Hotel Marketing and Revenue Management in the Time of Pandemic

Hotel Revenue Management the time of pandemic

As I write my first article during a global pandemic, my title inspiration comes from the Columbian literary superstar, Gabriel García Márquez. COVID-19 has rapidly decimated the industry I have worked in for over 20 years. There have been hardships before, but this one seems darker and more insidious than anything we have seen before. Nobody knows exactly what lies ahead, but the current reality is that thousands of our hospitality industry colleagues – many in my own personal network – have lost their livelihood or taken huge cutbacks in compensation and benefits.

March was a month filled with bad news that was staggered by geo-location, as my client base lies across varied geographies and asset types. The last of the hotel assets in my portfolio closed down on April 1. As most business comes to a grinding halt with everyone in quarantine, it has become a time for deep reflection and reconnection. I have had the chance to speak with many of my industry friends who are reeling from the effects.

With the world in quarantine, I have been surprised to see many hospitality vendors already posting their “recovery and marketing guides,” as if this is a just another minor hiccup and we are weeks/months away from business as usual. It is simply irresponsible to package a pandemic into a how-to guide. One of my close friends, industry legend Martin Soler, coined a term for this: vendsplaining.*

Vendsplaining (noun): When a hotel marketing/software vendor takes a complex problem – with specific implications for each individual client – and reduces it to a simplified “issue” that their one-size-fits-all proprietary guide or tool can solve. 

That term quickly inspired me to come up with my own term: vendcast.**

Vendcast (noun): A webcast sponsored by one or more hotel marketing vendors that addresses problems faced by hotels by offering regional or generalized strategies and tools.

* I have obtained Martin’s permission to use this word at every given opportunity.

**At the time of writing this, there are about seven vendcasts in progress, in which the vendors are vendsplaining how to beat the pandemic with a perfect plan/guide.

There is a ton of speculation on recovery timelines. I will not be doing that in this article, in case that is what you were looking for. But the one thing everyone can agree on is that a fundamental shift is inevitable in the way we operate hotels, restaurants, and airlines and plan our travel. This article is a summation of my thoughts on how things can and should change. Many of these thoughts arose from time I spent on calls with travel industry friends, ranging from Jedi masters, asset managers, investors, clients, and…vendors who don’t vendsplain (yes, they do exist!). I am focusing on the two areas of the travel business in which I have been professionally engaged for two decades: Revenue Optimization and Marketing.

There Will Be Blood

First things first. Nobody is coming out of this unscathed. From a remote four-room inn to the 650-room big box brand hotel across from the convention center in a major city, every property will be affected. I have seen articles from some so-called experts calling this “a swing of the pendulum.” That’s incorrect, as this is more a swing of the axe. No matter what the recovery timetable ends up being in the end…people and corporations across the globe are recognizing inefficiencies in how they conducted business before the global shutdown.

Here are some of the major travel industry players taking a direct hit:

In summary, there is no AI-powered pricing software, content strategy, or digital marketing ad campaign that can help hotels recover revenue quickly. Acceptance of loss has to be the first step in what looks to be a slow recovery. Anyone offering a swift hack to get everything back to business as usual should be avoided, like the coronavirus itself.

Hotel Revenue Management: What’s Next?

Some revenue optimization basics are always prudent, but all strategies need be tailored to your location, as well as regional and global financial trends. Pricing is crucial but your product still has to deliver corresponding value. Amenities like breakfast, upgrades, etc. will be more relevant than ever. So letʻs not forget the basics: your databases, room types, distribution mix, and most of all your offering all impact your profitability. What I have outlined below are some broader changes that may be coming into play over the next several months and years.

The Ides of March

2019, which now seems like so many years ago, was a good year for most hotels worldwide. To quote Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Why? Because the RevPar growth was already slowing down following the recovery from our last financial meltdown in 2008.

The warning signs pointing toward the end of boom cycle for travel were already there. In addition to it being an election year in the US, recession was already on the lips of many finance world soothsayers, warning us of imminent decline at the end of a growth cycle.

Asset managers, owners and operators worldwide were chasing ADR growth for 2019, as it was the only way to increase profits. But that was easier said than done. Why?

  • New demand in the market was nicely met by all the new hotels going online. This made it harder for the established hotels to pull in big ADR numbers.
  • Rate of inflation was higher than the ADR growth, which in simple terms means “it got more expensive to run a hotel.” Rising costs can eat into your profits real quick, and that is where the majority of hotels were losing money. Payroll expenses kept going up.

The general forecast for 2020 from top industry sources like STR and Phocuswright was never super rosy to begin with. A major correction in rates was already under way before the pandemic in markets like Seattle, Houston, Boston, etc. Markets were dealing with their own issues. Case in point: San Francisco was reeling from negative press, interactive street poop maps, and loss of major conventions (Oracle Open World) due to high ADR’s and “poor street conditions.”

We have a tendency to look back at the “good old days.” I want to make sure we stay cognizant of the fact that signs of the slowdown were everywhere…we were at the end of the 10-year growth cycle. But nobody expected 2020 to fall off the cliff like it did.

When people eventually start traveling again, the comeback will be slow and painful for a lot of hotels. As a revenue optimization professional, I foresee some long hours ahead on the road to recovery. As I look into the future, talk with my colleagues and make notes on my trusted whiteboard, here are some things I can see changing for our industry.

Goodbye, Non-Refundable Rates

You read that right. I think it is time to say goodbye to this incredibly tempting rate type, which the industry embraced during the good times. As a guest, nothing is more annoying than realizing after a change of plans (for a variety of valid reasons) that you booked a great deal at a hotel you are not going to visit anymore. Airlines are the kings of non-refundable fares; like everything else in revenue management that trickles down from airlines to hotels, we embraced it and made it a part of our industry. Check out the horrible press that Airbnb received for their complicated and confusing refund policies.

It is time for both independent and brand hotels to step away from this rate type and let people book with confidence. Taking people hostage with terms and conditions seems out of place in the world we are about to inherit. Recovery starts with flexibility and, yes, you can quote me:

“Recovery starts with flexibility.”

– Vikram Singh

We simply cannot take people’s wallets hostage anymore. A crisis like this presents the perfect opportunity to embrace flexibility and use it to build “brand loyalty,” something we all love to talk about but very few know how to transform into revenue.

Ending Direct Revenue Mania

This point will soon be published as its own lengthy article. It was slated to be my next topic before the outbreak. However, here is a very basic TLDR summary:

Over the past few years, there has been a certain fanaticism about Direct Revenue. Software and marketing vendors have made it their tag line. It has been cast as the holiest and purest of all revenue channels. The term “most profitable channel” has been used ad nauseam. I strongly believe that we need to make a slight correction here. Maybe chill out with the direct hyperbole, maybe do some meditation and yoga to relax?

The recovery, when it happens, will be one of the worst times to get picky about distribution costs and wage wars on your distribution partners. We already know that a massive correction is about to happen to hotels and their distribution mixes. Direct channel is and always will be important, nobody is arguing that but it is not free money. There is cost associated with it and it has its limitations when it comes to generating the volume of revenue it takes to make a profit.

Vendors with “I Love Direct” and “Direct or Die” facial tattoos will need to get off their high horses and walk a few miles to cool off. Let’s go back to the 80’s when Frankie say relax. Remember,  direct revenue is not free money. The industry needs to come to terms with the costs that are associated with all channels. We cannot afford to tilt at windmills anymore. (It’s also a great time to read/reread El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha.) Obsession over an idea, no matter how noble, never ends well. You can quote me on this:

“Recovery will happen from all channels.”

