How to choose a booking engine for today

When this blog started out, quite a few years ago, it was intended to focus primarily on marketing and evaluating reservation or booking software. With changes in the industry, and in my situation, that emphasis has shifted, but, from a high-level view, it has all been related. However, it has been some time since I’ve written specifically about booking engines, but for some historical perspective, you can find some useful information here and here.

There are several reasons why reservation software (booking software) has not been the focus of posts here. Among them, is sheer volume of the offerings. There were over 40 different offerings emphasizing B&B bookings when this blog began. Today some of those have gone out of business, but many are still there, in one form or another, and there are literally dozens of new additions to the field. Another reason is that my consulting work has lately been occupied with specific booking systems, so I have been reluctant to write about systems I’m evaluating for clients. Yet another is that several of the existing systems have promised to provide me with demo access so I can do a full review, but have failed to come through with the goods. Hmmm. What does that say about their ability to follow-through for customers, I wonder? Meanwhile, many (perhaps most) of the posts have explored ways to evaluate your marketing using Google Analytics – an area of much greater concern to many I speak with.

Getting Started

Whether you are considering a change of booking engines (and for our purposes I’ll be using the terms “booking engine”, “booking software”, and “reservation system” or “reservation software” all to refer to the same thing – an external system for capturing guest bookings that can be – or appear to be – attached to your website), or whether you are looking into online booking systems for the first time (Wow! I’m truly amazed, if that is the case), a review of all the systems out there would reveal some very obvious common features, and some differences.

For example, all the systems (at least all I’ve seen, and that is a lot of them) will be able to at least look somewhat like your website (though with some older systems the similarity isn’t very close!), take booking information, payment information, and either enter the booking in your system, or send you notification of the booking (whether by email, text message, or carrier pigeon).

Those are the bare bones of what a system should be able to do – take a complete booking and let you know it is done. It is the additional features that make the systems different from each other. Sometimes the additional features come at additional cost.

Your choice, then, will depend on cost coupled with the additional features, and how valuable you perceive them to be.

Defining Your Objective

Like most things in life, it is easier to see what systems will be best for you if you know what you expect of them. Put another way, if we have a goal or objective for the system, we can more easily see if the system will achieve that goal.

We will take it as a given that we want the system to

  1. Capture guest identification information
  2. Capture guest payment information
  3. Capture booking details
  4. Transmit all the above to the property

In addition, to compete in business today, there are a number of features I consider to be essential, and some more that you may find important, or others may find less important. I’ve identified these as “Essential” and “Optional” in the sections below. You may want to use these to create a checklist you can use in your evaluation.

You’ll need to decide for yourself how important features such as providing the referral sources of bookings, mobile friendliness, and more, are for you.

Essential Features

There are some additional features that I consider to be essential in today’s business climate. Here is the list, with brief explanations.

1. Does it support Ecommerce tracking?
I have said it before, but it is well worth repeating: If your booking engine does not fully support ecommerce tracking, you need to get a new booking engine! This is the number one feature if you want to know if you are spending money effectively on marketing. Most booking engines did not support ecommerce about five years ago, but said it was “coming soon.” Now, after five years, most booking engines still do not support ecommerce tracking, or they only partially support it. Get one that does!

What is Ecommerce tracking? There are a number of posts on this blog that go into details, but basically, it uses Google Analytics to track the referral source, and the revenue you receive, of every individual booking made online. That allows you to see how much revenue your paid sources (as well as free listings) are generating through online bookings.

2. Is it mobile friendly?
Mobile friendly search resultsIf you think this is a question about whether or not you need a mobile web site, you need to read this article, this article, and this article.

OK, now that we are all talking about whether or not your booking engine pages are “Mobile friendly” according to Google’s standards, you can test it yourself. Paste the booking engine page url into the Google mobile friendly testing tool and see for yourself.

3. Is the page design consistent with your site?
You may trust your booking engine, but your prospective guest will usually be unfamiliar with them. Consequently, they will feel much more confident in them (and in you) if the site appears to be a seamless extension of your site.

Many booking engines will not customize their look to be an exact match of your pages. While an exact match might be desirable, a consistent feel, even if not identical, will probably do the job. The idea is to avoid (like the plague) a booking engine which creates a jarring response in the viewer, as they have quite obviously left your site, and been taken somewhere they have no reason to trust with their personal and financial information.

