I came across a piece I’d written about 17-18 months ago on the future of hotel internet marketing. The article talked about 5 broad tech trends that I thought would radically alter the way we approached digital / internet marketing for hotels back at the end of 2008. I thought it’d be fun to take a re-look at the article and see how far we’ve actually come in the last year or more and if those predictions still hold water… here goes:
1. Choice is king.
The clear winners of the online distribution race will be suppliers and 3rd parties that provide the most choice to the customer. “Experience building” will become key to the looking and booking process online. This will mean that successful suppliers (hotels) will have to break down elements of their inventory like rooms, dining, sports, spa and supporting services into individual units that can be booked and packaged both internally and externally. The more elements you provide to what I like to call the “Experience Engine”, the better the choice available to customers to personalize and tailor their experiences. This creation of experience units will also allow tourism industry suppliers to collaborate more effectively online, as well as spur the evolution of 3rd party providers who provide superior experience engines, taking destination marketing to a whole new level.
18 months later: The recession hit hard sometime after this article was written…and OTA’s have bounced back and reclaimed quite a lot of online market share from hotels in the last 18 months. As travelers shopped for the best options and travel deals, major online travel retailers clearly won the battle, dropping airline fees and getting super aggressive on low fares and opaque packaging. For the likes of Expedia, packaged business drives a sizable chunk of business and travelers clearly love the ability to choose and package elements like air travel, rooms, car rental, etc while saving on overall travel costs. The recession DID however put a damper on tech development and the hotel industry still shows limited signs of moving toward enhanced revenue management systems that can break down experience elements for bundling. Hopefully the major chains should pick up the pace coming out of the recession, especially the ones who’ve cleaned up house and are now leaner, meaner and more focused on efficiency and tapping into growth segments.
2. Search rankings become irrelevant.
Currently, with the heavy emphasis on search rankings and generic paid search, this statement may come as a bit of a shock…but surely, this is the natural evolution of search. The days of pure search are already on the way out. Try a search on Google today and the evidence is there…a mashup of text, images and video results. That’s not all…if you’re signed in with a Google account, you’ll probably see different search results and rankings based on your past search behaviour. Combining personalization, multimedia, social bookmarking and niche search, it’s not hard to see that the way we place importance on search rankings today may need a dramatic rethink. Aggressive paid search and website SEO to get at the top of Google search results just won’t cut it. Successful hotel search marketing of the future will be more about optimizing content of all types and reaching the right audience through the right niche and social search channels.
18 months later: Google still leads in terms of search market share…the once proud and strong Yahoo! has lost the search war…and Bing has made a splash with vertical search, nifty visuals and a $100m marketing budget. The biggest steps I’ve seen in the direction of this prediction are the introduction of social network search by Google (first an experiment and now available to everyone who has a Google profile)…as well as the acquisition of Aardvark. The integration of real-time news from Twitter by Bing and Google is yet more proof of the growing importance of personalization and the social graph in search. As natural search rankings become richer and utilize more personal and social ‘memory’, the importance of having a strong brand has become even more crucial. The question many in the SEO business are asking now, however is…does this necessarily mean a better quality of search for the user…and what happens to the little guys struggling to get on top without the backing of a big brand name?
3. The evolution of online form.
Just as the separation of form and content on the Web allowed normal people like us to publish and create websites easily without having to learn web design, the next step will be the evolution of online “form” itself. The end purpose? To allow ‘web-sites’ to become “omni-sites” that can adapt and display content automatically in any shape or form, be it on web browsers, mobile devices, televisions, holographic displays or billboards. This will be made possible through the breakup of site design elements to functional, aesthetic blocks that can re-arrange themselves depending on the display device they sense. This means that yesterday’s Flash vs. HTML debate for hotel sites will be replaced with a scramble to get to top ‘form’ tomorrow. The new question will be “Can your hotel omni-site adapt to any display medium while retaining maximum impact and usability?” This will ensure hotel sites do justice to content and can display them on any device, be it the Internet, the guest’s mobile device, public information screens or guest televisions without requiring redesign.
