Book At Once provides a powerful and innovative approach to their software for managing bed and breakfasts and other small lodging properties. For many, their power and innovation will be very attractive – especially in the free version. For others, it just may not be their cup of tea.
Book at Once is a German booking system, reaching out to become a worldwide provider, and particularly to reach the American, market. Book at Once has also become a vendor member of PAII, as part of its efforts to reach out to the US and international innkeeping market.
One of the most interesting aspects of their product is that it is priced according to the features you select. The basic system is free, and that could be powerful enough for some properties. If not, additional feature bundles can be added for a monthly fee per room, or Book at Once can tailor a bundle to your needs and price it according to the features selected. Pricing for the product is given in Euros per room per month (easily converted to US Dollars or other currency), on the basis of a two year contract. We were given a full system for the review, so if you were to purchase a different option, your features may be different.
The technical design of Book at Once makes it an enormously powerful system – so much so that as you use the system you are left with the feeling that it can do even more than you can see. That leaves great possibilities for future growth.
In evaluating the user interface, we consider the layout of the screens (or web pages), ease of navigating the program, ease of entering (or changing) booking or guest information, the usability of “snapshot” or calendar views of bookings, and availability of sorted and filtered guest lists (for marketing purposes).
Book at Once opens from a web page with a dashboard that opens in a new window (above). There are icons to take you directly to the Reservation Board, to make a Reservation Request, etc., or you can click on the Book at Once start button (at the lower left corner of the dashboard) to find a more complete menu of available tasks.
The simplest way to create a booking is to click the Reservation Request icon from the dashboard. The process is a bit different than other systems, as you first select dates for the booking, then search for availability. The results show room types available, rather than rooms.
We should note that the setup, which is done via a wizard, prompts you to create room types (such as Standard Room, Suite, etc.), then to create individual rooms, assigning them to room types. If you want to create separate rates for each room, you simply create each room as a room type, then each type would have only one room. This would then allow availability to show the specific rooms available.
The consequence of using rate types rather than room types is particularly significant in Book at Once. If generic rate types are used, when a reservation is created, the room is selected by the system – the user selects the rate type, and any available room in that rate type is selected by Book at Once. Again, if you want to be able to select rooms individually, we would suggest creating a rate type for each room.
Next you select the available rate type and click “Book”. While it isn’t entirely clear on first glance, if you enter a name, city, or Customer ID, Book at Once will search for an existing guest to apply to the booking. If you are creating a new guest record, click the “Continue with New Customer” button.
A new window pops up (left), asking for the name and a few bits of information about the guest, then “OK” closes that window and opens a window (below right) where the rest of the guest information can be entered. We found the information to include items not commonly used in American B&B’s, such as passport information, and we thought it was not intuitive to have the contact info (phone numbers, email, etc.) on a separate tab from the name and address fields. When the required and optional information has been added, clicking on OK returns you to the screen where the rate type was selected, and the buttons say “Book” or “Cancel”. Since we weren’t sure whether the booking was complete at this point, we clicked Book, which put us back to the dates screen, then the rate types, guest information, etc. The result was a double booking.
Once the user becomes familiar with the sequence of entering information, this will probably not be a problem. Yet it seems like an unnecessary point of confusion for the new user, or a user who is interrupted while completing the reservation.
Reservations can be most easily edited by double-clicking on the reservation from the Reservation Board. This brings up the same screens as during the creation of a new reservation, where the information can be changed. If the optional Reservation Board Deluxe module is purchased, changes to the date of a booking can be made by dragging the reservation to a new date. Similarly, rooms may be changed in the same way.
Booking systems should allow for different rates for each room, seasonal rates, specials or discounts, packages, additional items to add to a reservation, and have a way of handling bookings for multiple rooms, such as a group booking. If larger properties are also to use the booking system, the group booking capability becomes even more significant, and there should also be the ability to create rates by room type.
As has already been discussed, Book at Once is based on rate types or room types, rather than on individual rooms with their own rates. Setting up each room as a room type and rate type may be a bit more cumbersome at the setup time, but it will pay off with the desired flexibility for those who want individual room rates and availability.
Modern booking systems allow for a number of guest communications to be sent from within the system – usually as emails. The most common are confirmation emails, cancellation confirmations, reminder and follow-up emails, invoices, and marketing emails. We feel that all these items, with the possible exception of marketing emails (due to the common use of stand-alone email marketing programs, such as Constant Contact and others), are sufficiently important that they should be included in the booking system.
Book at Once does not include all these types of guest communications, but they do provide a template editor for confirmation emails and for invoices. To their credit, Book at Once includes these in the cost of the product.
Because of its international flavor, Book at Once also provides these documents in various languages, and you can create your own custom templates, as well. While there is a Reservation Confirmation button at the bottom of the screen for editing a reservation, when you click on it, it brings up a screen allowing you to select a template, and a delivery method (email, PDF or OpenOffice document – at least on our computer). Presumably you could define templates for other purposes, such as reminder or follow-up emails, cancellation emails, etc., and they could be sent merely by selecting the corresponding template.
To evaluate performance, properly report taxes, and track marketing results, reports are a key source of information for the innkeeper. Different booking systems provide for different numbers and types of reports. Of course, if the system doesn’t capture the information in the first instance, it will never be able to report on it. At a minimum, a booking system should be able to generate reports of reservations for the coming month/day/week/year, revenue for specified periods of time, occupancy (total and by room) for specific periods of time, and revenue by date (and by room). Many innkeepers also require reports of gift certificates sold or redeemed, housekeeping issues, and additional financial reports, such as taxes collected.