– Vikram Singh

The Distribution Remix

Keeping in mind the unique recovery challenges associated with this pandemic, let’s take a brief look into the future. Groups and accounts associated with large meetings and conventions will likely take the longest time to come back. Corporate travel, which is traditionally the first one to bounce back, will also take more time based on the massive number of furloughs and layoffs. Hiring back always takes longer than taking an axe to the workforce.

Local drive markets will see the first signs of recovery. Eventually, the world will slowly but surely return to air travel, eager to meet family, friends and colleagues, and having forgotten about dirty airplanes, liquid bans, squalid airports, and the joys of TSA screenings. Maybe they will even cram themselves like sardines into basic economy fares to travel the globe. However, for the US market, incentivized in-state traffic will usher in the recovery, followed later by national and then international traffic.

For all your revenue management initiatives, remember that there has never been a more important time to be nice to your neighbors. I want you to read this with the Mister Rogers intro theme playing in your head.

The End of Resort Fees

I don’t think any two words have invoked a more venomous reaction from hotel guests over the last two decades than “Resort Fees” (aka: Urban Fees, Facility Fees, Destination Fees, Resort Charge, etc). A fee by any other name would be equally notorious. Critics of the fee have called it the “most deceptive and unfair pricing practice in the hotel industry.” It allows hotels to advertise a low rate and then ask for more money at check-in, even if the guest is not interested in using the amenities it supposedly covers. Even as a hotel revenue professional, it sounds pretty bad when I type it here. It’s basically drip pricing for hotels.

The resort fees trend started in the US (mid-1990’s) and has generated tremendous hate. How much hate are we talking here? I am glad you asked. So much that, as of this writing, 47 Attorneys General have opened an investigation into it. The most dramatic example was when Marriott Hotels was issued a subpoena by the Washington DC Attorney General for their non-cooperation.

In a most bizarre, almost surreal period in the travel business, the two top OTA’s are doing their part to “tackle resort fees” while major brands stay silent.

Expedia: They offer higher rankings to hotels not charging resort fees. Their official statement reads: “We know hotel-collected mandatory fees can be confusing to consumers, and we expect, among otherwise equivalent hotels, these changes will result in higher visibility on our sites for hotels not charging these fees.” In short, if you charge resort fees, Expedia will lower your rankings on their booking site and show guests a warning that you charge resort fees. Wow!.*

*In Owen Wilson’s voice. Please enjoy a 2-minute, 35-second compilation of him saying “wow”. You’re welcome.

Booking: It’s no surprise that in classic fashion, they want a piece of the resort fees pie. They are including resort fees when calculating their commission. Official statement: “Hopefully, this will help continue to push the entire industry toward more transparency and fewer ‘surprises’ for customers.” 911, I would like to report a murderous sweet burn. If you can’t best them, make some money off of them in the name of transparency. Hey, nobody has ever accused Booking of not being great at making money. The fact that they used the word transparency is the ultimate atomic burn on our industry. Do kids still say atomic burn? Probably not, but you guys get the gist of it.

Post-pandemic recovery will be a great time for hotels (both brand and independent) to move away from drip pricing and give the guest confidence when they are booking their next trip. Big hotel brands like Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton and IHG have a tremendous opportunity right now take the lead on this. After all the complaints and articles about “evil OTA’s” stealing their customers, how can major brands let them lead the charge on transparent pricing? Are we awake, or is this a dream inside a dream inside another dream? Can someone please start playing Edith Piaf and give me an inception kick?

Brands need to show that they really care about their customers beyond sending everyone in their database a COVID-19 email, or posting videos of their CEO in tears, or yelling at them to “BOOK DIRECT” via expensive well-paid celebrities. An opportunity to take the lead has landed on the laps of the most powerful decision-makers in the hospitality industry. Please, let’s do the right thing.

Hotel Marketing: What’s Next?

As with revenue management, winds of change have been blowing in the marketing landscape for a while. All hotel websites look the same, everyone has a drone video, hotel ads look the same, all are inviting us to book direct and save, most mobile booking experience sucks, all have a best rate guarantee and, finally, all hotels are offering 20%- 40% off their best available rates in their email blasts.

A complete shutdown of non-essential travel is also the hard-reset button for hotel and travel marketing teams worldwide. This is the right time to start thinking about how you plan to be different when things get back online. Over the years, I have told hotels to:

Build Better Websites
Get Better Booking Engines
Stop Spending on “SEO”
Start Spending on Ads That Work
Stop Wasting Money on TripAdvisor
Send Better Emails
Have Better Hotel Events
Upgrade Their Success Metrics
Start Writing Better Content
Start Owning Digital Assets
Do Not Rent/Lease Websites

That’s enough content to publish a small book. Maybe I will one of these days. Until then, I encourage you to reread some the long-form content I have posted and get yourself mentally prepared for the changes ahead.

Here are a few other items I have been getting a lot of questions about.

You Can’t Growth Hack a Pandemic

The final stage of grief is acceptance. Let’s start there. A wide range of COVID-19 recovery strategy guides have already been published without any concrete “open for business” dates from the world’s governments. Based on the content produced so far, I can see that the mindset is still around how marketing is going to save the day. Example: Discount Gary Vee wannabes are busy posting “growth hacking” content that is completely detached from reality. This mindset might have partially worked after some of the other declines hotels have experienced in the past …but this is going to be different. As I write this, 16 million people in the US have lost their jobs. 

The unemployment rate in the US is predicted to hit 15%, which is the highest number since the Second World War. It is irresponsible to spin a marketing guide sitting here in the month of April. Recovery will be hard and extremely hands-on. There is no road to a quick bounce-back, but there will be an eventual bounce-back. It is more important than ever not to oversimplify recovery. Observe and report. Recovery will start locally and expand out from there.

Right now, it’s better to start with some things that are long overdue for an overhaul.

Move Beyond Vendor Management

For most hotels, this a moment of real change. People with the word ‘marketing’ in their job title will have to start doing actual marketing work. There is simply no money left to pay employees for emailing/harassing vendors and then spending useless hours in marketing meetings. There are some very talented people out of work; your recovery will be based on the caliber of people you choose.

There is hope for those whose entire career has been vendor management…they just have to learn how to do actual work. The shutdown is a great time to expand your skills beyond doing marketing calls and playing email jockey.

Hands-on agencies will survive as they are doing the work for owners who are busy running the property. On the flip side, agencies collecting monthly fees from hotels that were sitting at 20% to 30% occupancy even before the pandemic hit… will simply not make it. The luxury of paying agencies thousands of dollars every month to change a few words and photos on your website and run a few Google Ads are over. Specially when you have “marketing and e-commerce” in your job title these expenses cannot be justified anymore. You either do marketing or get out the way of ownership to work with someone who does.

Stop Spending on “SEO”

I outlined how the Hotel SEO Bubble burst back in 2013. If it is still going to appear in your agency invoices as a line item when you re-open…then Houston, we have a big problem. Google is great, but it is not your friend and owes you nothing. Google is here to sell ads and make money. If you keep your website healthy, lightning fast, and usable on mobile, and keep your Google my business listing current, then you will be fine.

Content, site speed and mobile usability reign supreme. Chasing rankings in 2020 and touting organic search results is the ultimate hipster move. Riding a unicycle in a bike race is cool but you will never win. It’s a great time to ask yourself what you are paying for and how you can migrate that cash over to something useful, like paid ads or content production.

Pause Paid Advertising for Now

When your hotel is closed, it is ok to pause your ads. Yes, this 100% includes brand name campaigns in Google and all metasearch campaigns. Agencies/vendors that are telling you that “cost per click” in the market is low should use use their time in quarantine to learn demand and supply 101. Please email them this list of classes to take.