18 months later: Mobile is the big discussion at the moment…and the introduction of devices like the Apple iPad are starting to change the way we consume and interact with digital content. Online publishers and agencies alike are scrambling to optimize the way content and advertising is displayed for maximum effect. There still doesn’t seem to be a ‘omnisite’ type design approach out there…mainly because of the plethora of devices, manufacturers, proprietary software and difficulty setting the agenda & scope for collaboration. HTML5 is the next big leap for web design that aims to reduce the need for proprietary plug-in-based rich internet application (RIA) technology like Flash, Silverlight, etc. Let’s see what the next year or two bring us in this direction.
4. From content to meaning. From interaction to relationship.
The lines between supplier and user generated content are increasingly going to blur.
With ever increasing amounts of information and users on the Internet, our online social circles will become more specific and exclusive. Users will rely on a personalized, time-bound ‘zeitgeist’ of the Web and their social networks to read the news, express opinions and aid their buying decisions. The ability to interact with hotel content and staff online will become the rule, not the exception. Be it virtual guest service lounges created with online applications like Google Lively, where guests can interact with hotel representatives in a virtual space, or the ability for guests to instantly share experiences in rich media with their own social network, a meaningful dialogue between hotels and their guests will become a crucial online success factor. Guest social networks will become a strong niche referral and monetized distribution channel for hotels.
18 months later: Here I can happily say that we’re well on track. Social media has exploded onto the scene over the last 18 months and the hotel industry is finally taking notice. Hotel companies across the globe are scrambling to define the scope and approach to their social media efforts…both internal and external. It’s a big fish… and it’s going to take a while before old-world business giants get used to the new paradigm and become successful at truly taking ‘hospitality’ online. The virtual reality space seems to have gone quiet for now… Second Life is no longer the hot topic it once was and Google Lively may have died a quiet death. However people are increasingly using social networks to obtain a jist of what’s going on in the world around them and in the circles important to them. Hotels are attempting to listen and join the conversation, with a few successful attempts to building community and driving indirect referrals (though the vast majority still haven’t figured out that it’s a ‘social’ party…not an ad fest)
5. The real world and the virtual world collide…visually.
Increasing customer discontent with hotel photography due to outdated shots, limited views and image doctoring, combined with emerging technology will make reliance on supplier visuals a thing of the past. As the ability to go beyond linking text to hyperlinking images and video on the Web becomes easier, users will be able to experience augmented reality through their computers. Imagine this…navigating a destination using Google Earth, being able to zoom down to hotels and actually explore a 3 Dimensional view in photos and video of what the hotel and its environment actually looks like! And all this stitched together from images other guests and visitors have taken and posted on the Web. Sound far fetched? The technology already exists…check out Microsoft’s PhotoSynth, which takes a large collection of photos of a place or object, analyzes them for similarities, and displays them in a reconstructed 3-Dimensional space. This will eventually be possible with the millions of user generated photos and videos on the web, allowing us to become virtual tourists…and see the world as it really is.
18 months later: User generated rich media content is becoming quite the common sight, especially with growing bandwidths and storage capacities. Bing Maps does a spectacular job of aerial mapping…and now even incorporates PhotoSynth! Augmented reality in the form of gimmicky apps and some useful mobile implementations like Layar are making an appearance. Microsoft recently unveiled their efforts at incorporating augmented reality into mapping (watch the video demo). Here too, we seem to be well on track – just combine increasingly powerful mobile technology, the social networking craze and rich media snacking… and we’ve got the perfect recipe to to getting there.
All in all, the last 18 months did see some sluggishness due to the recession but have not been disappointing on the tech innovation front. For some of the ‘predictions’ above, we seem to be well on track to getting there by 2013. It’s going to be an exciting couple of years ahead…I look forward to doing this again and seeing just where we are next year. Meanwhile, the hotel industry has plenty of catching up to do!
What do YOU think about these trends…realistic or far-fetched? Will we get there with time to spare…or is 2013 way too early? Leave a comment and share your views!
PS: The above blog post represents personal opinion. On a related note, it is also important to stress that these 5 trends are not the only major ones likely to make an impact on hotel internet marketing in the years to come!