Interns at freetobook

interns at freetobook

Just back from a round table meeting with Nathan Bostock (CEO Santander UK Plc),  Prof. Anton Muscatelli (Principal of Glasgow Uni) and a few other small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

We discussed some of the problems facing SMEs and from freetobook’s perspective it’s simply access to highly skilled, enthusiastic and clever undergraduates. We don’t have the recruitment resources of large multinationals yet we can provide a unique learning environment for fresh grads…..how do you get that message across?

We were lucky enough to access Glasgow Uni’s great intern programme (Internship Hub) over this summer. They are a really professional and helpful outfit…totally on the ball!  It’s also really refreshing to speak to lecturers that are heavily encouraging students to take on internships during their summer holidays, seeing the all round benefits to students, the Uni. and interns alike.  Having interviewed quite a few interns I can see that encouragement is clearly taking effect – these grads are keen  to get real experience (and we are enjoying access to some great young minds).

interns2

Glasgow Uni have fantastic computer science undergraduates and with Santander’s generous part funding of these internships SMEs like us were able to access them.  We do need that support to get ourselves in front of these students and ensure they have a choice.  Working in an SME offers students a huge variety to tasks and roles to play with, plus responsibility from day one and opportunities to see the immediate effects of their industry… providing real job satisfaction and a fantastic learning environment.  Many SMEs are also very close to the Uni’s (freetobook is just 5 minutes walk from Glasgow Uni) so the interns don’t even need to change their alarm clocks!

Santander generously part fund over 2000 placements across Universities in the UK but for us that has sadly changed as they are no longer offering support for interns still studying. Instead the part funding is now only available after graduation, that’s not really any use for us as computing science graduates are overwhelmingly employed by the time they graduate…especially the best.  This change may be a result of Santander wanting to link revenue spent on internships directly and immediately with employment – it completes the circle. However, it fails to account of the real value internships can offer SMEs in our sector….helping aspiring SMEs in the tech sector access the very best engineers must be a bet worth making!

Come on Santander, leave aside the corporate need to “show proof” to the CEO and focus on the real long term value delivered….surely this equates to many of your core values?

We currently have 2 interns and are looking to increase that….help us.

 

Scotland’s Herald newspaper profiled freetobook and our two Glasgow University interns – Read the Article

 

freetobook exhibits at Independent Hotel Show London

Craig and I are really forward to our first Independent Hotel Show in London on the 30th and 31st of October.

Independent Hotel Show 2013 exhibitor
freetobook exhibits at stand 193

If you are going to be there please do drop by our stand (IH 193) and if you haven’t decided…. we would definitely recommend it. Some of the best names on the Independent hotel scene will be there so there be lots to look at and some fantastic opportunities to talk business face to face.

Planning is underway…it’s a long trek from Glasgow, but a very worthwhile one.  See you there!

How To Avoid That Dreaded Overbooking

Is overbooking a sign of marketing success, process failure or just bad luck?

There’s a real stigma attached to over/double booking. Why?

  •  Is it the failure to deliver on a personal promise made to your customer?
  • Or is it the fear of your contractual obligation once a booking has been made?
vacancy by LOLren
Fear of overbooking can lead to empty rooms!

In these days of litigious customers and a compensation “culture”, it’s no wonder that small businesses err on the side of caution. These valid concerns appeal to our most human of instincts: fear. Yet when you de-construct the problem, it’s not as bad as looks!

Most businesses need to maximise their chances of getting bookings and the most effective place for this is online.  The more places you can be found and booked, the more bookings you are likely to attract. But by increasing your exposure online you may also increase the risk of double booking.

Many businesses have held back from maximising their online advertising for fear of double or overbooking. There must be thousands of lost bookings every night because businesses don’t feel confident offering their full availability.

So if you sell across a variety of places online (i.e. channels like Booking.com, Bed & Breakfast websites etc.) then you need to ensure various systems are kept in sync. It’s time consuming and can be a stressful process.

One option is to show only a selection of rooms on each channel, so they are distinct and when they run out they can’t overbook. It’s not very efficient and you need to know what channels will sell what rooms best and when.

no_vacancy_p_a_h
Effective channel management can avoid lost bookings

Another solution is to have your booking system linked to your various sales websites (or channels), so that your one diary keeps all the other channels up-to-date. This means any phone bookings you add to your diary update all the channels and any website bookings automatically appear in your diary. This technology is usually called “channel management”.

