Reflections – Together, One Year On

As we approach our one year ‘work from home’ anniversary we thought we would take a look back at how freetobook have managed the challenges the last year has brought. 

MARCH 2020 – As we entered March we already had a feel for what might be coming our way from our overseas properties who were experiencing some sort of lockdown.  UK infection rates were not running that high and no announcements about what the government might do had been made so we were still out and about meeting our customers at tourism shows … there was anxiety and concern about what was to come, but no-one could have predicted the year that would unfold.  We started to make plans for our team to work ‘temporarily’ from home, never imagining that we would still be there a year later.  On the 23rd March we had to go into total lockdown. 

From the very start, our customer services team stepped up to the challenge, fielding 1000’s of calls and Help Desk messages as properties struggled to cope with the avalanche of cancellations and rescheduling of bookings.  We made the decision early on that we would not be furloughing any of our team and would continue to offer the customer service our customers expect and deserve.  Those first 6 weeks were traumatic for our properties and our hearts broke as we listened to the many stories and concerns.  Oftentimes our team were the only people properties could actually speak to as they struggled to navigate the tidal wave of cancellations and the OTAs’ ever-changing policies on these.  We cannot praise our team enough for their compassion, calm heads and resilience during this time. 

Our little known Freetobook Users Group on Facebook suddenly became a go-to source of information as properties struggled to plot their way through the ever-changing guidance regarding re-opening, cleaning, lockdown rules, insurance, grants etc. 

Our Developers swung quickly into action to create new reporting to help our users assess cancellation information, generate digital registrations, adapting the messaging system and much more.  Some of the projects we had planned for the year were paused whilst we made the adjustments which would help our users adapt to the changing circumstances.  Again, huge praise to the developer team for the speed with which they handled the fluid requirements the situation demanded.   

APRIL/MAY – It is not often that business owners would have so much time on their hands at this time of year, so we decided to make some constructive use of the downtime and began offering additional training to freetobookers.   In April, Heather started home schooling freetobookers with her weekly training in the Facebook Users Group and in May, Eleanor started a series of live webinars (you can still see Heather’s training in ‘Guides’ in the Facebook group and Eleanor’s webinars in the Home >Webinar’s tab in Freetobook).  It was great to see so much engagement from our property owners and willingness to use the time to make positive changes for the future. 

JUNE – As news of re-opening dates came through, so did a raft of new rules and new ways of working.  In June we sent out one of our most read blogs ever and reading it again now, it is just as relevant for this next reopening in the UK this Spring … Covid19: Reassuring your Customers

JULY OCTOBER – As predicted, when the UK opened back up for bookings they went off like a rocket! Accommodation providers in tourist areas of the UK had a busy time and at our end the workload became a tidal wave as so many properties came back online all at once.  Working late became the ‘new norm’ as we responded to everything and all our customers needed within incredibly tight timelines. 

Sadly though, we were also hearing that a couple of properties were not going to re-open due to owners shielding, retiring or sadly property closure.  We never underestimated the weight of the decision a property had taken when they contacted us to let us know they would not be re-opening.  Our team continued to do what they do best and dealt with them all professionally and with compassion.   

NOVEMBER TO DATE – With infection rates increasing, the introduction of another lockdown was inevitable … although this time we were all better prepared for it.  Our team continued to support properties as they made adaptations to their properties in-house, on freetobook and with their OTAs.  Our Developers have also been working on some exciting features for 2021 and we, as a business, continue to look forward.  Again, a special thanks to our team who have adapted to the challenges of working from home and being separated from their colleagues, whilst maintaining their well-known good spirits … and in many cases home-schooling their children too! 

It’s been a long winter but as we enter spring; with the COVID vaccine roll-out and announcement of re-opening dates in the UK, there is now a sense of hope amongst property owners and huge pent-up demand from customers.  The announcement of opening dates in England saw a huge spike in bookings in February … a pattern we expect to be repeated as more re-opening announcements are made. 