Nobody is booking travel right now, and therefore the cost is low. This should not be packaged as a great opportunity to capture some future pie in the sky business. If there are no surfers in the ocean, then it is very likely that there are no good waves to be ridden or that a shark alert has been issued. When in doubt, don’t go out. (And just like that, I get to use a reference from my home in Hawaii.)

Don’t panic and fall for the whole engagement sales pitch. Take a deep breath. Is your website still running well? Google Business Listing updated? Good, now wait until we get an open for business date. Please don’t wave ads in people’s faces while they are locked down. It is annoying and in no way an inspiration for them to book travel.

Cash is tight, so please take care of your employees first. They will be crucial when the recovery starts. Google and others will take your money anytime…it’s like their favorite thing to do, every day. Also, if you are still clinging to TripAdvisor ads, it’s ok to let go now and reallocate your budgets.

Relax With Social Media

The road to social media is paved with disaster. It’s ok to tone it down and take a health break from it. There is nothing you need say on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram that is crucial to the recovery. I wrote in detail about influencers in my last post. This is the perfect opportunity to consciously uncouple from influencers and focus on taking care of your employees, neighbors, and communities. (I saw an article that highlighted “charitable acts as great hotel branding opportunities”. I rolled my eyes so far that they were stuck behind my head for a while.)

Please don’t succumb to the hubris that you need to entertain people on your hotel social media accounts while they are getting laid off and face an uncertain future. Leave that to Netflix/Amazon/Hulu, etc. ICYMI Here are some things that already have caused a terrible backlash on social:

In short: Avoid the urge to post at this time. When things open again, you can get back to posting “healing and inspirational photos” in no time. Just because you have a microphone does not mean you have to say something all the time.

Take It Easy With Email & CRM

I think everyone and their brother has already sent out a COVID-19 email. A company I brought a paper clip from in 1999 recently emailed me about their concern for my well-being. Every single hotel brand, including the one I stayed with once in 1995 (25 years ago), sent me an email. Idea: Instead of blasting your entire database you are better off putting your message on your home page and reserving email to communicate with people who have booked a stay with you.

Oh, remember the hotel group that sent me 60+ promo emails in a year? Guess what? They never stopped and were pushing a 45% Relax On Shores Of Cancun vacation to me in Hawaii late into the lockdown in the middle of March. You simply cannot make this stuff up!


Time to Retire Retargeting

I am going to keep this short and sweet. Retargeting was never cool and has always been annoying to your guests. It was nothing more than a violation of privacy that they let slide in the name of convenience. I had been planning to write something more detailed to make my point. But sometimes things just land in your lap and you close the case. A single image can deliver more power than a thousand words. In my case, make it 3000 words (my average article).

Banner ads for hotels and travel companies have been showing up in articles about mass graves and medical supply shortages! One in particular as hit me hard as I was reading about how doctors in Italy had stopped counting dead bodies. Lo and behold, there was an ad for a hotel brand with a BOOK NOW call to action. Again, you cannot make this stuff up:

Let’s take this opportunity to stop paying for retargeting. This is a marketing idea whose time has passed. Say your goodbyes.

Conclusion: Skilled Teams Will Lead the Recovery

If you are still reading this, I saved the best for last, just for you. Let’s start with an excerpt from one of the greatest stories ever told:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

The recovery will happen. Speculating on its timeline is a waste of time. I refuse to speculate when there is still so much work to be done in our industry.

We have a massive challenge ahead of us, no question. Recovery efforts will be further complicated by the limited resources we will be left with after the shutdown. One resource that is going to be more crucial than ever is good people. Your success will depend on who you choose work with when we get back to business. The silos of revenue, marketing, and operations need to come tumbling down. From their rubble will rise the superhero recovery teams (minus the capes and spandex of course). The gap between the A-team players and everyone else is going to get bigger. Smaller, smarter and nimbler teams will shine.

Right now, we hold steady, think about the future, and wait for the safe time to start again. And remember: quarantine is temporary, but Wu-Tang is forever!

How Google Reviews Is Crushing TripAdvisor


An interesting trend has been brewing in the travel business. Quietly but surely, Google Reviews has been expanding their online review market share for brick and mortar businesses. Since hotels, inns and B&Bs are a 100% location-driven business, this change directly impacts both their revenue and branding.

Online reviews left by strangers have become almost as trusted as personal recommendations. However, placing this much trust in reviews requires the user to be able to filter real reviews from fake ones. This sorting process can be extremely frustrating, especially on websites like TripAdvisor where everything is controlled by an almighty “secret algorithm.” Still, hotels and inns have been under the TripAdvisor spell for a while now. TripAdvisor dominates the conversation to such a large extent that I felt the need to write a 3500-word article about how to curb your hotel’s obsession with TripAdvisor.

Meanwhile, Google with its “of course, we can do it better” mantra has beefed up its own review platform, which is fully integrated into its existing search and maps empire. They always play to win.

Let’s Talk About Yelp, Baby

Before trying to understand the impact of the new and improved Google Reviews on TripAdvisor, let’s talk about the other hyper-local-focused review platform…you know, the one that inspired a South Park Episode. I am, of course, talking about Yelp. Looking at where Yelp stands today is a window into how things might play out for TripAdvisor in the not-so-distant future. Here’s the story of Yelp.

The Beginning. Yelp was started in 2004 by ex-PayPal employees Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons (not Def Jam). PayPal has produced more billionaire founders than any other company. But I digress. Hereʻs the main thing. As was the case with many review websites, the best intentions did not lead to the best outcomes.

The IPO. User-generated (free) content fueled the massive growth of the website and led them into a 2010 IPO.

Greed. Two words…Advertising Dollars. This is where things got out of hand. Yelp pushed their ads real hard on local businesses, just like TripAdvisor does today with hotels. This practice brought about several accusations of extortion by business owners against Yelp. Most complaints focused on either positive reviews being removed from a business’s page if they did not buy ads, or on Yelp letting competitors pay for ads to remove/hide negative reviews. The similarities to some of the review/ranking/advertising issues TripAdvisor is experiencing right now is surreal.

Pushback. Enter lawsuits with the Federal Trade Commission. Although the FTC dismissed these cases, the cases highlighted the plight of small business owners being held ransom by Yelp ads and Yelp Elites. It always reminds me of the stressed-out B&B owner in tears about his TripAdvisor reviews. Most ethical business owners moved their advertising dollars to platforms that were not squeezing the small business owner. Of course, movies like Billion Dollar Bully did not help Yelp at all.

Winds of Change. Nothing good or bad lasts forever. Since 2014, the general population has been moving toward Google Reviews, Google Maps, and Instagram…and advertising dollars have followed. The accessibility of these platforms is much better than anything Yelp had to offer. While user reviews remain very relevant, the way people like to look at information has changed. People find it easier to communicate with businesses on Google/Instagram/Twitter than on Yelp. Result? Advertising declines → stock price declines.

Perception. As a travel industry lifer with friends in the restaurant business, I know one thing for certain. People writing Yelp reviews are not considered to be the smartest people around. South Park doing a full episode on Yelp Elites was instrumental in showcasing this issue. I also think about what the late, great Anthony Bourdain said about Elite Yelpers in an interview with Business Insider:

“There’s really no worse or lower human being than an Elite Yelper. They’re universally loathed by chefs everywhere. They are the very picture of entitled, negative energy. They’re bad for chefs, they’re bad for restaurants.”

