Dysfunctional hotel websites

Forrester Research just released a stunning report on hotel industry websites that damns virtually the entire industry as ante-diluvian in its approach to web marketing. The research giant reviewed the content and functionality of the four largest four-star hotel brandwebsites: Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Hyatt, Marriott, Hotels & Resorts, and Sheraton Hotels & Resorts.

In its acid summation of the report Forrester notes that "in 2011, hotels will produce $27 billion in online sales from US leisure and unmanaged business travelers." And it goes on to ask "how much better could that be?" To gauge that Forrester developed the Travel Website Functionality Benchmark (WFB) and put the four largest four-star hotel chains — Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, and Sheraton — through its 63-step benchmark. None passed.  The research paper suggests that "to optimize selling performance, travel eBusiness pros should examine the relevancy, visibility, and usefulness of their sites’ basic functionality in areas like navigation, planning, and mobile and embrace innovative, relevant functionality in planning, purchasing, and social media that can contribute to greater growth."

That storied hotel names like Marriott, Hilton and Sheraton and Hyatt could be so off-base bears some delving into. Forrester breaks down the report into four areas: firstly "A New Tool (the Travel Website Functionality Benchmark) To Help Travel eCommerce Become More Effective". Secondly, "Just Because They Generate Revenue Doesn't Mean Hotel Websites Do A Good Job; thirdly, and somewhat soothingly, "It's Not All Bad News: Multiple Strong Points Exist As Well" and ends expectedly with a prescription to "Re-Examine Basic Functionality While Pushing Relevant Innovation".

Forrester's tool focused on the implementation and content of the hotel companies' websites in terms of "discovery opportunities in search and naviation that inspire the traveler to choose planned on unplanned options".  After scoring and ranking the websites in a variety of areas from inspiration to brand clarity to loyalty program  and international accessibility Forrester concluded that none of them got a passing grade.

While trying to determine whether or not the hospitality industry was doing a good job of its websites Forrester observed that "In 2010, US online leisure travelers booked 68% of their travel online while business travelers reserved even more — 80%" and, therefore, "it’s essential that  websites are effective in meeting and, ideally, exceeding travelers’ rational and emotional needs. Having good price points, a clear path to purchase, and a safe and secure site are fundamental rational needs that must be met. Without them a website is unviable. Emotional needs are met with functionality that goes beyond the expected. These include enabling searching using nontraditional parameters, like searching for destinations based on themes or interests, providing clear access to interactive customer support, and incorporating extensive written and visual content so a user can learn the details about a property." The results in this area were termed "sobering" with revenues for one brand coming in at just about "18%" of the total leading to the obvious assumption that much more could and needs to be done. 

In the "not all bad news area" Forrester rightly points out that "it’s important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater" as there were several areas of strength. For instance, in the Purchase Process area hotel websites scored well in terms of allowing users to book without creating an account. Innternationalization also measured up well with most being able to serve cross-border guests. With regard to Product planning and messaging allowed for flexible date shopping with potential guests being able to pick dates with advantageous rates.  Lastly, in Planning, content and messaging the hotel companies didn't fare as well owing to poor cross selling features that leaves "significant amount of money on the table".

Forrester's recommendation to ramp up the effectiveness of hotel websites starts with "site planning and product content and functionality" where a "site can help travelers find what they want with “non-traditional” shopping functionality such as visual or price-based search options. Then it suggests moving on to making " multichannel integration better" whereby there is "seamless, fluid access between various touchpoints" including mobile.  (A cautionary note and report, also by Forrester, from another industry (banking) is in order here. The banking report suggests that "mobile may have its limits as a way to entice tech-savvy customers".)

Unsurprisingly, it ends with a call to "focus on your online customer service and social media-based capabilities". Improving interactive customer service and social media are two ways to reduce abandonment and potentially increase conversion. Nearly 3 in 5 US online consumers will consider
abandoning an online purchase if they have questions and can’t get immediate help. According to a major global hotel chain "proactive chat helped it reduce its abandonment rate by more than 40% while another chain saw its abandonment rate plunge more than 30% by adding click-to-call.
click-to-call. All in all a damning indictment that ought to spur some drastic rethinking amongst the industry.

Published by

Vijay Dandapani

Co-founder and president of a New York based hotel company for 24 years. Grew the firm to five hotels in Manhattan and also developed a greenfield project at MacArthur airport, New York. Speaker at numerous prestigious forums including Economy Hotels World Asia, Lodging Conference, NYU, Columbia University Real Estate Roundtable, Baruch College's Zicklin School and ALIS. President and ceo of New York City Hotel Association since January 2017.