We hope that of the many worries you have had over the last year, your booking engine has not been one of them.  We have tried our very best to ensure that we are always available to help you and we will be here to support you all with whatever comes next.  We do not underestimate the many challenges that lie ahead for the tourism sector, but we can’t help feeling we have all been through the worst and better things are yet to come.   

Group website at zero commission

Get a Together group for direct bookings

direct commission free bookings
grow your direct bookings

Here at freetobook we are continually looking to make it easier for small independent accommodation owners to thrive. One message we hear again and again is that the large OTAs are taking more and more commission.

Well, here’s  the good news, it’s never been easier to fight back with zero commission direct bookings from your group’s website. A group website can be created for a few nearby properties who want to work together or for bigger groups like a local association or marketing group.

Get together and co-operate to reduce commission.

Key Advantages:

1) Zero commission for all your group’s bookings.

2) Easy to refer phone bookings when you are full, revenue stays local.

3) Professional online booking and mobile site improves the image of your group.

4) Simple to administer, each property handles their own availability, rates and information.

5) It’s your group – you own the website so you can invest in it and grow it.

If you want to start fighting back against all the high commission bills this is a great place to start.

Read about the together group that reached £500,000 in commission free bookings

Case study of Fort William Bed and Breakfast group

Find out more from those already doing it with their “Together” websites.

Video showing how “together” can work for you

Join Together for more zero commission bookings from freetobook on Vimeo.

 

Together group benefit circle

Direct Bookings vs OTA Bookings

Grow your direct bookings whilst using the OTAs

Direct bookings vs OTA bookings
Direct Bookings vs OTA Bookings

How much more of the “booking cake” can the OTAs (Online Travel Agents) take and how much bigger is the online booking sphere getting? They’re both interesting questions we continue to ask ourselves with a view to helping independent properties generate more direct bookings and reduce commission bills.

There is now evidence that the growth in new online customers is starting to flatten and mature. The OTAs are giant corporations that require continual growth to fire their share price. With fewer new online customers to sell to, the OTAs are looking for ways to keep their growth on target and some have been launching products to control your direct bookings. This strategy of getting income from your direct bookings doesn’t require them to find any new customers yet helps them expand their income. When they manage your direct bookings you are effectively providing them with an opportunity to acquire new customers, your direct customers.

We have also seen some OTAs removing the customer’s direct email address when the booking has originated on their site. In the past they shared these details freely with the property owners but now you need to make the effort to obtain the customer’s contact details. This will lead to less communication between you and the customer, reducing your ability to make direct marketing offers and run loyalty promotions. The knock-on effect is to shift more bookings into commissionable income and reduce direct bookings. Make sure you get contact details of all your guests.

Best Rate Guaranteed
Make sure your customers know, promise them the best rate

How do the OTAs control so much of the online business? Well, they spend billions on online marketing to get customers to book on their website. Along with the expensive adverts they quite often advertise on the search engines under cheaper terms like your property name. When they advertise under your name customers looking for your property will see them first at the top of the Google page. You will also probably see them paying for advertising on other high traffic websites e.g. your TripAdvisor page.

So what can you do about it ? Take your direct bookings very seriously, be under no illusions that you are in competition for your own direct bookings. You need to stop thinking that the property down the road is your main competition. In the online world your biggest competitor is most likely to be the OTA that provides you with the most bookings. If a potential customer has a better website experience on an OTA’s website then that’s where they’ll book.

Direct booking savings re-invested
Re-Invest your direct booking savings to generate more savings

Make sure you have invested in a great website, lots of fantastic images (critical), a great design and good original copy. There is nothing new there but independent businesses are all too often reticent to invest in their marketing, seeing it purely as a cost. Have you ever wondered why the OTAs insist on you uploading so many great images? They know customers are more likely to book with them if they have great images of your property.

A fantastic image led website will generate more direct bookings and save commission. Making sure your website is the best it can be will give you an edge when competing for direct bookings. Some of the big hotel chains even keep their best images for their own website so that they have better visual content for direct customers.

