22 September 2009

Maximizing your Hotel Distribution and Reservations using powerful XML technologies

The term ‘XML’ has fast become an acronym that players in the hospitality industry have had to become familiar with. In this rapidly evolving industry, leaving out the XML component of distribution could prove to be a strategic blunder. The benefits of this technology to hotels, hotel representation companies, international hotel chains, travel agents and wholesalers / tour operators are immeasurable. The hospitality industry has taken aboard the necessity to be ‘online’ if one intends to remain competitive, or for that matter survive. However, with the evolution of Web 2.0 or more so Travel 2.0, XML has the potential to directly affect immediate sales volumes and hotel room distribution capabilities in a revolutionary manner that has not been conceived before.

XML is the acronym for Extensible Markup Language. It is part of what is known as ‘Web Services’. Web services are in there simplest form a standard based web application that interacts with other web applications. XML requests could be sent to an application similar to sending a grocery list to a grocer. The grocer either replies with what was asked for or informs you that it is not currently available. The middle ground in this transaction is known as an ‘interface’ which allows two entities to understand one another. Connecting two entities using XML requires the building of an XML interface between them.

In the online hotel reservation industry, wholesalers are able to contract independent hotels directly. Wholesalers have the ability to interface with many online travel agents. A hotel that traditionally relied upon phone call reservations could now find its hotel rooms exposed to thousands of online customers across the globe.

Hotel chains are able to enhance their distribution by connecting to online travel agents using a direct XML connection. This not only increases their sales channels but also exposes their hotels to non-brand loyal customers.

Travel 2.0 is one implementation of a theory economists refer to as the Long Tail. This is based on the economics of abundance. The internet has made it possible for millions of consumers to seek their ideal hotel online based on their individual needs. Each consumer has his/her own idea of the perfect place to stay. The Long Tail’s principal is that the sum of niche markets far exceeds the total mass market; hence serving the needs of individuals is more profitable. This paradigm causes players in the industry to shift their attention from serving all customers, to serving the individual needs of customers. XML encompasses the flexibility and efficiency to effectively provide the most exposure a hotel room could receive online. A new paradigm has emerged where XML has shifted from being a basic technology that facilitates online room reservations to a tool that could be used to directly increase the visibility and sales volumes of a hotel or property.

Needless to say, any IT solution should respond in the quickest possible time frame and should also consider data compression techniques. Detailed below are some of the techniques in which XML could be used to improve the exposure of hotel properties online thereby improving distribution and sales.

Most customers visiting a city such as London or Paris are very likely to search for all hotels within that city or a zone / area within that city e.g. Leicester Square in London. At the time of searching by an online customer, an efficient XML request would be able to send out a request that would ask for the return of all hotels within that area or city. It is significant that XML standards have the capability to accept city or area based searches. If these are not supported, the result would be the increased server activity and delayed responses to the customer.

Simplicity and the ‘ease of booking’ are driving forces in online hotel room distribution. When a customer enters his search criteria online and views the hotel search results, it is imperative that the total cost of the room is displayed to him/her. The simpler it is for the customer, the higher are the chances of them making a reservation off the site as well as returning to the site. As with a product on a shelf at the local supermarket, it is imperative that the total cost of the room is displayed on the hotel room search results. The cost of a room should include the taxes and should detail the exact cost of the room rather than a cost range. An efficient XML system should be able to return this value in its initial response.

When a customer views the hotel search results, he should be able to see the widest range of room types and meal plans. This increases the variety and choice available to him. It also allows the customer to decide on the perfect fit in terms of accommodation for those going with him. This is critical when considering larger families or different needs (e.g. breakfast and dinner only). An efficient XML system should be able to support this need.
An efficient XML response should contain all the available room types and meal plans for a hotel and their total costs. In terms of visibility for hotels, the more room types and meal plans returned on XML, the greater the exposure. Some online room reservation sites are aggregators from multiple sources of hotel inventory. One provider may only provide a single room for a hotel. Instead of having to compete with that single room based on price, it is more logical to offer a double or single with breakfast. This would result in both room types being exposed to the customer. It also fulfills the need of a customer for whatever choice of room type he/she desires rather than being restricted to an available choice. The more room types and meal plans a hotel has within its portfolio and returned on an XML response, the greater the visibility of that hotel as well as the probability of it being booked.

Customers that wish to travel with children are often faced with having to pay an adult rate for that child or are not met with the suitable requirements on arrival at the hotel. An efficient XML system would allow the customer to inform the hotel that children will constitute part of the guest list. Hotels close to children’s venues such as entertainment parks could be marketed given their efficient handling of children’s accommodation. This could be driven by a powerful XML configuration.

Information and content is a key determinant in the online hotel industry. Content such as hotel addresses, images and descriptions are critical for a successful reservation procedure. Providers of hotel rooms are known to maintain static data with this information which can be downloaded on a predetermined basis. This is an important function. However the difference between a standard requirement and a powerful XML system is the value addition in static data, its flexibility and usability.

When taking into consideration the Long Tail of distribution and its focus on niche markets, content is one of the main criteria in the segmenting of properties into unique niches. These would traditionally be sought after by marketers who segment markets based on their own knowledge. It was not deemed feasible for a marketer to contact thousands of properties on a regular basis and ask them what differentiates their hotel from others and determining their unique selling proposition. It would be impossible to gather data from thousands of hotels on their locations and activities within their vicinity. With the use of a powerful XML medium this is now a possibility. An XML system could be put into place that allows information entered by hoteliers onto a database, such as their unique selling propositions, area information, forthcoming activities, location based services and segmentation information, to be harnessed. This could be part of the static data. When downloaded by distributors it allows them to segment their markets efficiently and effectively. It also provides them with the ability to market these segments online. The more segments that are marketed, the more visibility a property receives. A hotel could find itself globally visible to prospective customers and feeding off the growth of the Long Tail where niche distribution surpasses the traditional mass marketing efforts. The simplicity and efficiency of XML provides marketers with a powerful tool and hotels with unsurpassed distribution capabilities.

Booking a room is more than just making a reservation at a hotel. It is about the perfect booking experience. Customers often find themselves bemused by the handling of key collection information and hotel renovations. XML provides a solution here as well. Details on renovations such as the repairs to swimming pools could be sent with hotel rate information at the time a customer makes a search request for hotels. This shows him/her immediately what is taking place at the hotel. Key collection information could be passed in a similar manner.

Most hotels encompass special offers which have the potential to provide substantial value to customers. Offers such as staying 4 nights and receiving the next night free are very attractive. However marketers are not capable at present of marketing these attractive offers to customers. XML provides distributors with the ability to query hotel room providers for special offers in advance. This allows them to position these offers in their marketing campaigns thereby increasing a hotel’s exposure and visibility.

The above suggestions allow the XML technology to align itself directly with the Long Tail of distribution. XML is malleable. It can be made flexible to feed the immediate needs and wants of online consumers. Using it as a tool has the potential to increase the visibility and exposure of hotel rooms in revolutionary manners that have not been accomplished before.

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