Kate Morel on the pros and cons of using different third parties to drive bookings.
One question often asked by consultancy clients and new members of my Facebook business group is ‘which is the best booking site to use?’. In the group this always attracts a variety of suggestions because there are now so many booking and marketing sites to choose from.
The best booking site, if indeed there is just one these days, is usually the result of a good fit between the type of accommodation and the booking company’s branding, or sheer digital marketing power. As usual within glamping there can be surprising results from the most unexpected places, so for the uninitiated it can be a case of trial and error before finding the right fit or mix.
Almost all hospitality accommodations have their own website and social media accounts and of course it’s preferable to attract as much direct business as possible. Even so it’s often beneficial to have additional online marketing support and until recently within glamping this meant using a specialist directory or agency, but things are changing.
As glamping continues to develop and gain popularity both in the UK and worldwide, mainstream marketing channels are including these types of accommodation providing additional marketing options to consider. Choosing the right marketing company to work with requires research and it’s not unreasonable to ask them questions about what they could achieve for the accommodation in question. Glamping involves such diversity and revenues can be dependent on many factors, so we often have to take each case on its own merit. Even so, a good marketing company should possess enough data and knowledge to be able to provide figures on what they believe they could achieve.
While we can’t delve into the details of every marketing and booking channel here (I’d fill the whole issue of OAB!) we can take a canter through the most relevant, although I have had to generalise here and there as not all of them operate exactly to the following business models or descriptions.
This is a well-established business model going back decades; think of the traditional holiday cottage agency and you’ll get the idea. They offer a full turn-key service taking care of the entire marketing and booking process while the owner takes care of on-site hospitality. An agency will usually arrange and pay for professional photography, marketing and PR, take guest enquiries, bookings and payments, handle ongoing guest queries, cancellations, refunds and deal with complaint resolution whether generated by owner or guest.
Joining an agency isn’t necessarily a done deal. To maintain brand identity and deliver reliable accommodations or experiences to their customers, specialist agencies tend to be selective about the properties they include in their portfolios.
While the typical agency model is reasonably standardised, individual business terms can vary, especially as some are evolving to meet changing market demands and new competition. For example, some are flexible around contracts, meaning the property can be marketed/booked through other companies as well as the owner’s website; synchronised availability calendars make it possible for all related calendars to update simultaneously on each booking or cancellation. Depending on the agency/accommodation in question, commission rates might also sometimes be negotiable for high value, high profile or unique accommodations. Most agencies also have an owner login facility where owners can keep tabs on their own bookings and figures.
Offering such a comprehensive and experienced service incurs high overheads and agency commissions are usually therefore in the region of 20-25 per cent. This might seem a little high, but when we take the whole package into consideration it’s a valuable level of service that suits some owners and some types of business.
• Frees up a lot of time
• Instant access to a targeted database of potential customers
• Digital marketing power – most agencies possess impressive marketing budgets
• PR contacts – most have PR relationships that individual owners could struggle to establish
• Industry knowledge and support – glamping dedicated companies have in-depth knowledge of their sector and should be more of a business partner than a service provider
• No up-front fees.
• No contact with prospective guests, some owners prefer to talk direct
• Some agencies insist on a minimum contract, usually 12 months (which is fine if the bookings are rolling in). Some still insist on an exclusivity contract
• One or two take full commission on bookings via the owner’s website, however I can’t see this lasting
• At the top end of commission rates.
• Glamping dedicated: Canopy & Stars, Classic Glamping, Quality Unearthed
• Mainstream (that includes glamping): Hoseasons, Sykes Holiday Cottages.
This marketing-only option is a website listing service that attracts potential guests then directs them via a link to the accommodation owner or their website. The accommodation owner then takes over, dealing with the enquiries, bookings, payments, cancellations and complaints. Directories are generally a hands-off signpost service charging a set price of somewhere between £150-£300 per annum.
