Booking Systems

How to compare and select the right booking system with advice from Ted Howard-Jones.

Booking - Caption on Blue Keyboard Button. 3DIf you’re running a business that takes bookings your customers will now expect to be able to book and pay online. Businesses that rely on taking bookings solely by phone or email will lose business to those that make it easy for a client to confirm availability, book accommodation, pay and receive an email confirmation.

Choosing the right booking system for your business is vital. This is a decision you want to get right because moving from one system to another mid-season is very painful!

Cost
From experience, the costs of these systems are falling as competition increases. In fact, the monthly, or more often annual, subscription costs average out at £300-£400/year for a five pitch glamping site. The more significant cost is your time; choosing the right system for you, setting it up, testing it and tweaking as your business evolves.

Many providers of systems to this market have also spotted that their clients lack a basic website, so are including this as part of the package. That might be attractive, but of course might mean that you are even more ‘tied-in’ to their subscription if you choose to change suppliers.

Choosing a provider
There is a huge variety of providers, but don’t be overwhelmed. Many provide similar features but it pays to do your research. Ask them to identify three or four of their customers similar to your business in both scale and type. Call them and see how they like the system and what, in practice, the pros and cons are.

Systems broadly break down into two types. The most common are for overnight accommodation owners, such as glampsites and B&Bs. However, these aren’t suitable for on-farm activities such as horse riding or paintballing so, if you are running this type of venture, choose an ‘appointments’ type system that can handle time-of-day based slot booking. We haven’t yet seen a system that handles both types on one platform.

Some suppliers help you to integrate or connect with other platforms such as Airbnb, Pitchup etc. If this is important to you now, or in the future, ensure the right ‘connectors’ are in place and what the charges are for connecting you.

Test, test and test again
Take advantage of the free trial periods offered by most suppliers. Set your system up, follow the tutorials or advice, then ask the supplier to review your setup. Get as many friends and relations as you can to create test bookings before you go live. Then make sure you wipe all these bookings off.

One of the major advantages of online bookings is that it helps you build a detailed customer list. Ensure the supplier allows you to download and re-use your customer data and that both you, and they, comply with GDPR rules.

Checklist

When it comes to choosing the right system for you and your business, here is a useful checklist to ensure you are getting what you need out of the system:

Pricing
Some systems charge per year or per month. Others charge on the number of bookings you take or a percentage of the transaction, or a combination of the above.

Visuals
Take a look at both the ‘front end,’ what the customer sees, and the ‘back end,’ what you see. Can that front end be included within or made to look like your existing website or do you get a ‘free’ website as part of the package?

Mobile friendly
Can both you as the business owner, but more importantly your customers, access the system from a smartphone or tablet? Test this thoroughly. Increasingly, transactions are now done from these devices.

Language
Many booking systems are designed for B&Bs and hotels and routinely use the term ‘room’ throughout. Make sure you can change this to ‘bell tent’ or ‘fully furnished pod’ etc.

Integration
Ensure you can ‘integrate’ the booking system into your own website/Facebook page utilising ‘widgets’ or similar. Customers expect the experience to be seamless.

Phone bookings
Can you also manually take a phone booking? Does the system show you the difference between a phone booking or a web booking?

Prices and deposits
If you vary your prices at different times of the year, have ‘minimum stays’ or take a one night or percentage deposit, can the system be set up to allow this?

Occupancy changes
How does the system cope when you want to swap a booking from one pitch/pod/tent to another? Can you ‘drag and drop’ a booking so that you can maximise occupancy?

Ease of use
Is all the information about a customer on one screen, or do you have to juggle between various tabs?

Notifications
Do you get an email alert when a person books so that you can review the booking?

Flexibility
Can you access the system from your phone while away from your PC? If so, can you then add days to a booking as you talk to a customer and persuade them to stay longer or see how much they owe you?

Customer contact
Does the system show you which emails it has sent to a customer and if they have been received or bounced?

Card payments
If you want to add this, does the system allow you to integrate things with a payment platform such as Stripe?

Provisional bookings
If you want to ‘vet’ bookings before accepting them (perhaps to check one doesn’t conflict with a phone booking taken by a family member) make sure your system allows this.

Customisation
Can you ask custom questions as people book? For example, you might want to know the type of dog they are bringing.

Automated emails
Ensure you can customise emails and that you can confirm a booking, send a ‘deposit received’ note, a pre-arrival note and a day of departure or follow-up note.

Growth
If you are considering expanding in the future, will the system allow for this and how much will it cost?

Analytics
Does the system produce useful daily or annual reports that alert you to when people are booked to arrive or tell you what the average occupancy was in each month/year?

Accounting
Does the system allow for cash, cheque, BACS etc. deposits and balance payments? Can you action refunds?

Data capture
Can you export the data on all your visitors so that you can import it into another system, such as MailChimp, for future email marketing ensuring it complies with GDPR?

Suppliers
There are many suppliers and new ones seem to pop up every month, but to get started these ones are more geared towards smaller tourism-based enterprises:
• Anytime Booking
• Bedful
• Bookalet
• Free to Book
• GlampManager
• Innstyle
• Q-Book

And for an appointments-base system:
• Acuity Scheduling
• SimplyBook.me

If you are running an enterprise with many (10+) options for clients to choose from, the list of suppliers increases as you will become more relevant to the systems set up for hoteliers.

 


ted howard jonesABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ted Howard-Jones grew up on his father’s mixed farm in the Chiltern Hills. The livestock has now gone but he has put his early career in marketing (working with clients such as BT and Ericsson) to good use, developing three profitable income streams.

Ted has recently started working with other local farmers to help them with their marketing and has spoken at farmers’ clubs, CLA and IAgSA events about rural marketing. He also helps to support 500+ small caravan sites across the country with their marketing. He has recently served on the Caravan & Motorhome Club Council and helped develope the CL Booking app. ted@countrysidemarketing.co.uk

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