Master Direct Bookings: A Comprehensive Guide for Hotels

Bryan Michalis
Bryan Michalis
October 30, 2023
Master Direct Bookings: A Comprehensive Guide for Hotels

Direct bookings are often seen as the Holy Grail of hotel reservations. That’s why countless tech vendors and consultants offer guidance and solutions that promise you more of them.

But why are direct bookings such a big deal for hotels? And what are the most effective ways to increase them?

Find out now why it’s worth investing in your direct booking strategy and which steps you can take. Spoiler alert: some points take effort, but you’ll keep reaping the rewards for a long time!

What Are Direct Bookings?

Direct bookings are reservations guests make directly with your hotel. Your website is the most common channel for this. But direct bookings can also come via email, phone, from walk-ins or the sales team (e.g. contracted corporate business). In any of these cases, no third parties such as OTAs, travel agents, wholesalers or other intermediaries are involved.

How Do Hotels Process Direct Bookings?

Depending on a reservation’s source, you need different tools or team members to record and process it. Here’s how that looks for the top three direct booking channels.

1. Hotel Website

Your hotel’s website is the top source of direct bookings. Here you showcase your property and provide more information-rich content than you could on social media or OTAs. Apart from engaging content, you need a user-friendly booking engine. It’s essential because it lets guests reserve directly via your site. It also shares those reservations with your property management system (PMS) and processes payments, or credit card guarantees automatically.

2. Phone and email

When a guest books via phone or email, your reservations agents manually key the details into the PMS. Getting a deposit for these reservations used to be time-consuming and risky due to the use of insecure paper and PDF forms. Today, digital authorization solutions enable travelers to safely book and prepay rooms in a flash.

3. Walk-in

When a guest decides to walk in, the front desk agent creates the reservation and checks the guest in directly. Everything related to booking a room, such as payment and signing any paperwork, happens right on the spot.

Why Do Direct Bookings Matter So Much to Hotels?

Direct bookings bring big benefits for hotels compared to third-party reservations, including:

1. Savings on commissions

Since no third parties are involved in direct bookings, you don’t pay commission on them. If you play your cards right, boosting your direct channels can help you significantly lower your overall distribution costs. However, keep in mind that other investments are necessary to drive direct bookings (e.g. managing your website or running ads).

2. Building a direct relationship with guests

When travelers book via an OTA or travel agent, they own the guest relationship. They act as the primary contact for questions, requests or complaints. As a hotel, you often don’t even get access to your guests’ contact details. It’s completely different with direct bookings. Here, you own the guest relationship from start to finish and travelers always communicate directly with you. This gives you access to guest data you can use to personalize your service and build brand loyalty.

3. Driving more revenue

Once you have contact details for direct bookers, you can proactively reach out to guests. Offer service add-ons or paid upgrades for their upcoming stay, share special deals or invite them to book again soon. This can boost the average spend per guest and help you increase your revenue from return guests.

Given these benefits, it’s more than worth investing in a direct booking strategy at your hotel. Now let’s explore some straightforward ways to drive room reservations via your direct channels.

Get More Direct Bookings: Four Building Blocks for Your Best Direct Room Sales Strategy

Take the following steps to generate more direct bookings and slash your third-party commissions.

Building Block #1: Create a Strong Online Presence

If you want to generate more direct bookings, you need to start by creating a solid online presence. That begins with your website and extends into your social media and OTA profiles. Follow the six steps below to polish up your hotel’s online presence.

Building Blocks to More Direct Bookings

Step 1: Optimize Your Hotel Website for Direct Bookings

Your website is the first touchpoint with your brand for many people. As such it sets the tone for the overall guest experience.

Check these four boxes to present your hotel in the best light, make it easy for guests to find information and book a room.

Clear Website Set-Up and Relevant Content

Intuitive and mobile-responsive design are critical for a smooth user experience on your website. Make it easy to find key information such as room types and rates, check-in and check-out times and details about your facilities. Go through your pages like a site visitor would and check if they’re well-structured and easy to navigate.