When you consider the benefits of extra exposure, additional bookings and time saved updating various sites – not to mention the end of all that worrying – channel management can represent great value. Ideally you want a channel manager that works with the key channels, is flexible and isn’t too expensive. There are some clever “pay-as-you-go” options available where you pay according to the number of bookings you receive.

This technology can free up a lot of time and allow you to disappear for the odd week (or longer) without having to take the mobile phone and diary with you!

Even if you don’t go for any of the above options, I would stress that the fear of an overbooking should not stop you selling your rooms.

After all, the definition of overbooking is the deliberate practice of hotels to take more bookings than they can accommodate in order to avoid empty rooms, on the basis that there will be no-shows and cancellations.

This is hardly a claim that could reasonably be levelled at a B&B or guest house. Most customers, if contacted quickly, will understand that with modern technology it’s a rare possibility and not a result of negligence or greed on your part.

That’s a different story if you are a large hotel that regularly overbooks and then “bumps” or “moves” a customer on arrival and just blames someone else! Been there and got the scars to show it!

3 Must Do Things for 2013

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1st Place to the prepared

Happy New Year, it’s going to be a good one…. but it’s important to have everything in the right place for 2013.

Here are 3 “must do” things for 2013:

1) Ensure you have rates loaded for the whole of 2013 – January is one of the busiest times of the year for new bookings. Early bird customers are looking to book dates throughout the year. Don’t lose out. Have your rates loaded until the end of summer or even the end of the year. If you don’t have rates loaded they can’t book.

2) Create at least one special offer…especially for your low season dates – If you have some low season dates in the winter months load a special offer to help persuade customers you have the best value. Do a last minute offer or a longer stay offer, eg 10% off when you stay 2 nights or more.

3) Show off your very best images on your freetobook widget – Pictures are so important, customers will look through all your images and make an assessment of what you offer. It’s quick and easy to make a judgement on appearance, so make sure they get the right impression with a great set of photos.

share best practise
more direct bookings

As with any engine, they all need a bit of a shine every so often and a little oil….

freetobook is 2 years young – established in 1998

On the 17th December 2010 freetobook took it’s very first customer booking…to our customers that makes us 2 years old (even if we were established in 1998), party time! It does seem a long time ago, much has happened and so much has been learnt and applied.

more for less with freetobook
more for less with freetobook

Going forward we will bed down the TripAdvisor link and will very soon finish work on mobile enhanced results. We are in discussions with more channel partners, including Venere.com, Hostelbookers, HRS, BudgetPlaces, Hostelworld, Hotels.com, TravelRepublic and Expedia. We are also starting development on some clever tools, such as a online merchant account and a system that helps you work with other  freetobook users! We are also looking to make translations available to all our International customers. These are all designed to help you get the most from your freetobook account.

easy to use online booking by freetobook
easy to use and freetobook

When we set out to build freetobook (well over 3 years ago) we had one goal in mind; to build the best online booking system in the world for independent accommodation providers. I suppose that in itself is not a such crazy ambition but we also wanted to make it available to all small independent businesses….that created lots of puzzled looks and a good degree of scepticism.

For us building a great service is all about putting our customers in the driving seat, understanding what matters to them and why. We were lucky because we already had 11 years in the “booking business” and had honed processes and systems to create simplicity and maximum efficiency. We had seen at an early stage how powerful the internet would become and then witnessed first hand it’s ability to increase reach and exposure exponentially. We had marvelled at how the linking of the digital world with clever software simply made life so much easier for our customers, it was trend that was clearly going one way…..up. It was perhaps that realisation more than any other that led us make freetobook an open system (available to all).

freetobook the fastest growing online booking system
freetobook going UP

We invested early in creating our own software development capability by getting in some of the best people available, and keeping them. People like Eleanor who has been with us for over 8 years add tremendous value to the system and service that supports it. Across our team, over 75 years of booking experience has gone into freetobook.

These capabilities gave us a platform to be creative without risk, to understand and experiment without crippling costs. It also taught us that the true value of any software lies in the people that create it and those that use it. Also that the software itself is always “a work in progress”, and that just as with children, you get out what you put in, you need to feed, nurture, care for and cherish them in order to give them the best possible future.