I could not agree more. Likewise, my chef/restaurant friends have severely limited the time they spend on Yelp. Instead, they check food photos online to see how their product is being received and shared on sites like Google Reviews and Instagram. Instantly qualifying the person posting a review and having social proof is a great thing! Also, these mediums offer a greater chance for a business owner to interact directly with both negative and positive reviewers.

Declining But Not Dying (Yet). Yelp is not shutting down anytime soon. Hey, not that long ago (2009), Google wanted to buy Yelp for $500 million! Yahoo threw their hat in the ring with a $1 billion number soon after. Yelp is still going pretty strong, and still garnering new reviews and content. At the same time, even more reviews and ad dollars are pouring into Google and Instagram. Plus, we know that Google is definitely from the “if you can’t buy it, beat it to pulp” school of thought. So they will make sure that Yelp does not make a big comeback.

The TripCollective Elite Contributors Game


Guess what? The points earned by reviewers do not have a monetary value. It is apparently a game. A game in which you rank your entitlement on a website that then turns around and sells ads (for money) on the free content you uploaded on their website.

It’s like an episode of Black Mirror… where you are the game! If you are bored and into gaming, Fortnite and Red Dawn 2 are very good. Why not try those instead?

Also, see Anthony Bourdainʻs quote above. It also applies here. Same people, different platform.

*Psst…did you know there is a rumored Level 7 TripAdvisor Elite? (If this piques your interest, you might be reading the wrong blog.)

Rise of the Google Reviews

Google gets tons of cash from TripAdvisor spending on Google Ads. TripAdvisor sells advertising on their own website in part to support their Google Ads habit.

As more travel industry ad dollars shift toward Google and Facebook, TripAdvisor has gone hard into pushing their own advertising platform while offering very little analytics and support in return. One of their offerings: paying for a link. Can you believe in 2019 you can pay just to get a link from another website? You know, like an online directory listing circa 2001. It’s like if you did not have a link to your hotel from TripAdvisor, your guest would never be able to find you after reading your reviews. They must be familiar with this little thing called Google, where you can type in a hotel’s name and magically find it!

We know that Google is king when it comes to advertising. How else is Google Reviews tightening its grip on the hotel review market? Two initiatives stand out for me.

Local Search

Google has been a verb for a while now. So yeah, when you “Google a hotel” in search, you get the hotel’s location, hours, phone number, reviews, website, and rates in a nicely packaged search box. This offering is even more relevant on mobile.

Google My Business is the most visible of all the review sites, and therefore now gets more people to use it. Look at the simplicity in action:

Android Push

I am an Android user. (Apple still gets my laptop and power adapter dollars.) One of the main drivers of Google Reviews has been the frequency of Google asking you to leave a review based on where you are. I had to turn that off on my phone. But the fact remains that Google has made it super easy to get you to leave a review based on your GPS location while logged into your Google Account. This feature definitely adds to the review’s authenticity, as the user’s Google account and location provide some proof of them actually having been at your location.

Meanwhile, TripAdvisor is penalizing hotels for any reviews posted by guests using the hotel’s computer/Wi-Fi network, etc. Feels like TripAdvisor is the upside down when it comes to people leaving reviews from a location they are actually in. They would rather have user ‘crazyboog1999’ trash your hotel from their mother’s basement.

Pro tip. If you are tired of Google asking you to leave reviews: Select “Settings,” then “Notifications.” Finally, tap on “Your contributions,” and then switch off “Questions about places.”

Based on a True Story

This year I took a trip to Tokyo and exclusively used Google Reviews to make my purchasing decisions. Here is my story. (Insert the Law and Order bell.)

Trip Origin. I have visited Tokyo many times before. All those trips were work-related, which means that I absolutely focused on location first, price second. This time it was a personal trip, and location was not the only factor. Tokyo is one of my favorite cities in the world. No matter where you are, you can get around quickly. All you need is cash, a Suica Card, and Google Maps.

Time Frame. I was visiting Tokyo from December 27 to January 3, and then heading to Kyoto. This is a time of year when many local businesses are closed, and there are fewer tourists than usual. However, there is a ton of domestic travel, with families taking vacations, staying with extended family, and visiting shrines in honor of the New Year. The busiest time of year in Tokyo is March/April (cherry blossoms) followed by fall; winter is mellower, but the New Year’s shrine and family visits still make it competitive. Yes, I work in the revenue optimization business.

Research. The first step for me with personal travel is to check with my industry friends. Sadly, I am not a big deal in Japan… yet. I narrowed my search to hotels in Ginza (Tokyo’s Fifth Avenue), which had less compression as a business district during year-end holidays.

The Winner. Good news! I discovered a hotel with incredible rates and a great location. Downside…it was not open yet. A minor detail like that doesnʻt bother me, as I am in the business of opening new hotels. I booked my dates and locked in an amazing deal. I was curious about the product, but the pre-launch website was just a smorgasbord of stock photos.

Realization. I waited for the hotel to get reviews. Two weeks before anything was ever posted on TripAdvisor, I started to see comments and photos on Google Reviews. Thatʻs when I had a moment of realization: the only place to find any reviews for the hotel from Day 1 of opening was Google Reviews. They were followed closely by Expedia/Booking/Agoda reviews that were very nicely integrated into the Google Reviews ecosystem.

Oh, in case you were wondering, TripAdvisor scored its first review when I was already boarding my flight to Tokyo at the end of December! (Cue in Carole King’s Itʻs Too Late.)

A Brief Guide to Optimizing Your Business for Google Reviews

The epicenter of your reputation management as a brick and mortar business should be Google My Business (GMB). The amount of time spent reviewing TripAdvisor reviews in operations meetings needs to change. A lot more time and energy needs to go toward Google Reviews. These are managed under your GMB. Here’s a quick list you can use to optimize this channel:

1. The Basics. Make sure that your Google My Business (GMB) listing is claimed. I am sorry if this is 101 information for you, but just this week I saw an established hotel with a neighborhood restaurant listed as the primary on their GMB page! (Yes, website link, phone, everything pointed to the restaurant.)

2. Update Everything. Your GMB has a direct impact on all the Google activities a potential guest will do in order to find and book your hotel (search, Google Maps, etc). Make sure your address, phone number, business hours, and types of payments accepted are updated, and all links point to the right places. This is a basic and endless chore, so get used to checking this information on a regular basis.

3. Enhance It. Google has added some great features to GMB that hotels should use. An enhanced GMB listing helps to grab your guest’s attention when they are researching your hotel. There is a possible impact on local search rankings, but I try to refrain from rankings talk ever since I posted this article on SEO a few years back.

3. Check Yourself. Anyone can suggest edits to your GMB listing and have them take effect. It’s a very good idea to log in and keep an eye on things. Have you completed your profile? If not, then someone else will…yes, that includes your competition. Also, you cannot count on GMB email alerts to work 100% of the time. I repeat…just this month, I encountered a 200-room hotel’s local listing pointing to a neighborhood restaurant! It’s like the Wild West out there.

4. Answer Questions. This is one of the most relevant sections of GMB when it comes to the travel industry. People have questions about places they are going to visit someday. Even after arriving/staying at your location, most people look for information on their phone before ever talking to a human. Try and get the Q&A section filled out with the frequently asked questions and answers you have buried on your website somewhere. Talk to your front desk and make a list of questions they get asked all the time. The TripAdvisor/Yelp complex has trained everyone to live in fear of bad reviews and keep your laser focus on their platform. Instead, you can help guests who are looking for information about you. Help them first, then work on converting them into paying customers in the near future. Alternatively, if you ignore the Q&A section, someone else will answer the questions for you. You might not like the answers they give.

