For years now, vacation rental companies have been fighting desperately to win back market share from third parties, such as online travel agencies (OTAs), and thus reduce the cost of customer acquisition. Huge sums are spent on strategic initiatives, such as email campaigns, improving organic and paid SEO, making sure that the website tells the company’s story, and ensuring a smooth journey from looking to booking.
All of these measures increase the likelihood that a prospective, web-surfing guest will engage directly with the rental company.
In military terms, I would say that this approach is a bit like aerial strafing because the “ammo” has a mostly random chance of hitting its target.
But too many vacation rental (VR) leaders overlook the real means by which battles are won, and history buffs know that wars are won one battle at a time.
Let’s acknowledge that the most important opportunities to encourage guests to book directly, and to rebook future stays, occur through human—not digital—interactions. Whether by phone, chat, email, or in person, it is the people who make the difference.
For too long, the lodging industry, in general, has been obsessed with digital marketing and distribution at the expense of focusing on human engagement. Perhaps this is because digital encounters make it easier to empirically measure and report KPIs to the boss, whereas the very nature of human encounters between staff and guests lends these types of engagement to anecdotal evidence.
The good news is that emerging tech has made it increasingly easier to measure these human conversations. For example, there are cloud-based phone providers that offer call recordings, enabling managers to coach-up their teams. A few of these phone systems allow agents to track “disposition codes” and turn inbound calls into transient leads worthy of follow-up. Engaged leaders can also peruse chat logs and email exchanges between staff and prospective guests.
Now, all of this takes a bit more time than glancing at a Google Analytics report or examining website conversion data. Yet marketing and operations leaders who are willing to do so will find a plethora of training and coaching opportunities to mentor staff. At my company, we have come to recognize these opportunities through the work my team does with remote call scoring, telephone mystery shopping, and training, but I also uncover opportunities during my consulting engagements. Here are some training tips from our programs and services.
Encourage Website Visitors to Call Direct
Post your company’s phone number prominently on each page instead of burying it in the “contact us” page.
Use a local, well-known area code instead of an 800 number.
If using a vanity number, spell it out below and make it click-to-call on mobile.
Right above or below the number, post copy reading, “Call Now to Book Direct” or “Call Our Local Area Experts.”
Teach your team members that, although chat is wonderful for answering quick questions, they should look for opportunities to offer to call the guest immediately to complete the booking.
When guests start to ask questions, such as “What’s the difference between this home and that one?” or other specific questions indicating a strong interest, respond by saying, “If you like, I can call you right now to assist.”
Remind your staff that chatting with guests is not like texting friends. They need to rehumanize the medium by reacting to what the chat sender writes. Example: “I’m thinking of booking the XYC Condo for our honeymoon, but I just wanted to make sure it has a full water view.” Instead of clicking back with “Yes, it does have a view,” instead write, “Wow, congratulations! And this one is perfect for a honeymoon. Would you like me to call you now to answer any other questions and complete this booking?”
Similar to chat, prospective guests will often pose email questions about rates, bedroom configurations, and special needs. Staff should always personalize their responses.
End with a sentence such as “Our onsite team would love to assist you personally with completing your booking. You can reach in-house reservations at [number] during [hours], or just reply to this email with your phone number and time range and we will call you directly.”
Today’s reservations inquiry calls are often disguised as “I just have a quick question about . . . ”
Teach your team that after they answer an initial question they should follow up by asking, “Now that I’ve answered your question, may I ask what dates (or what home) you are looking at?”
Oftentimes callers simply ask about the total price including taxes and fees. This is because many OTAs display various rates differently than your website. Again, after answering questions, agents should ask, “Because we always offer our best rates here at in-house reservations, are there any dates I can check for you right now?”
When callers are obviously comparing rates they see online, train your team to ask, “May I ask what website you are on?” and then offer to check directly.
It is also important to coach your team on how to sell the advantages of booking directly. This pitch might include the timing of advance deposits, lower booking fees, and more personalized arrival experiences.
From what we see, vacation rental companies may find that it is the highest-rated/top tier inventory that sells out first. Therefore, train your team to “down sell” to less-desirable locations/views when that is all there is left. Replace “All we have left is . . . ” with “Fortunately, what we still have open . . . ”
Of course, it is also important to engage in reservations sales training and remote call scoring (or traditional mystery shopping) on an ongoing basis. Not only will this practice help your staff convert calls, but it will also promote a higher level of guest service excellence.
Perhaps the best channel conversion “tool” of all is harnessing the talents and efforts of your entire guest services staff. Train them to engage guests whenever possible, such as when they stop by the reception office or when a maintenance tech strikes up a conversation while in the home for a minor repair.
Ask guests, “How did you hear about us?” When they say they booked through a third party, talk up the benefits of booking directly next time.
Whenever guests call the office, such as to reconfirm third-party bookings, recognize this as an opportunity to obtain email addresses. Use language that encourages guests to provide it, such as, “Oh, and while I have you on the line, can I grab an email address to put on file in the event we need to reach you, such as for any lost-and-found items?”
For higher-revenue bookings, use personalized video email messages to welcome guests and/or to send a fond farewell at departure.