Online vs Offline Distribution Strategies for Hotels
In order to set the context of the presentation, it is important to examine where the distribution strategy takes place in the global marketing strategy. According to Meidan and Lee (1982), four main stages constitute the global marketing strategy of hotels: identification of the target market and the needs of these customers; formulation of the marketing objectives; definition of the constraints (mainly linked to the environment of the hotel); and finally, allocation of marketing resources.
This last stage can itself be divided in four components, following the Marketing Mix model of McCarthy (1960): product, place (also called distribution), promotion and price. Before the internet and online technologies, the distribution channels were limited in the hotel industry. They could be separated into two categories: direct and indirect channels of distribution. Direct channel was the internal Sales team of the hotel. Salespeople were of vital importance when it came to “making contacts with companies, organisations and channel intermediaries, such as travel agents” (Meidan and Lee, 1982).
Indirect channels of distribution include Tour Operators (travel agents), airlines and in centralized operations in the case of franchised or chains of hotels. In these circumstances, what kind of distribution strategy can be put in place? The importance of intermediaries in creating value has been outlined by Dub? and Renaghan (2000). Surveys amongst travel agents have shown that the expectations of these different actors differ. Second in the top ten hotel practices cited by these intermediaries stands the criteria “hotel has good sales representation”, while first is that the “hotel has up-to-date reservations computer”.
This last argument might nowadays be seen as a required attribute, but in 2000 this was seen as an advantage to the hotel. Another example of distribution strategy is developing intermediaries’ loyalty, and the attributes leading to this loyalty differ between travel agents and meeting planners. All these criteria changed with the arrival of internet, as studied in the next section. The importance of the internet in marketing and distribution is undisputed by scholars and has been for years.
This is no different for Hoteliers who can access this resource through a number of different ways. Their own website allows hotels to have more reactive pricing strategies, keep information about themselves up to date, and provides the easiest method to have contact with customers. Online directory websites, tour operator websites, and travel agency websites all act as intermediaries between the hotel and customer in much the same way as the offline travel agent used to do but to a global audience.
Whilst taking a commission these can still be profit maximising channels for hotels because they sell to a broader customer base than the hotel would otherwise have access to. Review websites, whilst not run by hotels either, are also a crucial contact network with consumers. They are trusted by consumers and tap into Word of Mouth which has long been recognized as effective. Search engines have similarly been identified as commonly used by potential tourists and provide huge amounts of traffic to hotel websites.
It is therefore important to consider purchasing advertising space through these for the Hotelier’s distribution channel. Whilst search engines and review sites are not technically distribution channels (as you cannot book on them) they are still important to be aware on when looking from a hotel’s perspective at the online system. Having said all this it is important to remember how fast moving the technology is in this section and therefore the best hotels will have an eye on the future and how that will effect distribution channels.
This is what the following section will look at. Innovative distribution strategies such as IVR Hotel Reservation System and Promoted Hotels on Google Hotel Finder are the future, where it will be easier for Hoteliers to promote themselves than ever before. It opens a bidding war between various OTA’s to provide the lowest price. Various innovations in social media can eventually lead to the death of Online Travel Agencies. But on the other hand, search engines will have nothing to worry about as there is hardly anything better than search.
There has been a rapid increase in mobile bookings in recent years. More and more people have started using their mobile devices to make various reservations. Hence, Hoteliers should also focus more on developing their mobile websites, enhancing the user experience and making their website and content more discoverable by using search engine optimization techniques. They should also ensure that all the content on the site is multi-lingual because information is accessed by a global market.
In today’s world, travellers are exposed to so much information coming via different platforms that they no longer keep track of the source of information or even the format. They do not know the difference between media channels and content formats. In other words, the coming together of media channels and consumers has led to a new channel – customer engagement. Hence, hotel distributors should pay more attention to direct online channel and its various sectors such as websites, social media platforms, mobile web development and so on.
They need to invest more in multi-channel distribution and marketing strategies. We conclude with a summary of the merits of offline and online distribution channels today. For offline this includes the ability for up-sale to customers, access to a demand of customers wanting an easier time booking holidays that their own distribution channels might exclude, and the fact that the face-to-face contact can provide friendlier interaction with customers the hotel is otherwise not able to provide.
Offline will remain important in the present day by selling more tailor-made products and specific ‘experiences’. For Hoteliers it is important to tap this market as well. At the same time online is obviously an important distribution method as well. It allows hotels greater flexibility and control, a globalisation of the product, increased interaction with customers, an ease of pricing and allows an incorporation of social- and multi-media.