5. Ask & Receive. It’s standard operating procedure for hotels to ask their guests to leave a review on the world’s most trusted biggest travel website (TripAdvisor). This needs to change right away. Instead, you should ask your guests to leave you a Google Review. Google reviews are clearly associated with their Gmail/G-suite accounts and in most cases are verifiable and not hidden behind an obnoxious username like “JoeMama90210.” Replying to Google Reviews directly and in a concise manner is a key advantage. You can be direct without being trapped in the despair-ridden TripAdvisor platform.

I am not going to tout GMB optimization as a ranking tactic. But I can say that it will help you make more revenue.


Online reviews are crucial for any business, not just travel. Over the past few years, the obsession hotels and inns have developed with TripAdvisor has caused them to lose sight of the real powerhouse: Google. All of Google’s recent upgrades have served to make them a better information center for the end user. TripAdvisor with its hyper-narrow focus might be the biggest review website in the world today, but it is getting pushed to the sidelines by a bigger and smarter competitor. You don’t have to speculate much. Just look at Yelp and how their story played out. I’d say we have a near perfect example of history repeating itself.

BookingSuite: A Lesson in Direct Revenue Strategy

direct revenue strategy

Throughout my career in revenue optimization for the hospitality and travel industry, I have always stressed the importance of owning your digital assets. This means having control of your domain, your marketing campaign’s analytics and history, and especially your website. As a strong supporter of open source technology, I have stepped in every time a marketing vendor (“expert”) started trashing new and innovative options for hotels. Of course, vendors will always favor their outdated proprietary systems over new technology. They have made a huge investment and have to keep selling. But being tied to old technology is never going to give your hotel an edge in the online marketplace.

WordPress is a perfect example. As a flexible, secure, and user-friendly website platform, it has been displacing proprietary content management systems worldwide. Threatened, some hotel marketing agencies starting publishing propaganda about WordPress; they said it was “unsafe” and did not include essential “marketing features.” In response, I have steadfastly encouraged hotels to embrace open source and steer clear of fear-mongering by agencies trying to push their agendas. Of course the agencies want you hooked on their website platforms. It provides them with the security of you not leaving them. Know that when you do leave, you will be left with nothing but a zip file containing the remains of your most profitable channel and a “we are sad to see you leave” email. Good luck!

Case in Point: BookingSuite

In 2014, I wrote a detailed article on Priceline’s Acquisition of Buuteeq, in which I again outlined the importance of owning your digital assets. Buuteeq was run by smart people who tapped into the reluctance of hotels to invest in their own direct revenue strategy. They offered to relieve hotels of the headache of owning and maintaining their digital assets, starting at just $99/month! They did a great job of marketing themselves and were able to successfully scale their own business by offering websites and marketing packages to hotels for a low monthly fee. At a crucial time when direct marketing investment was already a massive challenge for hotels, this approach was not doing the hotel industry any favors.

After the Priceline acquisition, I tried to make the strongest possible case for not renting your website and your marketing strategy from the largest online travel agency in the world. Priceline Inc. has its own agenda for growth. If you were to look at their stock performance and revenue breakdown, you would see that they do not make money building websites or running your marketing campaigns. They make money when people use their suite of OTA websites to book a room. Surprise! They prioritize their own direct revenue channel over yours.

Unfortunately, the illusory free lunch is too tempting for a lot of industry folks. BookingSuite (Buuteeq’s new identity under did more than just retain Buuteeq’s hundreds of hotel and B&B clients. They heavily leveraged the reluctance of hotels to spend time and money on marketing and signed up more hotels than ever. This seems to be a fatal flaw for hotels. They have made a habit of outsourcing 100% of their marketing to the vendor with the lowest bid. Then they get to check the box labeled “direct revenue strategy.” Death by checklist? Check.

Folks, We Have a Hard Stop

Earlier this week, BookingSuite announced that it will no longer be offering Search Engine Marketing services to hotels using their website platform. Below is the official email that was sent out to hotels using their system:


They could not have summarized it better:

SEM is an important component of your digital marketing strategy.

You know what else is an important component of your digital marketing strategy? Your website. The thing that so many hotels are currently renting from BookingSuite. If they can drop SEM …how much sleep they would lose over the few dollars you pay them every month to rent a website? That $99 to $999/month website does not sound like such a hot deal now, does it?

Here is some Shakespeare for added effect:

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”

― William Shakespeare, King Lear

Your website, booking engine, digital marketing efforts, and revenue management strategy are the pillars of your direct revenue. Viewing them as cost centers instead of investments in your future is the root problem underlying disadvantageous marketing decisions for hotels of all sizes. This cost vs investment approach (looking at departmental budgets instead of overall growth and revenue) is causing hotels to act against their own self-interest; it makes you pick the wrong vendors for wrong reasons.

Not to get all Nostradamus on you, but I would like to quote myself from all the way back in 2014:

“Ownership of your digital assets is more important than ever before in the history of the lodging business. Who provides your technology and in what format really matters. In this case, if your hotel is using a website made by Buuteeq, your site is now essentially a subsidiary of one of the biggest OTAs in the world.”

This Is the Checklist You Need

The fact remains that the majority of hotels and inns worldwide are renting their digital assets; and this is hurting their long-term direct revenue potential. When you make all your marketing decisions on the basis of lowest possible cost, your long-term profitability will suffer.

If you’re ready to take control, here’s a five-step checklist to get you back on track.

  1. Website. Pick any designer/website vendor in the world… but build and power your website using WordPress as your CMS. It is always the right time to start running and managing your most profitable digital channel using open source technology.
  2. Search Engine Optimization. Google is all about website speed, health, usability, and useful content. There are no secret algorithms that any agency has in place to tackle this. You can read in detail here how search engine optimization has changed for the hotel and travel industry over the years. Staying with a vendor because they are good at SEO and “keyword rankings” is like investing in the stock market using a psychic as your portfolio advisor.
  3. Pay Per Click. Here is some detail on why PPC is one of your most powerful marketing tools. Pick any vendor you like as long as you use your own credit card to pay Google directly and own your AdWords account. Yes, you should own your AdWords campaign so that you maintain control of your history and retain the quality score built over years of spending and testing. That way, when your vendor wants to peace out on you (example: what BookingSuite is doing now), it won’t be a big deal. You will have to find a new vendor; but you will not have to start from scratch again.
  4. Social Media. Make sure the ownership of all of your social media accounts stays with you. Use your email address, and not a vendor’s. This includes Facebook and all other social media marketing campaigns that you are currently running.
  5. Analytics. Stick with Google Analytics. Here is a detailed article on staying away from expensive solutions designed with agencies in mind. When working with Google Analytics, always set it up with a Gmail address that you own. You might have several vendors working on your account with access to the same data. But they shouldn’t control the account. Avoid the headache hotels experience every day when the vendor who owns their analytics account decides to walk away, taking years of website data with them.

Here is a detailed guide on managing all your digital assets. Successful hotel and travel marketing departments own and continually build on their marketing and digital assets. Just like you would not build a hotel on land that you do not own (or lease for a long time), your online assets should not be built in someone else’s proprietary digital environment. Of course, you will always need someone to help you maintain your hotel/home. But you don’t have to give someone the deed to the house in exchange for making sure the plumbing is working. *mic drop*


People I have worked with over the years know that I do not believe in declaring “wars”; I believe in making revenue. The hyperbole in the marketplace around the “war on OTAs” is impractical and annoying. Using this article to launch a tirade against BookingSuite is a complete waste of time. You cannot blame others for your poor decisions. Also, please remember that Priceline Inc. and Expedia Inc. are not going anywhere anytime soon. So, buck up, Champ.