Your site must also make your hotel’s benefits and unique selling propositions clear immediately. For that, you need engaging copy and high-quality images that underscore your strengths and showcase your offering. You could even include a video walkthrough or VR tour to make your hotel come to life for potential guests. Remember to highlight seasonal packages and special offers as well.

The Commonwealth Hotel website

The Commonwealth in Richmond, VA does a great job of this. A beautiful leader image draws in site visitors. Clear copy and high-resolution photos highlight what the hotel offers and where potential bookers can get more information.

Take things a step further by publishing content such as blog posts or destination guides. They add extra value for site visitors and position you as a trustworthy local expert.

As you improve the on-page experience, apply SEO best practices as well to boost website traffic in the long run.

Make It Easy to Book a Room

Use seamless navigation and clear calls-to-action to make the direct booking process quick and easy. The faster and simpler it is, the more completed bookings you’ll see.

Your booking engine plays a massive role here. When choosing a booking solutions provider, consider the following points:

     
  • Reservation flow: Look for a tool that allows people to complete reservations in a maximum of two to three steps.
  •  
  • Mobile-friendliness: That’s essential given that an estimated 25% of reservations will come in via mobile by 2024.
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  • Integrations: Two-way integrations with your PMS and channel manager are critical. That way your inventory is automatically updated in your system and on your distribution channels whenever someone books or cancels a room. Integration with a reliable payment system and an option to provide digital authorizations is another plus. That saves time for your guests and your team and it reduces the risk of errors.
  •  
  • Payment models: Some booking engines charge a commission per reservation. Others calculate a monthly flat fee based on your hotel’s room count. Run the numbers to determine which one offers you better value for money.

Finally, position your booking engine prominently. If you can’t place it above the fold, insert an eye-catching “Book Now” button. Consider putting a second such button in your navigation bar to make it permanently accessible to people navigating your site.

See how MADE Hotel NYC did it? They link to their booking engine in the top right corner and under their hero video.

MADE Hotel NYC

MADE's overlay

Offer an Incentive for Direct Bookings

Give people a good reason to book directly by offering attractive bonuses.

Here are examples to inspire you:

     
  • Exclusive discounts: 10% off the room rate or 15% off dinner at your restaurant
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  • Perks: A free room upgrade or free spa entry (if it’s usually paid for)
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  • Inclusions: e.g., breakfast, an airport transfer, a fruit basket in the room

Make a shortlist of incentives that are sustainable for your hotel. After all, each one comes at a cost. You can also change your bonus depending on the season or the volume of direct bookings. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so test which offers your guests respond to best.

Provide  Live Chat and Customer Support

Customer support can help move the booking process along and drive more guests to book. A live chat widget on your website is the easiest way to provide this. It gives people access to real-time assistance without having to pick up their phone or email you.

The faster you answer, the more likely you’ll get the booking. But that’s not always possible for teams that are already stretched thin. If you want to provide quick responses no matter how busy things are, consider a chatbot. It can take over simple, repetitive questions and free up your team for more complex inquiries.

Modern solutions also integrate with platforms like Messenger, WhatsApp and Google Business Messages, so you can communicate with guests on their favorite channels.

Step 2: Leverage Social Media

Once your website is set, it’s time to look at your social media. These digital channels offer powerful ways to reach your target audience and build your brand. But they’re not just a tool for raising awareness of your hotel. You can also use them to engage with followers and respond to their inquiries.

Build your social presence by regularly posting engaging and informative content. Encourage in-house guests to share content about their stay on their own accounts as well. This broadens your reach and creates social proof.

As you grow your following, share promotions and highlight direct booking benefits to generate reservations. You can even give your followers a little push with a direct booking bonus, e.g. a voucher for a free welcome drink. But don’t exaggerate this, as people will get tired of seeing too much sales-focused content.

