As a short-term rental owner or guest we are less than delighted when we see the amount an OTA (Airbnb, Vrbo, Booking, Tripadvisor) adds as a fee to a booking.
But there is something we can do about that.
We can keep the OTA out of the loop by booking direct, something that recently has taken on the label of a ‘movement’ with its own hashtag: #bookdirect.
What does book direct mean and why should you care?
What is a direct booking?
A direct booking is one that does not come through an OTA (Airbnb/Booking/Vrbo/Tripadvisor). It is a booking that comes to you through your own site, or it could be through social media, a repeat guest, word of mouth or offline advertising. It can also be through an old-school, subscription-model listing site – the point is that a direct booking means you have control over the whole process of communication, payment and cancellation terms.
Book direct is about control and money – specifically retaining more of both. And not just on the owner’s side, on the guest’s side too.
What’s in it for the owner:
– you don’t lose 15-18% of your booking to an OTA;
– you don’t have to put up with whatever cancellation terms the OTA may impose on you (especially at the start of a global pandemic);
– you don’t have to wait till the booking is taking place to get your payment;
– you don’t risk an unreasonable negative review that cannot be removed;
– you can communicate freely with the guest pre-arrival, and this includes upselling, for example with affiliate links to book local attractions.
What’s in if for the renter:
– lower rates, in theory;
– a more direct connection with the owner;
– access to more local info from the owner.
How to get direct bookings
Although you could just have a Facebook page, or even, if you are a Kardashian, an Instagram account, you are really going to need a website, or at least a webpage, that potential renters can be directed to. There are all sorts of inexpensive ways to do this, from making something from scratch on WordPress, to using a template builder like Wix or Squarespace, to companies that specialise in short-term rental sites. WordPress will give you the most control, but is also hardest to learn how to use.
Note that having your own site is not an instant replacement for using the OTAs. People are very unlikely to find your site in Google’s organic (not pay-per-click) results for a generic search, unless it is for rather niche search phrases that your site matches well.
And you are also unlikely to be able to compete with the OTAs for those pay-per-click spots at the top of a search results page (still assuming you aren’t a Kardashian).
So at least to start with, the strategy is to use the OTAs and try to get potential renters from there to your own site.
How to get people from an OTA to your own site
You can’t simply give out your own website’s address in your OTA ad (e.g. “visit the property’s own site at hideawaycottage.com”) because it will be automatically blocked, but you can format it so as to get through this filter: “hideawaycottage dot com”. But this is not a good idea because you do not want to get banned from an OTA for violating their T&Cs.
What you can and should do is to use your property name or brand name repeatedly on your OTA page – use it excessively, in your title, multiple times in the description text and photo captions. So someone reading the text cannot fail to catch on. This allows them to google that name. This is less effective if you use a name like Hideaway Cottage or Les Lavandes. It has to be a rare name and ideally a unique name (‘unique’ means the only one in the known universe).
Some people lace their images with their own site’s URL over the images as watermarks, or even one image as just a slide showing the web address. Because they are not in the text segment of your ad they are harder for the OTA to spot. These methods are underhand and depend on your attitude to risk. Remember that if you are banned from an OTA, that is quite a big deal, you do need them as part of your marketing arsenal.
What if your name is established and is not unique? You could use an acronym. For example, let’s say your property is Hideaway Cottage and it is in the Cotswolds. If you call it Hideaway Cottage In The Cotswolds, the domain hcitc.com will cost you a couple of thousand pounds/euros/dollars. Whereas Hideaway Cottage – A Cotswold Dream = hcacd.com will cost you under a tenner. You do then need to seed your OTA ad with that acronym and use it at every opportunity to refer to the property, so it is obvious that this is what they should google.