My goal here is to highlight that now is (still) the perfect time to invest in owning and maintaining your digital assets and marketing campaigns. Marketing agencies and vendors will eventually get acquired or lose interest. Nobody can control or predict when that will happen to your marketing agency. I could not have predicted the exact date when Buuteeq (the helpful agency who wanted to take all your work and worries away at a super low price) would sell out to the world’s largest OTA…. or the date when they would later shut down the SEM services that were not making them enough money. What I can do and always will do is to recommend that you own and invest in your own digital assets and marketing. Remember: your profitability needs to outlast your current marketing agency. Stay woke.

Google’s Mobile Update: Keep Calm and Get With the Program

google mobile update for hotels

Every time Google issues an update, hotel marketing agencies have a field day writing articles and trying to give you a reason to panic about your online presence. To provide you with a respite from the hyperbole, I would like to assure you that:

  1. Everything is going to be okay.
  2. This update is actually a great opportunity for you to take your online presence to the next level.

Here are my answers to some of your burning questions about the Google Mobile Update of 2015.

Why is Google doing this update?

Good question. The simple answer is: Google wants to make more money. (Just for reference, this is always the reason Google does anything.)

Google is at the forefront of mobile web. They have seen mobile search surge past desktop usage over the past several years. Their significant investment and success with the Android ecosystem further cements the fact that Google plays to win. In its continued dominance of global search traffic, Google has a clear agenda: to provide its users with the best possible search experience so that they stay loyal to Google. More Google searches means more chances for users to click on Google Ads, which means more AdWords revenue for Google.

With the majority of web traffic shifting to mobile over the past decade, Google needs to ensure that the websites providing the best mobile experience get top placement in their mobile searches. Think of it as Google’s Spring Cleaning for Mobile Search, where they want to “incentivize” you to have a better mobile presence. Instead of wringing your hands, consider that Google is doing you a favor by reminding you to bring your mobile presence up to par. Complying with Google’s guidelines is a win-win; it’s not only good for your business, but also great for their business. Google will not be relinquishing their mobile search dominance anytime soon, so…yes, it’s time to get with the program if you haven’t already.

What will happen during this update?

First things first. This is not an “apocalypse” or an “Armageddon” event, as many hotel and web marketing agencies might have you thinking. By using the word “significant” in their announcement of this update, Google made Christmas come early for hotel marketing agencies and their press release machines. But you don’t need to purchase any special marketing services to comply.

Here is what is happening:

On April 21, Google will be rolling out an update to its algorithm in which mobile-friendly websites will be given preference in rankings. This update is just a reflection of the fact that mobile web is a way of life for humans worldwide, and Google wants to show those humans better search results and more ads.

Likewise, if you have a website, and you want people to find it and use it, you should be providing them with a good mobile experience. Being mobile-friendly is a good common sense practice, like eating more vegetables. (Google is just like your mom, who still reminds you to do it every once in a while, for your own good.) Or, think of those ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service’ signs outside some beach restaurants. This update is Google’s indication that they have standards too, you know, just in case you have been living under a rock for the past decade.

Unlike previous updates that looked at your website/domain as a whole, the Google Mobile Update will look at your website on a page by page basis. A few pages that are not mobile-optimized will not “blacklist” your entire website. Of course, the pages that are mobile-optimized on your website will get preference in rankings.

Is your website mobile-friendly?

The good news is that you do not need a fortune teller, a “site audit,” any sort of advanced digital screening, nor any DNA splicing.

Just test your website here: 

Think of this as Google’s very own Hogwarts style mobile-Sorting Hat. You will know where you stand in a few seconds. You’re welcome!

Disclaimer: Please know that this test is not perfect. There is no substitute for human testing, and I don’t mean your agency account manager. I mean you need to do it yourself. As I recommend in all my speaking gigs: go to a mobile phone store, and start pulling up your site on different phones and tablets. You might need some device-specific help from a developer for minor issues, but you’ll know if your site works on mobile or not. End disclaimer.

What’s the worst case scenario?

With every Google update, nobody but Google engineers knows exactly what is going to happen. But what’s the worst-case scenario if your website is not mobile-optimized? Google might remove the non-mobile-optimized pages from their mobile search results, or at least push them down a few notches.

If this happens, you will notice a change in your organic traffic. Then you’ll know that it’s time to update your mobile experience. Do that, resubmit it to Google Webmaster Tools, and you will be back in the index next time Google robots crawl your website. Easy like Sunday mornings.

A lot of you have read and reviewed and commented on my article on the SEO Bubble, and how it has already burst. I recommend re-reading that article and focusing on the big picture that lies ahead.

Nobody will be annihilated or lose any limbs/appendages because of a Google algorithmic update. And while you are reading this guess what will happen to your pay per click ads? Nothing! You see, when you pay Google, they are your best friend. Like I ahve said before- Pay Per Click is still a hotels best marketing tool. 

How do you become mobile-compliant?

  1. Do not panic.
  2. Get off your marketing agency’s proprietary CMS system and move your website to WordPress ASAP. (Need more information on that? Read this and this. If you ever needed an incentive to properly own your digital assets, this is it.
  3. Once you get yourself onto a nice responsive WordPress theme, go into Google Webmaster Tools, resubmit your website, and check for any other errors.
  4. Check your analytics data after resubmission observe your website performance changes. The web is always evolving: test, observe, repeat.


I feel really old when I think of the “Mobile Web Marketing” speeches I used to give circa 2006 at hotel marketing events all over the world. All web is mobile web today. Google is just trying to make some stubborn folks join 2015. For those folks, it’s a perfect time to catch up on some long-needed updates. For the rest of us, it’s business as usual.

Keep calm and stay mobile.


Hotel Pay Per Click: Your Single Most Powerful Marketing Tool

I have had a front row seat to the hotel pay per click (PPC) world for the past decade. PPC is not new, but it’s rapidly changing. One thing that hasn’t changed: hotel marketers and owners are still caught up in debates about its effectiveness and viability. As a result, a lot of hotels are still not embracing the power of pay per click.

Google’s Golden Goose

Time for a reality check: Since its inception in October 2000, pay per click advertising, aka Google Adwords, has been Google’s nonstop money-making Golden Goose. Here are some powerful statistics highlighting its power:

  • In 2013, Google officially surpassed $50 billion in total advertising revenue. This comprised 85% of their total revenues for 2013.
  • Google reported $12.9 billion in net income for 2013.
  • Total paid clicks on Google and Google Display Network sites were up 31% over the prior year, and up 13% over the third quarter of 2013.

All the actions (algorithm updates, layout changes, etc.) that Google implements every few months have a clear goal, which is to make sure that Google can sell more ads. Google cares very much about pay per click, because billions in revenue depends on it. They need it to work for you.

Hotel marketers and owners simply cannot overlook or ignore PPC. Unscrupulous marketing “experts” love to trash PPC as a waste of funds. You should run from those who advise using search engine optimization (SEO) as a replacement for PPC. SEO is important, but only PPC can explicitly guarantee you placement in exchange for your investment. Every time someone starts talking about how they are not doing pay per click marketing because they are focusing on SEO, an angel in revenue heaven dies.

Brand Name PPC Is Not Optional

There are a lot of things that your hotel can save money on. Opting out of PPC is an axe to the foot, which you do not need. PPC is exponentially important when it comes to someone looking for your brand name on Google, i.e., someone “googling” your hotel by name. Look at this example:

hotel pay per click


When someone looks for you by name, one of these three things might have happened:

  1. They researched you on any of the hundreds of travel sites (TripAdvisor,, Expedia, etc.) and are now ready to have a direct conversation with you.
  2. They received a personal recommendation from a friend.
  3. They saw your offline marketing somewhere, and now they want to learn more.