4. Can you change rates, add specials, etc., yourself?
It is essential that the innkeeper be able to make changes to the booking engine settings without the need to contact the vendor to make the changes for you. The reasons for this should be obvious: you shouldn’t have to pay anyone to change your settings for you; innkeepers don’t work regular business hours, and may not be able to contact the software support for help while they are available; and delays in some changes (imagine a delay over a weekend while an erroneous price is on the booking engine!) can be very costly!

5. Is the company large enough to support a growing clientele?
Several times over the past years a small company has appeared offering, or seeking to find customers for, a new booking engine. In many cases this is a “one man band” approach – the single software developer is the entire company. They offer an attractive price, so what could go wrong?

Plenty! Do they have enough experience in the hospitality/lodging space to create something that is actually useful for innkeepers? Is the software fully developed and tested, or are the customers expected to be the testing department? Who will provide support? It can sound appealing when the solo developer says they can customize the system to add features you want, or to correct bugs you have discovered. As a practical matter, though, this means the features will be added like a patchwork quilt, rather than according to a master plan. The result will be software that eventually becomes unnecessarily complex and disorganized, and will eventually need to be replaced. In addition, support from one person is hardly adequate as the number of customers grows. If the developer is building custom features, who is supporting customer problems? And even developers need to sleep some time, so who is providing emergency support during that time?

6. Does the software generate reports that are adequate for your purposes?
This is a topic that is routinely overlooked, both by developers and customers. Developers overlook it because it can be time-consuming, and because they often do not have a sufficient understanding of the business of their customers to create appropriate reports. Customers overlook it because they assume the reports will be adequate, or they aren’t sure what they will need.

What reports are adequate is somewhat subjective, but, depending on your specific business circumstances, I submit that, at a minimum, you should have:

  1. Revenue by day, week, month and year, with separate categories for types of revenue and types of taxes
  2. Occupancy overall and by room, by day, week, month and year
  3. Revenue by guest location, separating country, state or province, etc.
  4. Revenue by referral source by day, week, month and year
  5. Taxes by type of tax by (at least) month and year
  6. All of these reports with the ability to compare the current period against the next prior period and also against the same period last year

Optional Features

These features, by their nature, will be more important to some properties than others. Some will consider some of them to be essential, while others may find those same features of no particular value. Your priorities will determine how you value them.

1. Ability to do cross-domain tracking of analytics goals
If your system is one of the few that properly supports ecommerce tracking, you can skip this feature, as it is a workaround to imitate ecommerce tracking on systems that don’t support ecommerce tracking properly.

If you absolutely refuse to change to a booking engine that can properly handle ecommerce tracking, you can imitate it by using goals. This will require your booking engine (and your website) to properly share data between them (called cross-domain tracking – that is tracking from your domain to the booking engine domain) as outlined here. The results are significantly less precise than ecommerce tracking, but better than not having any tracking.

2. Support for Universal Analytics
Google Analytics’ current version of the code (which has to be placed on both your website and the booking engine pages) is called Universal Analytics. There are a number of really helpful and interesting features in this new version, but the thing we are most interested in is that it handles cross-domain tracking much more successfully than the prior version did. This is important for both ecommerce tracking and for cross-domain tracking using goals.

As yet only a few booking engines support Universal Analytics, and the support of some of those is only partial. Hopefully it won’t take as long to implement Universal Analytics as it has taken to implement ecommerce tracking.

3. Fully responsive booking engine pages
One of the ways to achieve the “mobile friendly” designation from Google is to have responsive pages (pages that adapt themselves to the size of the device they are being viewed on). Google has made it plain for several years that their preferred method of handling mobile pages is for the pages to be responsive.

4. Support that is 24×7
Even some of the larger systems do not provide this. However, there are plenty of horror stories (search your favorite forum to find them) of properties whose booking engine went down on Friday evening or Saturday morning, and they could not access any customer records until Monday morning. Yikes!

5. Connection to online credit card processing
If you take full payment at the time of booking, or if you take deposits, this is essential, yet many systems do not provide for this.

6. Connections to other booking systems
More and more properties are listing their availability (or some of it) on booking.com, on Expedia, Priceline, etc., either directly, or through one or another of the GDS mechanisms. If your booking system supports it, you can update that availability and keep everything synchronized through your booking engine – and it may save money on the fees charged at the same time. Check out the options.

7. TA TripConnect
Similar to the previous feature, some booking engines can interact with TripConnect, to keep everything updated at once.

Of course, there will be other features that some properties want that have not been mentioned, and, as mentioned above, some properties will not need all of these features. If there are features you feel are important that have not been mentioned, feel free to mention them in the comments!

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