Book direct for benefits
Book direct for benefits

It’s a fact that big OTAs have a global sales coverage that independent accommodation owners can’t match. Learn from the way the big hotel chains do it, they use the OTAs for customer acquisition in areas they cannot reach. Use the OTAs to get the bookings in and convert the customers to future loyal direct bookers. Not all OTAs are the same, some customers have loyalty to a specific OTA that they use most of the time. If you rely on just one OTA for too large a percentage of your bookings then you should probably diversify the source of your OTA business. Work with the biggest OTAs but not just one of them. This gives you more online exposure, access to more customers, reduces your reliance on a specific channel and gives you a better mix of customers. It’s also a lot easier to bargain with the OTAs if you have more than one.

together by freetobook
get together as a group

Co-operation between nearby properties will help grow direct bookings for all. When it comes to getting more direct bookings your main competitor is your OTA. If properties switched from competing with each other to cooperating there would be a mutual benefit for all. Taking it to another level some accommodation owners have enjoyed significant success by cooperating and creating bookable websites featuring their members, examples include Fort William and St Ives in the UK (see freetobook together).

The benefits of more direct bookings are clear, the simplest calculation is the commission. By cutting out the middleman you save precious commission but importantly you also own the customer relationship. You have the customer’s contact details, and from the booking onwards it’s your brand that they will communicate with, not the OTAs. The direct booking message is simple so make it clear on your website, social media, emails, brochures and do let guests know that booking direct is better for them and better for you.

The service you offer from the point of confirmation to their stay with you and beyond is all yours. With direct bookings you have no communications middleman, so take advantage of the opportunity to differentiate yourself and be “special”. Always have the best rate on your website. If you ever feel the need to make a special offer make sure it’s on your website so customers booking direct never pay more.

It can be complex in the online world, as an independent family business we try to keep things simple and in perspective for smaller businesses, there’s lots of bookings out there you just have to keep chasing them.

To find out more about freetobook call, email or visit our home page
Properties group up, Get Together and cooperate

Together in Gatwick

Together for accommodation ownersJust back from a quick trip down to Gatwick to see the Gatwick Guest House Association (GGHA). I was invited to give a short presentation on the Together service after a few of their proactive members thought the service may help their website generate more bookings.

Like many other associations they need to upgrade their website and in assessing the options it became obvious that a booking engine on the website would be a great benefit…and that’s where Together comes in. Freetobook are always happy to visit groups and explain face-to-face who we are, where we came from and what we do.

Gatwick guest house association
Gatwick guest house association

I was really impressed with the positive and proactive attitude of everyone at the meeting, I was made to me feel very welcome.

A big thank you to everyone and especially to Carmel at the Cumberland House for her warm hospitality…..the perfect host.

 

To find out more about how to get together click here.

Short video on the together system

 

 

Get together and win

Is your local association or marketing group doing enough for you?

Together for accommodation ownersOnline booking is just getting easier and more accessible to everyone. It’s great to see associations and marketing groups looking to improve their websites and the profitability of their membership.

Local association and marketing group websites tend to generate a lot traffic because they are the best source of local information (search engines like this), but do they really capitalise on all those visitors. If the huge growth of budget hotels and online travel agents is anything to go by you would have to say these local websites are failing to deliver what their members need most…direct commission free bookings.

together group website
together was our best decision

Why are they losing out on these bookings, because they are not offering their visitors what they want…the ability to search availability then compare properties, locations and prices, and make bookings. We all know customers want choice, value and convenience when shopping for accommodation online hence the global popularity of the OTAs.

That’s the problem, here’s the solution – get your area website set-up to take bookings for your members. To set this up quickly and cheaply you need a booking system that is accessible to all, quick to set up and easy to manage. Our solution at freetobook has been

Grow your accommodation group with together
Grow together and expand your association

simple and inclusive, the internet booking engine is free to use, quick to set-up (couple of hours) and easy to manage. Members can still run their existing booking systems if they want .. we do not mandate that they have to use freetobook exclusively and there’s no tie-ins. So the cost of entry is just a few hours time for members … a fair price for commission free bookings?