Step 3: Actively Manage Your Reviews

Online reviews are a valuable resource for several reasons:

     
  1. They show what guests love about your hotel and what you can improve.
  2.  
  3. They help you build your online reputation and win over more potential bookers.
  4.  
  5. A high review score can even boost your revenue. According to a Cornell study, a one-point lift in ratings can allow you to increase rates by up to 11.2% while achieving the same occupancy.

The best way to get more reviews is simply to ask your guests for them. You can do that in person during check-out or via a post-departure email. Canary’s Smart Check-out lets you automate this step, so you can reach as many guests as possible without lifting a finger.

Getting travelers to share feedback is only half of the story though. Responding appropriately to both positive and negative comments is equally important. It shows that you value your guests’ thoughts and want to make up for any shortcomings.

Discover how to use online reviews to boost direct bookings and revenue in this comprehensive guide.

Step 4: Offer Price Parity and a Best Rate Guarantee

Reserving via your website should never be more expensive than booking on an OTA. Ideally, you’ll guarantee rate parity, which means having consistent pricing across all distribution channels. Use a market intelligence tool to monitor your rates and find channels that are undercutting you.

Show your site visitors you’re serious by promoting your best rate guarantee on your website. That means if people find a better rate elsewhere, you promise to match it. You could even use a booking engine that comes with a live rate comparison tool. It lists your prices on other channels next to your website’s rate and provides proof that you’re offering the best deal. As a bonus, this keeps potential guests from clicking away to shop around for better rates on other pages.

You can also offer a slightly better deal for direct bookers. Keep in mind that monetary direct booking discounts can lead to penalties from OTAs, e.g. a low ranking on their results page. Add-ons like free breakfast or a welcome amenity are the safer bet. They can also seem more attractive to travelers than a simple cash discount.

Step 5: Be Present on Metasearch Engines

Metasearch engines put your hotel in front of people who are already comparing offers for specific properties. Google and Trivago (in some markets) allow you to list your hotel for free and drive traffic to your booking engine.

Cape Codder's google presence

Here’s how this looks for the Cape Codder Resort & Spa. Their free booking link is the first one under “All options.”

If you want your link to appear higher up, you need to invest in metasearch advertising. That can bring you considerably more clicks and direct bookings.

Step 6: List Your Hotel On All Relevant OTAs

This may sound counterintuitive, but travelers often use OTAs as a hotel search engine to get an overview of what’s available. If your property looks interesting on the OTA, people are likely to visit your website as part of their research. That gives you the chance to win more direct bookings. This is called the billboard effect. Researchers from Cornell University identified this pattern and found that up to 75% of guests who booked directly checked an OTA first.

Building Block #2: Nurture Relationships with Your Guests

Staying in touch with past guests and the undecided traveler can pay off massively down the road. Here are two ways to keep your hotel at the front of their minds.

1. Use Email Marketing

There’s a saying in online marketing: the money is the (email) list. Recent data from HubSpot proves this. They found that for every $1 you invest in email marketing, you can generate a return of up to $36.

If you want results like these, build a strong email list and message your subscribers regularly. To get started, add a newsletter sign-up to the booking flow on the hotel’s website. Next, go for guests checking in at your property. With their permission, add them to your list. An easy way to capture this information, even for OTA-bookers, is to use a tool like Canary Contactless Check-In. It prompts new guests to share their email addresses during the pre-arrival check-in flow.

Once you start building your email list, use data you have from previous stays to segment guests and target them with personalized messages and highly relevant promotions. For example, reach out a few weeks before their birthday to encourage them to book a weekend getaway. Or if you know they travel with kids, suggest your summer family package along with child-friendly activities nearby.

2. Set Up Loyalty Programs and Member Benefits

Think of how you can reward repeat bookers and offer those ideas as part of a loyalty program. This can make it more interesting for guests to return and encourage direct bookings.