Those values probably derive from us being a family business. As two brothers you can also be sure that there is not always a pleasant nodding of heads and calm contentment, there is belief, there is passion, there is trust and there’s just plain old sibling rivalry! In many senses the differences are our strengths and that’s another lesson we can take and use everywhere, but what unites us is that we have always tried to put the customer at the centre…. simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Directors at freetobook Craig and Iain Stewart
Craig and Iain freetobook directors

It has been an exciting 2 years and we have made mistakes that we are only just realising and correcting. We put freetobook out there in the market as “free”, which of course it is (and will always remain so), but perhaps we undervalued our knowledge and experience in building quality systems and services. Our customers use freetobook not because it’s free but because it works well for them and they enjoy and benefit from it.

Customers describe freetobook as …..fantastic, simple, professional, extraordinary, versatile, intuitive, exceptional, comprehensive, unbelievable, hassle free, superb, seamless, brilliant, a blessing, painless, efficient, speedy, first class, secure, helpful, flexible, sophisticated, the best, wonderful, fast, reliable, tremendous, very special……

These words are such a strong encouragement to us and we are very fortunate to have such generous customers. We have not invested in an army of sales people with clever ways of instilling fear and doubt in prospective customers, instead we have tried to build trust and help our customers wherever we can. The vast majority of our rapidly growing customer base have come from other customers recommending and talking about their freetobook experience, be that face to face, on social media or in their various associations.

We also needed to articulate the “freemium” model more clearly to answer the perennial question “how do you make your money then?”. At the start that wasn’t easy because we didn’t have any premium services to offer our customers! The “freemium” model is widely used in many software services and has two parts – a free product or service (i.e. our booking engine/diary) and then premium more advanced features and services that are charged for.

ABBA - Ayrshire Bed and Breakfast Association
Ayrshire Bed and Breakfast Association (ABBA)

There have been some great achievements; the Ayrshire Bed and Breakfast Association’s online booking website (a global first?), a great value channel manager, the addition of cottage and hostel style availability, properties in over 80 countries using freetobook, Ways to Sell, being selected as preferred supplier for Punch Taverns….these are just a few and there are many more to come. As we write this there are 10 current/live feedback forms in the freetobook system and every single one gives freetobook 10/10…thank you! Many of freetobook’s achievements are a direct result of your input, your requests, queries, concerns, passions, quirks, suggestions etc. keep them coming!

Thank you for your tremendous support, encouragement and belief. Busy days ahead!

TripAdvisor book now button for direct bookings

Direct commssion free bookings on Trip Advisor

Just mention the name “TripAdvisor” to independent businesses and you are guaranteed to get some interest. Businesses have to take a pragmatic view when considering what tools and partners they need to make themselves more successful.

TripAdvisor book now button
TripAdvisor Show Prices button can link to your property

TripAdvisor is without doubt a very powerful influencer for your customers because it helps them gather information from other customers i.e. people just like them. Lots of studies have shown that people value and trust the advice of friends and family far more than anything else. That’s not new, since time began we have always asked for the advice of those closest, those who you trust.

Like most things on the internet it’s not perfect but that doesn’t lessen it’s importance to your customers. Good businesses engage with their customers, listen to their feedback and react accordingly and TripAdvisor provides one of the platforms to do that. Time invested in that is money well spent because it’s highly visible and highly searchable. Managing your reputation is critical in this increasingly connected world.

Many businesses rely heavily on their reviews to attract new customers and now there is a way to get direct bookings, not just referrals, from your TripAdvisor page. It’s not free but then TripAdvisor is not a charity, it provides a service to you and your customers.

You can place a direct link to your booking engine on your profile and every time a customer searches your availability you pay TripAdvisor – a Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising model where each search is a click. The service is currently only offered on a wholesale basis i.e. individual properties can’t do it themselves they have to go through a service provider and properties do not need a business listing.

The direct link is valuable because customers are usually at the end of their purchasing cycle when they are looking at your profile….so they are ready book. When you consider all the marketing that has preceded that point i.e. providing a service that encourages reviews, advertising in different places etc. you can see that you are about as close to “closing the sale” as you will ever be. That’s where you have to make it easy for the customer…..search and book here!

