Way back in the days before the Internet, potential guests had to call a hotel and talk to someone about prices. Then, if they didn’t like what they heard, they had to call somewhere else. (And, if that option proved even worse, potentially call back.)
It forced consumers to decide which they valued more: Their money or their time.
It also led to many stressed employees at the front desk, trying to decide if they should prioritize the call or the actual in-person guests waiting in line.
Enter booking engines. Suddenly, consumers could swiftly search their options and employees were able to concentrate on their other duties. Everybody was happy, including the properties themselves. (Well, travel agents weren’t thrilled, but that’s a different article.)
Online travel agencies (OTAs) supercharged the move toward online booking engines, and hotels, spas, casinos and airlines scrambled to keep up and create meaningful differentiators for guests willing to book directly through their own booking engine.
Then, the launch of the iPhone (and later Android) heralded a new wave of online booking engine innovation, driven by a mobile-first mindset. Hospitality companies needed booking engines that worked in mobile apps, then booking engines that were responsively designed, then booking engines that could send text notifications and so on.
So what’s next for the humble booking engine? As the chairman and co-founder of software/digital transformation company Plan A Technologies, my team gets to build new technologies for many different companies. We’re lucky to have the opportunity to both investigate and build cutting-edge innovations across the hospitality world, along with several other verticals. Here’s a peek at some of the things our clients are asking us about!
Deeper Integrations Between Loyalty Programs and Booking Engines (and the Ability to Book Much More Than Just the Room)
In the past, the booking engine was just that – a place to book a room. But that’s changing. Today, many booking engines are being used to upsell guests on things like restaurant reservations, spa treatments and tickets to shows or events. Expect that trend to continue. As hospitality companies look for ways to increase revenue, the booking engine is an obvious place to turn.
This is especially true when paired with loyalty programs. Most hospitality companies these days use loyalty programs – and for good reason. They have measurable ROI, and give companies a compelling additional incentive to retain guests and lock in more repeat business. But integrating loyalty points and awards into the booking engine experience isn’t always easy. Sure, the biggest brands in the world have the resources to make this happen, but it’s not nearly as easy for the smaller brands. What’s more, the integrated functionality is often limited to simply allowing a guest to use points to book a stay instead of actual money. That’s a great start, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
We’re getting a lot more requests to build more sophisticated integration capabilities that allow guests to use the booking engine to purchase more than ever before. Imagine allowing guests to use their loyalty points to buy room service or items from the gift shop, or even overnight stays for a friend? Imagine far more targeted loyalty offers that change based on the preferences of a specific guest as they book. Say, a guest loves playing at your golf course when she visits – in that case, golf-related offers are the first thing she could see when logging in to your booking engine, as opposed to a non-golfer who wants to see offers for waived resort fees or free valet parking if they pre-pay for their stay.
More Aggressive Booking Engines
What’s an “aggressive” booking engine you ask? Traditionally, if a guest started to make a booking but didn’t complete it, nothing happened. As long as the guest didn’t click the “Complete Booking” button, they wouldn’t hear anything from the property. That’s changed. Today, booking engines are monitoring keystrokes and sending follow-ups to encourage patrons who haven’t completed their purchase to do so. So if a guest enters their contact info, but doesn’t enter their credit card, it’s still enough to trigger a follow up message – usually with an offer – to try to convince that patron to complete the booking.
Booking engines are also using more high-pressure message tactics, like saying “We’re holding your room for the next 15 minutes” and then showing a countdown timer, or showing the message saying, “Only 1 room left at this price!”
While some guests find these approaches a little off-putting, many executives say these tactics not only work, but are necessary in today’s highly competitive environment.
Virtual Reality Tours of Guest Rooms & Meeting Spaces
We’ve all seen street-level Google Maps views of properties, but what about an immersive 3D view of an individual room that potential guests can “walk through” before they book? More properties are adding this functionality to their booking engines to help distinguish the experience from what an OTA can offer. Marriott, for instance, has been an early adopter of the approach, and has earned praise for its work here.
Booking Engines Are Acting More Like a Concierge
Traditionally, the role of a hotel concierge has been to help guests with things like making dinner reservations, getting show tickets or planning activities during their stay. But we’re seeing a trend of booking engines filling this role as well.
Some hotels are starting to use chatbots to automatically answer common questions that guests might have during the booking process. Some more advanced chatbots can even handle more complex requests, and as artificial intelligence gets more sophisticated, I expect this trend to continue.
The booking engine concierge is able to recommend and upsell guests on things like room upgrades, early check-in or and other local activities right at the time of booking (when the guest is already in “purchase mode”). And a patron’s reaction helps further inform future offers to enhance the guest experience and revenue per stay.
Making Life Easier For Your Staff
Finally, more advanced booking engines make it easier for your staff to do their jobs. For example, some booking engines can now keep track of a guest’s preferences and automatically assign rooms that will make that guest happy. So if a guest always books a specific kind of room, or requests a late checkout, that information can be stored in the booking engine and automatically populated when the guest makes their next reservation. Or if a guest requests something like a room with an operable window, or an extra cot in the room in the comments/special requests section, that information will also be automatically populated in the future.
At a time when it’s harder than ever to recruit enough staff, anything that can make their jobs easier is a win-win. Hilton saw some great success here by launching their Connected Room program which allows guests to control the in-room temperature, lighting and TV with their smartphone. For the more particular guests who would call to check on certain things about the room before completing their booking, the Connected Room program helps them feel more in control of their environment, while saving time for Hilton employees.
Throw in digital check-ins and check-outs, and guests often don’t have to go to the front desk at all. The result is a staff that has a more manageable workload, so they can respond quickly and cheerfully when issues that require their involvement arise.
Booking engines have gone through quite a bit of change over the years, and the pace of evolution is only increasing. If your booking engine is lagging behind, this is the time to upgrade it.
This article first appeared in Hospitality Technology.