There are one or two exceptions, but the accommodation owner is usually responsible for setting up and maintaining the listing information – uploading photo’s, writing copy, adding/amending any prices and keeping it fresh and accurate. As with any online marketing option, they require attractive, quality images, descriptive copy and decision-making information such as how many people a unit accommodates, facilities, if its dog-friendly etc.
• Direct contact with all potential customers
• Reasonable annual listing fee
• Direct control over accommodation information on the directory website
• Some have good PR contacts
• Can generate third-party marketing opportunities.
• Up-front fees, not performance related
• Updating information can be time consuming especially if using several listing sites
• Less support and insights to industry information.
• Glamping dedicated: Go Glamping, Host Unusual.
This is a category of my own creation because these companies sit somewhere on the scale between directory and agency. There are a lot of them and individual business terms vary – they might charge an annual fee to list with them, and/or a charge to use their booking system when used on the owner’s website. Like an agency, all of them charge a commission on bookings taken.
There are exceptions but generally they don’t offer a full agency level service and commissions are therefore in the 10–15 per cent bracket, although some charge less. The accommodation owner usually provides images and website copy, so again it’s important to get professional, engaging photographs and ensure that the information is accurate and kept up to date.
• Instant access to a large, targeted database of potential customers
• Digital marketing power – again, most have impressive marketing budgets
• PR relationships that individual sites could struggle to establish
• Industry knowledge – glamping specialists have in-depth knowledge of their sector. Some have ‘big data’ providing valuable industry insights
• At the lower end of commission rates
• Some offer a flexible choice of service (Glampingly in particular).
• Mainstream operators – little to no support or guidance
• Can work out more costly than anticipated if all features are charged for separately
• ‘Smart Pricing’, as used by Airbnb, can wipe out profit on bookings – ensure a lowest price limit is set.
• Glamping dedicated: Glamping Hub, Glampingly, Glampsites.com
• Mainstream (that includes glamping): Airbnb, Booking.com
Although Airbnb’s commission on bookings has appeared low in the past (3–5 per cent) which seems great for owners, guests are charged 20 per cent meaning they’re picking up the balance. Throughout 2020 however, for multi-unit listings of five or over, Airbnb is dropping commission to guests and raising owner commission on bookings to 14 per cent, pretty much in line with other international online travel agencies (OTAs) such as Booking.com (currently averaging 15 per cent).
It’s important to continually monitor the benefits of each marketing channel, but it’s not all about bookings. There are sometimes indirect benefits to being with a marketing company such as business support and PR opportunities which can be harder to qualify in terms of value, so consider the benefits overall not just fees and revenue.
If a marketing company isn’t working out however then it’s time to part ways, which, unless you’re in the middle of a mi
nimum contract or they are the sole booking agent, should be easy enough. Before jumping ship however, it can be worth looking closer to home and evaluating whether, actually, it’s the accommodation that needs to change. Glamping is a fast-developing industry, standards are increasing and some places that have been running a while can benefit from an upgrade, new facilities or a make-over to get those bookings rolling in again.
Just to make things a little more complicated, some marketing partners might list your accommodation with other marketing companies, but a note of caution around this as it could incur two sets of commission and all of a sudden we’re not making any money! Regardless of which, or how many, marketing and booking channels we might use, having our own website with availability and booking facilities is something every accommodation business should have. Ideally this will be backed up with a perfectly balanced selection of marketing channels to generate that optimum level of quality enquiries and a great conversion rate into bookings.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A leading business and design consultant in the glamping and experiential sector, Kate Morel’s practical and creative consultancy advice draws on many years of first-hand experience. This includes glamping start-up and diversification projects, property development and cottage rental, as well as seven years managing a leading UK glamping agency.
Kate’s independent consultancy supports development and diversification projects with advice on how to profitably operate in this sector. Her other venture, Morel & Co, focuses on design and build, specialising in creating innovative treehouses, lodges and cabins for the experiential rental market.
A respected industry ambassador, Kate also gives talks and presents keynote seminars at reputable events, runs business workshops and is a regular contributor to Open Air Business. www.morelconsultancy.com / www.morelcompany.co.uk / email@example.com / www.linkedin.com/in/katemorel24