Book at Once offers reports based on Nationality, Revenue, Cash on Hand, Invoices, Payments and the ability to export a Customer List. The Customer List is exported as a comma separated file, suitable to be imported to a spreadsheet, with the ability to filter the search so that only specified customers are included. The other reports are created as PDF files.
When we exported PDF reports we experienced mixed results. In the Revenue report (right) we saw the title of “Forecast”, with no data for Sales Tax. In the Invoices report, individual entries were for “External Tax” but there was no relation of the taxes to the invoices.
This brings up another concern about the way taxes are handled in Book at Once. Although the setup allows you to create your own taxes, which can be independent or cumulative, nowhere in the pricing, room definition or tax screens are you able to associate the tax with the product sold. The same applies for extras that may be sold as add-on items. In most American regions, there will at least be tax associated with the room, and perhaps another for additional items sold. In many cases there are additional layers of state, county and/or city taxes, which would be different for lodging than for other goods sold.
The object-oriented design of Book at Once makes it likely that it can be enhanced to provide very robust reporting, so, while the current reports are fairly superficial, we would hope that this will be an area slated for improvement.
Most booking systems provide some way to use the revenue data in an accounting or bookkeeping system, such as Quickbooks or Peachtree. In a few cases, the revenue data is directly linked to the bookkeeping product, but most booking systems export the data to a file, which can be imported into the bookkeeping software.
We were not able to locate any means of exporting financial data for import into an accounting program. It may be possible to devise a search filter on the customer list export, so that the correct data is exported there. If so, with some additional data manipulation it may be possible to import that information into an accounting program. Data can be imported (with the correct modules installed) for use in a spreadsheet.
Modern web-based booking systems generally provide their own online booking interface, and rarely interact with other online booking systems (such as Webervations or Availability Online). By contrast, most stand-alone guest management systems will interact with third-party online booking systems, even if they provide their own online booking module as an option. A significant drawback to not interacting with other systems is that the property is precluded from taking advantage of group booking and availability opportunities, unless they pay an additional fee for a second system.
For example, BBOnline.com shows availability (using Webervations) for all properties in a locality who use Webervations. If a property uses another system, their availability will not appear on BBOnline.com unless they purchase a subscription to Webervations, and keep it up-to-date, as well as their own booking system.
Like most web-based booking systems, Book at Once has its own online booking widget (in fact, when we first tested it, it had three varieties of widgets – as of this writing we were not able to verify whether or not this was still the case), that can be embedded in the property’s web pages. From the administrative pages, the system provides code that can be cut and pasted into a web page, creating a booking request widget.
We walked through the Booking Widget to get a feel for the process. Like many, the widget itself asks the date and number of nights, then pops up a new screen where additional information is requested to complete the booking.
The new screen provides a list of available room types and rates, and the user clicks the “Book” button next to the one they want. This must be confirmed twice, then personal contact information is to be supplied. Finally credit card information is requested. In the set up process, this can be made mandatory.
While a few systems allow for the submission from the web to create a request for a booking, allowing the innkeeper to decide whether they want to accept the request, most create a confirmed booking. Book at Once follows the majority, in creating a confirmed reservation.
Book at Once also offers a separate Online Booking Wizard, which can be incorporated into a web site, or even into a Facebook page. The charge for this wizard is by transaction, at 0.95 Euros per transaction.
Book At Once is also keenly aware of the power of social media and mobile applications. Consequently, they not only have an active Facebook page and Twitter account, but they also provide a Facebook app that allows you to take reservations from your Facebook page. They also have an iPhone app that allows you to manage your bookings, and indeed your Book At Once system, from the palm of your hand. The iPhone app is available via the iTunes store for US $9.99.
Somewhat unusual for online booking systems, Book at Once offers a free basic system. Using only the free components would leave you with online availability, but only email requests for reservations can be accepted. There are also limits on how the program works, limits on some of the pricing capabilities, invoicing capabilities, and reporting capabilities. Each of these (and a few others) can be added as individual modules, each priced on a per month, per room, basis.
Your preferences will dictate the package you would purchase. Book at Once says their Plus package is the most popular, while we feel most properties would want either the Plus or the Premium package. If a seven room B&B was to purchase the Plus package, the price would be 2.50 Euros per room per month (about $23.07 per month or $277 per year, at current exchange rates). The Premium package would be 3.50 Euros per room per month (about $32.30 per month or $388 per year).
While using Book at Once we were continuously conscious of a feeling that this should be easier to use than it seemed. We read through much of the help documentation (the Book at Once folks have done a great job of translating the program and the documentation into English – while there are occasional locations where German can be glimpsed, for the most part the entire site appears to have been translated), but still found several things that were not explained. These include items discussed above, such as applying taxes to room rates and different tax rates to add-on items, setting up individual room rates, etc., and whether or not emails can be sent automatically, or whether they can only be sent manually.
The features and prices for Book at Once are not out of line with competing products. However, we have some concern about the way some aspects of the program are currently implemented. We would like to see a smoother flow of data entry in creating a new booking, and much more robust reporting. We also think that some capabilities, like sending emails beyond the simple confirmation email should be simpler to set up and implement. Some properties may also want to see the ability to export financial data for commonly used accounting programs.
There is no question that, when it comes to managing guest reservations and bookings, one size does not fit all. Most systems provide an evaluation copy of the software, or a free trial account. We strongly urge anyone considering purchasing a booking system to evaluate several different products before making a decision.