the rate question and allowing buying decisions to be made on price alone. On the other hand, if you want to capture more business than your competitors, focus your attention on the 'store-front window' to your hotel, which ironically is once again your reservations and front desk team.