Benefits to offer include discounts, early access to promotions, special inclusions or access to services you don’t offer elsewhere. And of course, even here you can save the best bonuses for the loyalty program members who book directly.

Building Block #3: Leverage Additional Promotional Tactics

If you don’t just want to rely on organic reach, you can use paid promotion to increase your hotel’s visibility, drive more website traffic and generate direct bookings.

Collaborate with Influencers and Other Partners

Partnering with travel influencers or bloggers can be an effective way to boost direct bookings. Host them at your property and consider offering a discount code their followers can use to book a room.

You can also collaborate with relevant brands for cross-promotions and package deals, e.g. a beverage brand that’s especially popular in summer or a winter sports clothing brand. Some examples include Aperol’s partnership with The Hoxton, Hyatt Centric’s work with Spotify and Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa’s collaboration with Porsche.

Instead of huge international brands, you can also work with local partners. Offer them to shoot ads at your property in exchange for mentions on their social media and in their other communication materials. Then cross-promote the ads and videos that prominently feature your hotel.

Use Online Advertising and Retargeting

Develop targeted pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns to drive traffic to your website. Research relevant keywords that your audience would use to find a hotel like yours and bid on these phrases.

You can do this year-round or for a specific season, e.g. if you have special offers or if you want to push for business during low season. Targeting a certain demographic or interest group is another option. This could be people who are searching for a pet-friendly or an adult-only place in your area.

Test different ad alternatives to see which ones perform best for your hotel. It may take a few tries, but once you’ve discovered your ideal format, double down on it.

Take things one step further with retargeting. That means showing ads specifically to people who have visited your website or engaged with your social media without booking a room.

Building Block #4: Monitor and Analyze Your Data

Take stock of things like website traffic, direct booking volume and conversion rates before you begin implementing these strategies. Once you get to work, track these metrics to see which approach works best and drop tactics that aren’t working.

Explore Your Website Metrics

Use a tool like Google Analytics to track website performance and check how people behave on your site. This will show you where you still have room for improvement.

Some questions to answer include the following:

     
  • How much traffic do you get per day/week/month?
  •  
  • How is your website traffic developing?
  •  
  • Where do site visitors come from (e.g. search results, social media, online media features…)?
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  • Which pages do they look at (e.g. your home page, room descriptions, etc.)?
  •  
  • Which pages do they leave your site from (e.g. your booking engine or room descriptions)?
  •  
  • What can you change to keep them on the site for longer (e.g. speed up your site, improve its design or the copy…)?

The work on your website is never done. Go through these questions regularly and keep optimizing based on these data insights. That will bring a lasting boost to your traffic and direct booking volume.

Analyze Your Promotions and Ads

Just like with your website, continuously fine-tuning your promotions and ads will bring you more direct bookings.

Start by analyzing your email marketing:

     
  • How are your email open rates and click-through rates developing?
  •  
  • Which subject lines do well?
  •  
  • Which types of promotions get the most clicks?
  •  
  • Do emails with or without images perform better?

Use your findings to tweak your messages and find the best approach for your target audience.

Next, look at your promotions:

     
  • How many people used the promo code from your recent influencer campaign?
  •  
  • How much traffic did your latest set of Facebook ads bring?
  •  
  • Did the clicks from your new sponsored article or social media post convert to direct bookings?
  •  
  • How many people use your metasearch links?

Again, let your data guide your optimization and keep testing new formats to learn what people respond to best.

Use the strategies above if you want to pay less commission and gain more profitable direct bookings at your hotel. Start with the basics like optimizing your website, email marketing and search ads. If social media and co-promotions with other brands are more for you, try that.

Just keep in mind that it’s critical to always address your target audience’s interests in your marketing. Track your results to see how well you’re doing that and invest more time in the things that work.

Every hotel is unique, so trial and error is needed to find the best path for your property. But it’s all worth it because it gives you independence from OTAs, increases direct bookings and boosts your bottom line.

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