These are the searchers that are lowest on the conversion funnel. In simpler terms, they are the people who are most likely to buy something from you right now.

There are only two scenarios that happen when people look for you by name:

  1. You are showing an PPC ad for your hotel along the lines of “Official Site, Book Direct, Learn More.” You get the click and convert them on your site.
  2. The OTAs and resellers have no competition from you (woohoo!) for their ads offering “Best Rate Guaranteed, No Cancellation Fee, Learn more!” They get the click and sell your room, making a handsome 10-20% commission.

It does not take rocket science to figure out that hotels participating in PPC for their brand name terms are harvesting those clicks into direct revenue, instead of giving them away to the OTAs. Please keep this in mind when the next budget meeting comes around. Pay per click can always be beefed up and fine tuned.

Pro tip: Do not waste time hating on OTAs. In the world of Google, it definitely takes money to make money. Own your brand on Google.

Be There or… Lose Revenue

I often observe a clear and present disconnect between hotel marketing/revenue goals, and setting budgets for PPC advertising. It’s strictly a pay to play party. Budget is generally a function of your location and how much competition there is in your market. You should spend enough to get optimal ROI. This amount will be different for each hotel.

Brand Name Keywords. You must aggressively bid on your brand name. This might run you anywhere from $100 to $300 per month. You can quote me when I say, “it will be the best money you have ever spent on online marketing.” As I mentioned earlier, these searchers are specifically looking for you. Make sure they find you.

Pro Tip: No matter how many OTAs are bidding on your brand name, you as the hotel will always get preferential placement, a lower cost per click, and higher conversion from these keywords.

Location Keywords. Once you are doing a smashing job of showing up and converting for your brand name, it’s time to take your campaign to the next level. This is where you target broader location-based keywords like “hotels near Wrigley Field,” and “hotels in downtown Chicago.” These keywords are much more expensive than buying your brand name, so you have to make sure you are paying close attention to your website and conversions. Quality counts. The quality of your website and booking engine can make all the difference is conversions. The quality of your PPC advertising team affects your placement and cost per click.

Pro Tip: Avoid automation at this level of spending. See below.

Look Beyond Automation

Automation is one of the key differentiators between hotels running effective PPC and those who are struggling. If you’re using a big agency, your campaign is probably automated. Once an agency has signed up hundreds of clients, its biggest goal becomes creating efficiency for its own department. Your hotel campaign’s performance is not top of mind for an intern clicking away on software that manages hundreds of hotels without any unique strategy.

Using automated software is so 2005. Active management, such as testing ads, running specials, and adjusting bid strategy, is what makes a campaign successful. If you’re worried about overspending on PPC, put some thought into who you are hiring to spend money on your behalf in Google. A slightly higher management fee can often result in thousands more dollars in revenue.

Pro Tip: It’s not the cost that matters; it’s the revenue. Getting a “great deal” on PPC management isn’t always such a great deal.


Don’t trust your most powerful marketing channel to automated software or an overworked/underpaid project manager at an agency with several hundred clients. There are no shortcuts or discounts on the road to hotel pay per click success. But you can tremendously increase your odds of success (and your PPC revenue) by working with the right team.

Hotel Marketing Cannibalization: Is Your Hotel Website Traffic Eating Itself?

website cannibalization

Hotels, bed and breakfasts, and vacation rentals are all competing for their market share of today’s travelers, who are armed with multiple devices and tools to search for lodging . Even if you get their clicks, it’s getting harder to keep their attention. Add to the mix Airbnb, deep pocket OTA’s, and meta search engines, and you are now competing in the big leagues, no matter how big or small your lodging operation is.

Now there is one competitor you absolutely do not need – yourself! Cannibalization of your hotel website traffic happens when you help your visitors leave your site via external links. It takes a lot of effort to get visitors to your site.

Here are the top ways you are confusing your visitors, and even pushing them off your site.

Social Media Cannibals

Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, etc., are a special breed of cannibal. Special because when used the right way they actually boost engagement and drive a lot of qualified traffic to your website. The social media gold rush of the past 5-6 years has resulted in a consistent hotel website feature: every lodging website now has the bright, shiny, candy-like social media icons. They have spread like a virus. Everyone is giving their users the option to click out from their website directly to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Basically, you have taken your visitor out of your website to a place where they are highly unlikely to book a room.

Why? The answer is distraction: new baby photos, breaking news, family drama, friends living a perfect life, etc.

Guide your audience from social networks to your site, not vice versa. Tone down the screaming social icons on your website. Do your best to keep your visitors on your site, which should be primed to put direct revenue into your bank account.

Video Cannibalized the Traffic Star

If you’re using YouTube to embed videos on your website, you can easily fall victim to this form of traffic cannibalization. This is especially true if you have a YouTube link on your embedded video player like this one:


A visitor clicking on this link is likely never coming back. Why? Because cat videos, fail videos, and other viral videos are now fighting for their attention and winning.

Always remember this fact: YouTube is extremely good at keeping their visitors. Once people leave your site and link into YouTube, it’s pretty much game over.

What’s a better alternative? I suggest the following:

  1. Self-host your videos – for better website conversions (keep visitors from leaving).
  2. Use a video service like Vimeo or Viddler – a cleaner, decluttered space to share in.
  3. Directly post on YouTube – to get social shares.

YouTube is a huge community and a popular search engine. However, unless you are seriously cultivating your YouTube subscribers, you will be better off hosting your videos elsewhere.

Cannibalization Through Clutter

If you have multiple images and messages on a page of your site that are vying to be the most prominent thing on that page, you might be damaging your traffic. B&B/hotel/vacation rental sites generally have a common theme: the home page is a sensory overload of offers and specials. The whole “call to action” thing tends to get out of hand when you implement website design that has been approved by an eager committee.

Your mix of images, content, and calls to action needs to be razor sharp. Focus on one message per page. This is possible 99% of the time, so don’t let your own website content distract and visitors from taking the actions you want them to take.

Death by Zombie SEO

Search engine optimization can be used to immensely improve your traffic stats. But, over-optimization can hurt your online traffic. If you are going after multiple keyword rankings on every page of your website, you are cannibalizing your traffic. Good lodging websites should stick to a sitemap that optimizes for keywords and user experience. Over-optimizing (using more than 2-3 focus keywords per page) dilutes your efforts. It also eats away at your search engine referral traffic. It’s better to rank for on top for one keyword than to never rank for anything due to traffic dilution. Stay relevant. Stay on top for the keywords that matter.


Marketing takes a lot of time and money. It’s imperative not to compete with yourself on your own website. All your demand generation, social media, branding, and search marketing efforts should lead into your website; your website should encourage visitors to stay and book. Cannibalizing your traffic after they have arrived is like running a marathon and stopping 20 meters from the finish line.

It’s Time to Burst the Hotel SEO Bubble: What Hotels Really Need to Know

Hotel search engine optimization (SEO) is one of the most debated online marketing techniques in our industry. That’s because its efficacy is hard to prove, and techniques have to constantly change to outmaneuver Google’s updates. Google maintains strict control and secrecy about how they manage and update their search engine results pages. Of course, there are guidelines posted on their Webmaster Central product, and a few utterances here and there. This leaves the floor open for some serious speculation… Cue in the SEO “experts.” I am not an SEO expert, nor have I played one on TV. But I am definitely a trained SEO observer who has been in the industry for a decade, and a huge fan of web analytics and data-driven decision making.

