I flew back from Berlin last night, my purpose there was to visit the ITB (International Tourism Borse). For those of you that might not know the ITB is pretty much the world’s largest travel exhibition, imagine many football fields of exhibition space with stands from all aspects of travel, some even double storey or triple like one big OTA had (no prizes for guessing where your commission goes)! It’s been four years since the last ITB so the mood was one of happiness to see everyone again.
Technology takes up two or three of the football pitches at this giant show. Hundreds of tech suppliers all displaying their latest achievements and sales advantages. Channel managers, PMSs, IBEs, payment systems, reputation managers, dynamic pricing and messaging systems of every variety, flavour and colour. You can visualise all the wonder and imagination that goes into displaying at such a prestigious show.
I was there for two reasons; to meet with a couple of our valued suppliers including dynamic pricing experts RoomPriceGenie and Google, and to have a scout round to see if there was anything that freetobook should be doing. If you are missing anything this is where you would most likely find it. Slightly to my disappointment there was almost nothing new, but conversely that meant we are already doing all the right things… and almost everything.
To be frank, it was heart-warming to know that our services are right up to date and often ahead of the international pack. This highlights the amazing development trajectory that freetobook has taken in the last 14 years. We develop for our customers with the wisdom we’ve accrued never blindly following the shiny “new” things (of which there are many) or pandering to the noisiest customer. Instead, we’ve learnt to listen carefully to all then digest and analyse so you get the right tech, not just all the tech. Here is a summary of the key areas of travel tech at the ITB.
Channel Manager: We are connected to the world’s largest OTAs and there isn’t much more our customers could get from any of the other channels. Its nearly twelve years since we made the first OTA connection. In those years there has been phenomenal growth in OTA bookings and their commission bills, so much so that it has become a norm for many businesses. We don’t take that view, for us it looks like abnormal growth, and it makes us work hard to even up the odds in your favour. To give back control we recently made it super easy to add a surcharge to the OTAs, making your direct price better than any other. One button to click and add a surcharge to the channels. Net result is more direct bookings for our customers than ever before, saving you commission and your guests money.
Google: Our Hotel Ads connection has been available for over four years and we have just added Google Vacation Rentals. What could be bigger than Google? We embraced the opportunity to provide this connectivity literally immediately. Many visits to their offices, pushing for a quick connection has paid off for our customers. Google bookings are direct bookings. Frankly, this is the only alternative to the OTAs, there is nothing else of scale. At the ITB many big (and expensive) hotel tech providers were trumpeting their ground-breaking connection to Google… what took them so long? Knowing when to move fast clearly has its benefits (extra bookings) and we did it all at a fraction of the cost big tech providers charge. There will likely be more developments in this area soon, as Google continues to change what they do. We are engaged with Google to see what’s coming and what is good for your business.
Payment solutions: We already seamlessly integrate payment and secure card handling into freetobook. Stripe is an amazing tech system that serves every possible need now and likely in the future. Berlin had many expensive booking systems that couldn’t offer ApplePay and GooglePay for guest booking, yet it’s been making it easier for your guests to pay you via our Stripe integration for over two years. Payments are an area we are currently looking to develop and this is not just about transaction costs. True value from payment systems is in how simple, secure and useful they are and how well they work for your guests. A cheap card handling deal could cost more in wasted time, lost bookings and a bad guest experience. What we currently offer is way ahead of many in Berlin but we know there is more we can do.
Guest messaging: Three years in now our Messaging was a pre-pandemic baby, born of the need to better communicate with guests. Great service needs great communication, we know that from our own business and it’s why we invested in building our own native solution, fully integrated into your freetobook diary. At ITB there were loads of “bells and whistles” messaging systems we could have connected to but the fact is they just would not be fully integrated (they can’t be unless you build it yourself). These systems are expensive and offer little extra functionality. By building Messaging ourselves we’ve it easier to build in new services based on your feedback and make it connect with other services like the Reputation Suite. All this is focused around your guests experience and there was nothing at ITB that could do better.