The service is offered on a 3 month trial basis. TripAdvisor will give you a cost per click and estimated budget required for those 3 months based on their history of your page. How do you know you’ll get value for money? Well, you don’t at the outset, but at freetobook we will track and monitor every search and booking to give you a definitive return on investment. It’s that level of information that gives you the control to make a 100% informed decision on your marketing spend. If you have already invested heavily in your marketing this is well worth a try.

What to do when VisitScotland suddenly closes its online booking service…

It came as bit of a bombshell to lots of hospitality businesses when VisitScotland suddenly announced the withdrawal of its online booking system.  Many, including myself, would argue that this was long overdue. VisitScotland’s foray into this area over the last 10 or so years has left many Scottish tourism businesses disgruntled and wary of online booking….not a great record.

In my view, it was simply not fair for them to compete against private enterprises whilst receiving funding from government or EU bodies.  The accommodation sector has been radically altered by the internet and the pace of change is unrelenting. There is just no way an organisation like VisitScotland, with all its processes and its complex culture, can keep abreast of developments and provide a service of any quality or value.

Now, with limited time to find an alternative, many businesses are understandably worried about the process and cost of changing.  For these accommodation providers I would say:

  • take your time; don’t rush into anything – you’ve got a month
  • make sure you have a good look around – look at 2 or 3 options
  • try before you buy; it’s important the system works for your business
  • you can test most systems in an hour or so; some (like freetobook) can be set-up in 2 hours
  • call and speak to a few providers; get a feel for their “service”, not just sales
  • ask your friends and users of each system if they’d recommend it and why?
  • make sure you get the best, most cost-effective solution
  • map out what you think you will want from the system – not just now but 3 years hence
  • consider the system from your customer’s perspective i.e. how easy is it to book?
  • don’t base your comparisons on what you currently have
  • find out the cost and ease of connecting back in to VisitScotland via whichever system you’re considering

The solution currently being put together – whereby many suppliers will be able to offer their customers a link into the VisitScotland website – is absolutely right, because it gives accommodation providers the choice.  When you add to this the zero commission policy from VisitScotland website bookings you can clearly see the benefits i.e. more businesses will join the site, providing a better experience for visitors with greater direct access to Scottish tourism products.

The project is currently being run well and although it has a rather distant delivery date the signs are very encouraging.  VisitScotland is offering an intermediate step, whereby business can have a link to their online booking engine on their VisitScotland page.

We have always campaigned for an open system because that serves both the accommodation providers, and their customers best, so freetobook is proud to be the only free system connecting with VisitScotland, ensuring you don’t lose out on any bookings. What’s more, you won’t have to pay any connection fees or commission on bookings from the VisitScotland website.

2012 VisitEngland winners

visit england awards
Iain with (L-R): Lady Cobham (VisitEngland Chairman), Sue and Caroline from The Bath Priory

Craig and I were fortunate enough to attend the Visit England Awards for Excellence last night at the Athena in Leicester. It is inspiring to see the best tourism businesses operating at the top of their game. They had all achieved something quite special and really deserved their hard-earned time in the limelight.

We all manage businesses and aspire to be the best we can, but as most owner-operators know, we can often feel that we’re in a fairly isolated place where recognition and thanks are in short supply. Success when it’s earned needs to be celebrated, and we take our hat off to everyone who was there last night. It’s impossible to measure the passion and focus that got these award winners to the event; their drive to deliver better, day in day out, customer after customer, meal after meal is well worth making some noise about!

VE Small Hotel Land RedA special congratulations to the finalists of our sponsored category, “Small Hotel of Year”: The Bath Priory, Bath and Swinton Park, Yorkshire. They’re absolutely amazing properties, offering only the very best in hospitality.

Also a big thanks to Visit England for hosting a fantastic event and making everyone feel so welcome. Again it was all about the people.

You can see all the winners here: http://bit.ly/KBcchm

Booking and traffic leaks

Drip by JRonaldLeeGetting prospective customers to your website can be an expensive process. Once you have them, you need to keep them there and focused on the booking process.

A leak is an unintended entrance or escape. Make sure visitors are not leaking from your website, as it could be costing you bookings and or commission.

Continue reading “Booking and traffic leaks”

Managing your online reputation

Internet Symbol by MickyManaging your online reputation

Why bother?

  • People now research trips, make decisions and share experiences online via social media.
  • 75% of customers now cite reviews as being influential.
  • More and more people are using social media platforms, like Twtter and Facebook, so review information moves at ever greater speed

Continue reading “Managing your online reputation”