It’s sad to see articles like this circulated in the hotel industry: “Google and SEO: what you should do, should not do, penguin, panic, panda, algorithm,” followed by “please hire us, we have the answer.”  These articles are usually written by the SEO Manager of a big WalMart-style hotel marketing agency. Agencies also circulate baseless, misleading and ridiculous statistics, like:  “56% of hotel revenue is from SEO.”

On the other side, there is a counter-culture saying that SEO is dead and has been dead for a while. Both camps are wrong. Extreme views and made-up statistics like these are harmful to the hotel industry.

So, when did it all get out of hand? What should hotels and travel websites really be doing to improve their Google organic (SEO) revenue? Let’s start by taking a look back …way back.

The Golden Age of Hotel SEO/Remember the Titans?

There was a Golden Age of Hotel SEO? You better believe it! It was 2000-2010. I vividly remember it. A hotel could not only get placement right on the very  top left of the screen for hyper-competitive terms like “hotels in NYC” or “hotels in London,” but could also get  hundreds of thousands of visits and millions of dollars in revenue. There were no maps, no carousels, and no hotel finders.

Now guess who really capitalized on SEO during this Golden Age. If you guessed hotel brands, you are wrong. OTAs like and ruled in the US; in Europe made millions. (Their success continues to this day.) Brands like Hilton, Marriott, Starwood and IHG, to name a few, were actually busy shutting down their property-level websites. Hotel marketing types refused to believe in online marketing; they were so caught up in their own hype that they missed the boat to the greatest hotel revenue party on the planet. It was a blunder that is painful for me to bring up, but for the sake of history I must.

Fast forward to today. OTAs still rule Google and rank for some heavy-hitting terms. However, Google any “hotel + city name” term and you will no longer see an independent hotel, or a brand site,  show up on the top half of your screen. Google has taken a machete to the traditional organic results page to push the products that make them money. Now it’s all about the Benjamins (Google Map Ads, Google Hotel Finder Ads, and good old PPC).

2013 might not be the Golden Age of Hotel SEO, but there is much you can do. “Optimize everything” is my philosophy. Here are some things  you need to consider if you are serious about improving your hotel’s website’s organic rankings and online revenue.

1. Open Source or Bust

Owning your brand is bigger then SEO, always has been and always will be. There is one real estate market that is booming in marketing land: it’s called making and owning your brandRenting your hotel website  your most profitable direct revenue channel — needs to be dropped like a bad habit (or hot potato, you choose). Don’t give away the keys to your online home by building it on a closed proprietary CMS (content management system) that you can’t control, remove or optimize at will.

Instead, get a cool design and then pick any open source CMS (WordPress, Joomla, Drupal) to build it on. An army of developers backs these programs when it comes to Google SEO compatibility. There are also some amazing SEO plugins that will help you get back control of your SEO destiny. A lot of them tie into Google Webmaster Central and help your website maintain up-to-date Google compliance. Bonus feature: You will always own your content, photos, website and reputation. How cool is that! Double bonus: You do not lose your entire online footprint with Google every time you redesign or switch website design vendors. #winning

2. Content Is King in the Google Galaxy

There has never been a better time to invest in quality content. Hotel and travel websites looking for organic traffic need to move away from the trend of image-rich and content-poor websites.

In case you’re wondering why so many hotel websites look so similar (and perform so poorly), here’s the formula:

agency’s website template + agency’s regional sales goals + proprietary CMS + sweatshop content writers

= 1000’s of zombie clone websites

Quality images are crucial for hotel sites, but you also have to give people and search engines something nice to read. Hotel websites stuffed with keywords and faux packages have been dropping fast since the 2011 Panda update. Updates are continuing to target websites with low-quality content. Don’t let your website be average, boring and stuffed with meaningless adjectives. Participate in content generation, and say things about your hotel that really matter to your guests.

3. Aim Smaller and More Specific

You have to move beyond city name + hotel keywords like “hotels in London.” Even if you rank for those keywords (good luck!), the referral traffic is diminishing rapidly.

It’s time to pay attention to Latent Semantic Indexing, which simply means that people are going to search for the same thing in different ways. Target terms travelers use to describe your hotel. Why are people traveling to your location? What are they looking to do? What do they like about your property? Look into your website analytics to find out what search terms are bringing visitors to your website and your blog. Data is available to you through Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools and Google AdWords Keyword Tool. Please use it!

To put it another way, always try to solve a problem or answer a question for your guests. Focus on answering the questions they want answered, and you will no longer be a slave to keywords with high volume, diminishing traffic and poor conversion.

4. Google+ Is Not Just an Option, It’s the Law

For a while I was convinced that Google+ was Google’s sour grapes product, because they had failed to be a social network. Of course, Google is way too smart to worry about any grapes. Finally, after seeing how they rolled maps, local and reviews into G+, I get it. Millions of business owners worldwide now have to go and get a G+ account, not to mention read ridiculous and boring articles about why your hotel, blah blah, must use Google+, blah blah, we can help.”

A name and a face to go with content is being required. That’s the game. Google Authorship isn’t a suggestion, it’s a necessity. It identifies that a real person is creating the copy. Every Google account subscriber is asked to sign up for Google+. The search engine weighed up social shares last year and downgraded back links; that’s not a coincidence.

Keyword-laden domains no longer have an advantage. The EMD update might not have affected a ton of sites, but it closed the loophole from the day it went into action.

5. SEO & Analytics: Tame the ROI Monster

Log into any hotel’s analytics profile; the SEO traffic numbers with the tag “not provided” are consistently rising. On October 18, 2011, Google announced that they would no longer pass keyword query data through its referrer string for logged in users. That means that instead of showing organic keyword data for these visitors, Google Analytics will offer you the useful description of “not provided.” Keywords that result in a click on your PPC ad are not included in SEO traffic numbers either. This lack of data is making year-on-year comparisons pretty useless, and making it harder than ever to assign ROI numbers to SEO. Chasing your agency to give you a comprehensive ROI report is just a waste of time.

ROI expectations must be tamed to reflect the change in how SEO data is populating in analytics. Hotels that don’t want to invest in SEO because it is hard to show ROI have a wonderful excuse to dwell in their misguided marketing utopia where you never have to do any SEO. However, smart hotels are still pursuing an active SEO strategy by investing in content, local citations, videos, etc. — despite the analytics and reporting challenges.


Search engine optimization has been drastically transformed over the last decade. The Golden Age is over, and it will surely be missed by the hotels who once made tons of revenue through higher rankings. But it’s time to come to terms with current realities.

Reevaluate your SEO strategy. Are you paying for outdated services? If you’re working with a larger agency, consider that they may be focused on continuing to extract profit from their well-established yet outdated SEO department. Every hotel in the agency system has a big decision to make: continue paying for outdated strategies and promises by hiring “safe” and familiar vendors; or rework your search engine marketing strategy to make the most of current and future search trends.

But keep this in mind. While you sit in meetings deciding whether you want to make revenue with or without ROI reporting, Google is  hustling big-time. Check out their stock price, and their online revenue from click advertising. All arrows are pointing to the sky. They want a better search page for their customers, and more ways to make money through PPC advertising and their other search products.

It’s easy to get confused or caught in the middle when SEO is changing so rapidly. But no matter how much things change, it is always a good idea to do is move away from industrial SEO  strategy and start (or continue) doing the right things: maintain control of your website, keep adding good content, blog about issues that interest your guests, build and optimize your site based on the latest techniques and technology.

Your hotel managers and owners need to get very comfortable with the idea that they will have to continually spend money on expanding website content and buying traffic (PPC). Search changes fast, and there are no guarantees. But that doesn’t mean you should feel paralyzed and stop trying to make the most of your online revenue opportunities.