How NOT to get people from an OTA to your own site
Don’t reply to a booking enquiry on an OTA by suggesting they might like to find you on your own site. If caught you may well be banned from that OTA, but even if not caught you will be demoted in the search results for that site because you are not converting enquiries into bookings. Once you get an enquiry, take the booking on the site you got it. (This will be moot soon enough because all OTAs will be ‘instant book’ only).
You have your own site, now what?
So you can just throw together an instant site using your property or brand name and people will find you by googling? Probably not, unless you use a genuinely unique name like Zyhewoolfehhh. You still have to put the work in to make your site rank on page one of Google for your property/brand name. That means optimising your site for that name. Ideally you would also make that site more lovable by Google, for example adding occasional blog posts about the local area.
But just as importantly, once people get to your site, they have left the trusted environs of an OTA, and they are out there in random-world. So your site must instantly reassure them. That means a well-designed site with excellent photos and information about the property and location. Unless you are a very good photographer, invest in professional photos, these will be paid off with one booking.
You know who you are but to a visitor to your site you may as well be a masked robber with a bag marked ‘swag’. You need to build trust by personalising, so have a comprehensive ‘about’ page laying out anything you care to share about yourself (including a nice photo, of your family if applicable) and why you bought your property. Link to your Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin profiles for additional trust points.
You have to create something more delicious than your ad on an OTA. For example, have a page on the best restaurants to go to, with your personal review, and the best attractions to visit. Stuff they will not find on Airbnb. Another benefit of this sort of very local and tailored content is that it is a way for you to rank above big sites for specific search terms (like ‘best restaurants for families in Roussillon’).
Most visitors to your site will not book of course, but some may be impressed enough to want to give you their email address so you can market to them. You get this by offering a newsletter sign-up, or some sort of local destination/restaurants/activities guide which can simpy be a PDF document you will send in exchange for an email address.
If you think newsletters are technically beyond you, go and have a look at Mailchimp for example, they have drag and drop templates that make the process very easy. Mailchimp and its competitors have a free entry point up to a certain number of subscribers.
Why should potential renters book direct?
So now someone has got to your site and decided it looks OK. Why should they book there rather than through a trusted brand like Airbnb where they get good protection against mis-selling and fraud?
There has to a be a lower price when booking direct.
Yes, it’s nice to be communicating directly with the owner and to have all sorts of reassuring chats, and maybe you offer a special welcome pack or add-on for a direct booking, but most people shop on price. That is not necessarily a problem because you can just remove the OTA’s commission and give the raw price. However the OTAs have begun to require rate parity, which means you can’t offer lower rates on your site than on an OTA. If it hasn’t happened in your region yet, it will soon, unless or until legislation catches up.
One way around this is to offer a discount code on your own site, so you are still technically showing the same rates as on an OTA pre-discount.
To increase your chances of getting direct bookings, don’t ask them to pay by bank transfer – they don’t know you and a bank transfer offers them precisely zero protection. Bank transfer can be an option but you should also offer some way of paying by credit card – Paypal or Stripe are the easiest ways of doing this, for roughly 2-3% of each transaction (this is paid by you, you cannot legally pass the fee on to the buyer).
Integrating a credit card booking mechanism like Stripe on your site is the ideal way to create trust.
(Yes I know that if you go back in time, pre-Airbnb and pre-Homeaway to those sunlit uplands with all the lovely little rental listing sites that worked beautifully for peanuts per annum, before Homeaway bought them all up and ruined everything, that bank transfer and cheque were the only ways to take payment and those worked perfectly well… but do you really want to be the last person selling horse-shoes next to the Ford factory?)
How to convert an OTA booking to a repeat direct booking
With an OTA booking you get the renter’s phone number as a minimum, and with Vrbo you still see their email address once booked (this is likely to disappear as they would prefer to keep everything within their sealed ecosphere like airbnb).
So communicate with guests before and during their stay by text, Whatsapp or email. Check they have everything they need, tell them of some special event happening nearby. Establish some sort of relationship outside of the OTA. If you only have a phone number you can suggest they give you their email so you can communicate future special offers to them, or perhaps you have a newsletter you can send them. In this way you build up an email or text marketing list.