Internet Booking Engine (IBE): This was the very first part of freetobook’s tech offering, the booking pages for your website and other direct outlets. We recently benchmarked our conversion rates on Google at roughly twice the expected rate. Your potential guests starting a booking are completing their bookings on freetobook at industry beating levels. Conversion is one thing, I did see lots of very attractive versions of booking pages at ITB. This is why we are one year into a large and complex project to significantly upgrade the booking pages. We have been studying pretty much all the available booking pages currently on the market, identifying their strengths and weaknesses. I am certain that the new release will be better than anything we have seen. News to follow soon…
Property Management System (PMS): Our PMS has an upgraded diary (New Diary) has simplicity, customisability and utility, making the daily task of booking management easy. The diary is the core of our PMS and by enriching the information it holds you get greater visibility and control of your business. The option to only display information that’s key for you provides flexibility. I couldn’t find anything at the ITB to rival that. Yes, there were lots of great looking graphs and pie charts at the ITB but nothing new in functionality. As we build further services natively into freetobook we’ll ensure the PMS gets better.
Dynamic Pricing: Helps hotels get their pricing right every day for up to a year in advance. It uses sophisticated tech to measure the demand in your area coupled with the pace at which you are filling up. It has on average increased revenue by 22%. Larger customers have had this available for nearly a year and smaller customers can now participate. In this case we have partnered with a great company (Room Price Genie) to provide this technology from within freetobook. At ITB there were some very sophisticated pricing systems that would be ideal for international chains but over featured for independents. We have a lot in common with RoomPriceGenie and they’re proving to be a great partner delivering great results… there is now a growing queue to try this joint service.
Reputation management: At ITB there were many companies offering the ability to manage reviews and get a better online score with the likes of Google and Tripadvisor. But it all boils down to, how can I get more reviews? You do this in four ways, personalise the request with your name and logo (trust), automate the review request (regularity), offer a choice of review platform Google and TripAdvisor (user choice) and lastly you send it to the guest’s real email (not fake OTA email). All of these are already in the freetobook reputation suite. There is nothing else that matters as much as getting more great reviews in public places. Yes, companies at ITB can offer semantic analysis of the sentiment of your reviews and chart the overall rating over time … this looks lovely on graphs but mostly works on your ego rather than what your business needs. Again, we build the essentials that create maximum value. You get more and better reviews, and its already available in freetobook reputation suite.
Customer Relation Management (CRM): In this area Berlin had a fair amount of technology connecting to high end expensive systems. It was quite difficult to determine how our customers would benefit from it. We are looking to add a simpler more usable version built natively into freetobook so that you can recognise past customers and encourage them to book with you again. From feedback the idea is that you want to be able to serve customers better by knowing what they like.
What really surprised me more than anything else was what was not there at ITB. There was no big direct booking technology or direct booking feature. Very few of the big expensive, flashier versions of freetobook with their lovely stands even mentioned how they help hotels get more direct bookings. Why was that? The biggest stand over three levels peopled with hundreds of staff was the world’s biggest OTA. Their phenomenal growth has been enabled by technology companies “serving” hotels. Apart from a couple of independent companies TripTease and WHIP I found almost every other company was explicitly or implicitly in the service of the OTAs.
Major channel managers talked about the advantage of more connection with big OTAs and giving tips of how to sell more OTA rooms. This made me wonder who they were serving? Who is the whole tech industry at the ITB ultimately serving? That’s my biggest surprise, that most of the technology is serving the wrong someone. I kind of have an idea why this is the case but that might have to be for another blog, this one is already quite long..
The cost of exhibiting at the ITB is eye watering, none of our customers would want us to spend like that. In another world if we had exhibited we would have been one of very few real independents. At our core is the understanding that it is you that pays us and it is you that we serve, our loyalty is always to you and is never split with any other third party (OTA or otherwise).