Proven benefits of working better “Together” include:

1) being able to categorically show members that they are “in profit” from their membership

2) reduce commissions paid and raise the long-term positive profile of the group/area

3) expand the membership of the group and directly increase their profitability

4) keeping bookings within the group means more bookings for all and easier referrals

Website visitors want to book online on your website and your association or group website, can you and your association afford to sit on your hands and do nothing ?

Find out more with examples of existing “together” websites

Case study of Fort William Bed and Breakfast group

Video showing how “together” can work for you

Visit Jersey Special Offer

Connect to Visit Jersey accommodation websites

There’s no charge from freetobook for connecting to Visit Jersey tourism accommodation websites when you freetobook connect visit jerseyconnect before the 31st Oct 2014 (normally £49+ VAT) *.

Freetobook’s channel manager now updates Visit Jersey all from your freetobook diary.

You can also use freetobook to link up with the worlds largest Online Travel Agents including, booking.com, LateRooms, Agoda, HostelWorld, Expedia and TripAdvisor.

1) Save time and energy updating different diaries – your freetobook diary updates them all with rates, availability and bookings. No more double bookings and no more double entry.

2) The channel manager connects you to guests from all over the world – using freetobook’s global connections you reach customers that would not otherwise be able to find you.

3) Our online booking engine also links to your website at no charge, where all bookings are zero commission.

Find out more about the freetobook Guestlink channel manager connection

freetobook guestlink connection

 

 

 

Find out more about the freetobook channel manager

freetobook channel manager

 

 

Watch the video on YouTube see how the freetobook channel manager works.

 

* freetobook will not charge their set-up and connection fee if connected in time. There may be costs from Visit Jersey to list on their websites and update via guestlink – your listing on Jersey websites is subject to their terms and conditions so you need to check all Visit Jersey terms and conditions.

Visit Wales accommodation offer

Free connection to all Visit Wales websites

There’s no charge from freetobook for connecting to all Visit Wales sites when you connectVisit Wales connected with freetobook before the 31st Oct 2014 (normally £49+ VAT) *.

Freetobook’s channel manager now updates visitwales.com, VisitMidWales, and North Wales Tourism all from your freetobook diary.

You can also use freetobook to link up with the worlds largest Online Travel Agents including, booking.com, LateRooms, Agoda, HostelWorld, Expedia and TripAdvisor.

1) Save time and energy updating different diaries – your freetobook diary updates them all with rates, availability and bookings. No more double bookings and no more double entry.

2) The channel manager connects you to guests from all over the world – using freetobook’s global connections you reach customers that would not otherwise be able to find you.

3) Our online booking engine also links to your website at no charge, where all bookings are zero commission.

Find out more about the freetobook Guestlink channel manager connection freetobook guestlink connection

 

 

 

More information on freetobook channel managerfreetobook channel manager

 

 

Watch the video on YouTube see how the freetobook channel manager works.

* freetobook will not charge their set-up and connection fee if connected in time. There may be costs from Visit Wales to list on their websites and update via guestlink – your listing on Welsh websites is subject to their terms and conditions so you need to check all Visit Wales terms and conditions.

Together case study – How to get a group accommodation website

How a group of B&Bs got Together.

together by freetobook
get together as an accommodation group

Keeping bookings in the community and working together with nearby accommodation businesses has never been easier or more profitable. A small group of Fort William Bed and Breakfast owners got together and use the freetobook software, here is their story.

In their own words…..

together fort william accommodation group
Fort William marketing Group get together

“Together has contributed dramatically to the expansion of the group and to the individual profitability of our members. Without exception, all of our members have gained a substantial value of commission free bookings directly and measurably.”

This is powerful stuff.