Another way to get your guests’ email addresses is to require a sign-in to the WiFi like in a hotel, using something like Stayfi. This gets you the email of everyone in the property. There are a couple of problems with this. One is that it is a horrible imposition – the point of a holiday rental is that it is not a hotel, it is home from home, and you do not have to do this at home. The other is that although you have the email address you do not have their permission to market to them, which is required at least in Europe and the UK. But anyway, that is a method that is out there.
The best time to contact past guests is a little before the time they previously booked. Offer a discount or a free night, tell them they are special/VIP/loyal. This will cost you money but there is a value to knowing that they will not be problem guests.
Imagine if most of your bookings were repeats who are guaranteed to like your property – how good would that be? It’s entirely possible.
You can also incentivise them to recommend the property to others, in return for Amazon vouchers (which is basically the same as giving them money but less overtly).
Other ways to get your site found directly
Not everybody searches in the traditional way! A surprising proportion of searches are done through Google Images rather than a regular Google search. You will be shocked to learn that nearly one third of Google searches are in Google Images. You should optimise your photos by using key words in their title and ‘alt text’. This allows them to show up for relevant searches. But the photo has to be good, because you need people to click on it to get to your site.
Youtube accounts for about 3% of all internet searches. That may seem a small number, but there is much less competition for you to beat on Youtube than on Google search, so it is definitely worth trying.
Making a video may sound daunting, but you can get a decent effect with a smartphone walkthrough (holding the phone in landscape mode, not portrait). It is also possible to make a terrible video so maybe get some feedback before posting.
You can also cheat a video by doing a slideshow of still images of your property, using a bit of pan and zoom to add ‘movement’. You can link to your website below the video, as well as in the video itself at the beginning and end. You’ll want to read up on how to optimise a Youtube video (including your keywords in the file name, title and description, etc.) so it stands the best chance of featuring in a Youtube search result.
Once you have done a walkthrough, think about adding videos on things to do and see in the local area, always linking to your own site as the place to stay when you visit these places. People are not going to be searching on Youtube for a house as much as for a location they want to know more about.
Point social media at your own website. Instagram is the easiest and most satisfying one to use but it is likely to bring you fewest clickthroughs to your site as you can’t have a link from an image, only from the description on your bio, or now also from an Instagram Story if you have a verified or business account, or 10,000 followers. So you are likely to do better with Pinterest and Facebook in terms of clickthroughs.
The problem with book direct
We are used to everything being free on the internet (because we don’t price in the value of our data), and so we think it is outrageous that OTAs charge 15% and more in commission per booking.
But what commission do we think would be fair? Bear in mind the amazing technology behind these sites, the ease of putting up an ad and taking bookings without doing a stroke of work, the fact that Airbnb covers owners for up to 1 million in damage to property, and the fact that it is all free to set up.
I do recall the days before Airbnb when listing sites charged a flat subscription fee regardless of how many rental enquiries they generated for you, and how that system seemed fundamentally unfair – why, we asked, can’t they charge according to performance? Well, now they are, and we are still not happy. Just putting that out there…
For book direct to make an impact in the mind of the consumer it mainly comes down to price. And OTAs may be able to insist on rate parity. They will also soon put all their commission on the owner’s side, giving the appearance to renters of there being no booking fee (although the reality is that owners will simply bump up their prices). So then booking direct is struggling to make its case.
The fact is that we can all go to an independent bookseller and get great, personalised service and advice, even a nice frothy coffee, but how many of us do that instead of buying on Amazon? The answer is not many. But enough to keep that bookshop in business.
So ask yourself: which type of consumer would you prefer staying in your property? The one who wants lowest price and next-day delivery, or the thoughtful frappucino-sipper? Perhaps this is where booking direct will find its niche audience.