A few years ago computers for innkeeping meant a web site, email, a bit of web browsing, and a Word Processing program. If you were adventurous, perhaps you would add online availability/booking and a rudimentary reservation management system on your desktop. But those were simpler days.
Today there are literally dozens of different guest management platforms available, some web-based, some install on your computer. Web sites are no longer optional, but are the primary marketing medium for most inns. Online availability is nearly universal, with those who do not have it often paying the price of losing the impatient guest who is using the internet to search for lodging.
Below we list some of the changes that have been coming over the past year or so. Some are already beginning, and other can be expected to appear (or increase in importance) in the upcoming months.
1. Web-based booking systems
The earliest booking systems were installed on your desktop. This was for a simple reason – dialup internet was too slow, unreliable, and intermittent to use as a permanent connection with your reservation information. With the proliferation of high-speed internet, that concern is a thing of the past for most properties.
Over the past several years web-based programs have moved from simple online availability or booking engines, to full-fledged guest management systems. Sometimes these online systems lack the features of the better of their locally-installed cousins, but some are quite powerful. They also provide the benefit of availability from any location – something the local installation can provide, but not without additional (and sometimes painful) effort.
New guest management systems seem to appear frequently, and nearly all the newer ones are web-based. Even some of the better locally-installed systems have developed a web-based version, in an effort not to lose out to the true web-based systems.
2. All-in-one programs
It seems to be the nature of software vendors that they want to be everything to everyone. This leads even a relatively simple and straightforward program to grow via additional modules and features, to where it becomes a complex monster that can do almost anything. The guest management software vendors are no exception.
Some guest management systems, even moderately priced systems, are adding functionality that ordinarily is provided by other software vendors. The additional capabilities include the ability to send marketing emails (such as email newsletters), provide accounting for the property (removing the need for a separate accounting or bookkeeping program), etc.
Ordinarily these additional features come at a price. Instead of getting more features for the same price, the vendors use these features to drive their prices ever higher.
Prices for these tiny laptops are dropping for the holiday season. Just a few weeks ago they were hovering around $300 for a 10.1 inch netbook with 1 GB of memory and a 160GB hard drive. Now the prices have dropped by about 25% in anticipation of holiday buying. Guests are already using them, as an easy way to have access to email and other information while they travel. Innkeepers may also find them valuable, for much the same things.
The recent PAII operations study indicated that nearly all inns offer free WiFi to their guests. That’s a good thing, as more and more guests are appearing at the property with their own wireless-enabled device, be it a netbook, laptop, smartphone or iPod. If you don’t offer free WiFi, the wireless generation may pass you by.
5. Smartphones and wireless devices
As mentioned above, guests are using them, and they are a common tool for finding last-minute availability. But if you have a web-based guest management system, or the ability to access your locally-installed guest management system via the internet, you may be able to update and process reservations from your own smartphone or other wireless device. As with most small electronic devices, prices are falling on models that are not the very newest.
6. Social Media
Facebook has grown from 150 million users to well over 350 million worldwide users during 2009. It is expected to enter 2010 with just less than 400 million users. Twitter, though the darling of the media, is far behind, with less than half as many users. Still, both can easily be accessed (via your own WiFi network) while the guest is still checked in at your inn. Checking the demographics, these two platforms fit the profile of most who choose bed and breakfasts or inns – slightly more women than men, moderately affluent, ages from 35-55, with the fastest growth on Facebook in the older end of the age range. Your guests are there. Will they find you?
7. Reputation Management
With the ease of accessing social media (available internet, mobile devices) posting photos and reviews on sites from Flickr to TripAdvisor to Yelp (and many, many, others), monitoring and protecting your reputation will become increasingly important. Guests can literally leave photos and reviews (including any unhappy experience they may have felt they had) on these sites before checking out! These reviews are all found by search engines and appear when your property is searched by potential guests. What happens at your property stays on Facebook, and Twitter, and YouTube, and Flickr, and…
8. Cloud computing
Google and Microsoft (among others) have made versions of their Office suites (word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software, etc.) available for use by remote users, using their web browsers. They call this the cloud (primarily because the traditional diagrammatic representation of the internet is a cloud). The idea is that you no longer need these programs on your computer, you only need a web browser and access to the internet to access the programs, and your work is also stored there, so you do not need a significant amount of storage. There are grave security issues with this approach and many companies are simply not comfortable about allowing remote storage of their confidential documents at a site over which they have no control. However, this is not very different than web-based guest management systems, so consider whether this is useful in your situation – but do consider the security implications of storing any confidential customer data on someone else’s servers.
There are many lodging directories who regularly solicit all types of inns, trying to get them to purchase paid listings with them. Some are very general, and others market to a special niche. The marketing to entice the innkeeper to buy a listing has become increasingly intense, making one wonder if they may be suffering from some attrition. This seems likely, due at least in part to the phenomena in the final point below, and in part due to economic stresses of the market. Look for marketing to become more aggressive, but before signing up – even at a bargain rate – be sure you have a clear idea of what type of return on investment you should expect, and how you will measure it. Not all directories bring a comparable return.
10. Search engines and maps
Google and Bing both integrate their local search with their general search engine. At this writing, Yahoo! keeps the local search separate from general results. In Google and Bing, if you search a location and an industry description (for example, camden maine bed and breakfast) the results include a map of the location and several individual property results for that area. This is the local search result from that search engine. Since most guests begin their search on a search engine, and use this type of search phrase, the list of several inns which satisfy the request may be all they need to find a place to stay in the location. If they want more information, it is provided by the search engine, along with reviews and a link to the property website. Who needs a directory, when the search engine has provided the same information and more, with less effort? Local search looks likely to increase in importance, while some directories may decrease.
As always, the lesson to take from all of this is not to become paralyzed, or to jump on the next great new thing. It is to carefully evaluate each opportunity with an eye to the business costs and benefits before making an informed decsion.