Together: provides a live booking website showing rates and availability for all of the group with direct commission free booking….“an almost perfect match for a number of reasons”.

1) All availability for the group can be accessed through a single search. “helping guests save time …. and increasing booking retention within the group”

2) By adding the group search facility to their website they “transformed their group site with almost no cost into a fully functional mini OTA (online travel agent)”

3) All members update availability using their freetobook account so maintenance and upkeep is easy.

4) The Together fees are fixed keeping each member’s annual cost to a minimum…. “we know in advance the cost of maintaining our market advantage…as the group grows individual costs go down !”

The group has gone from 8 local B&Bs to 26 members. With other guest houses in the area wanting to join as they became aware of the benefits in a cooperative approach. “As group members reduce their reliance on the OTAs … we will continue to reap the rewards of the best decision the group has made to date !”

Fort William Marketing Association Case Study with freetobook together online booking

 

freetobook together system for group booking of accommodation providers

Together the video on youtube

The Benefits of Getting “Together” in Torbay

Accommodation associations the length of the country are benefiting from freetobook’s innovative “Together” product, which allows them to market themselves more effectively as a group.

getTogetherTopLogo-click-for-videoIt’s already revolutionising life for members of the Fort William Accommodation Marketing Group (FWAMG) up in the Highlands. Now it has also been adopted by the Torbay Booking Association down in Devon.

The Torbay group consists of over 20 hotels, B&Bs and guest houses, ranging in size from 6 – 14 rooms. Their new “Together” site, which went live last week, is called www.torbaybooking.co.uk

Now these small, individual properties will no longer have to go it alone in an increasingly competitive world where big budget chains dominate more and more. Thanks to “Together”, they’ll be able to benefit from strength in numbers and take advantage of all these innovations:

(1) Increasing conversions by giving customers a fully functional booking engine

(2) Bookings are kept and shared within the group

(3) If members are full, they can see who else is available

(4) They can track bookings through their “Together” booking engine

(5) They can also track the success of any marketing campaigns

And, best of all…

(6) All bookings are commission-free!

Scotland’s Best B&Bs and the Ayrshire Bed & Breakfast Association are also using our terrific “Together” product. You can find out more about it HERE

Fort William B&Bs get “together”

More “togetherness” thanks to freetobook

Wasn’t there a hit song out a few years ago called “Better Together”? Don’t know, off the top of my head, who sang it, but here at freetobook, we’re all about “togetherness” too, and it’s one of the main things that’s helping our customers go from strength to strength.

FWAMGWhen we talk about “togetherness”, though, we’re talking about a lot more than just a warm, fuzzy glow of cooperation. An affordable product unique to freetobook users, TOGETHER is specifically designed to enable smaller businesses to market themselves more effectively as a group, as you can see HERE.

The latest group of forward-thinking accommodation owners benefiting from our TOGETHER product is the Fort William Accommodation Marketing Group (FWAMG), who’re using it improve their current website and booking process.

“Using freetobook’s TOGETHER was a no brainer as far as the members of FWAMG were concerned. We had already benefitted from freetobook individually. This new product gave us an affordable opportunity to collectively generate additional commission-free bookings whilst maintaining the local identity that is so important to us and our visitors”

–  Andy Keen, Chairman, FWAMG

So what do the Fort William folk get from TOGETHER? Here are the benefits:

1. They can offer their customers a fully functional online booking engine that increases conversions on their group website

2. Members using freetobook don’t need to update any other system

3. Each member can track the bookings through their “Together” booking engine

4. Bookings are kept and shared within the group

5. It’s a real marketing asset for the group, tracking the success of any marketing campaigns

6. If members are full, they can use the booking engine to see who else is available

7. It’s a great resource and benefit to offer and attract new members to the group

8. No technical knowledge is required…we do the clever stuff!

And, best of all…

9. There’s no commission on any bookings!

Well done to FWAMG for getting it up and running in under a month! You only have to look at their great site HERE to know that the future really is “Better Together.”