Are we really 10 years into this journey? Its January 2021 and we are just starting lockdown III in the UK, what a time to look back on 10 years of freetobook.
It’s November 2010 and we facilitate our first direct booking which was the culmination of a year’s worth of programming work for the team. We took the “idea” of direct booking and literally made it free for accommodation owners all over the world. The journey from then to now has been one of continual learning and solution development.
All those years ago it was big call for our early customers to support us; we were unknown but they had faith.… which we continue to repay…. thank you! There are so many that are still with us and yes, the property that received our first direct booking over ten years ago is today a thriving hotel on freetobook.
Years later direct booking is still free and right there at the heart of everything we do. Free is not just without charge; it also means open, unrestricted, unbound, at liberty and untied. With the ever-rising power of corporations in the accommodation booking sector we remain free. Think of us as a counter-balance to corporate greed; an authentic high tech family-business.
Direct booking is a tough business. Against us all, there are a few giant corporations that want to take your bookings and make you pay more commission. We have earned the trust of many thousands of accommodation businesses because we tell it as it is. Ten years on and building better technology to facilitate more direct bookings. Our customers are also family businesses who entrust us with their booking technology, our system is at the centre of many thousands of accommodation businesses. That’s a serious business.
In The Beginning…..
Back at the beginning, although new in the technology booking space we certainly weren’t empty-headed; we’d already had 10 years of accommodation booking experience. We knew our stuff; the processes, tech and the industry. Our service was free, but that was never enough, it also had to be a real high-quality product. There was more building to be done. Sure we made mistakes, corrected them quickly and were never short of new ideas.
There’s nowhere to hide when your software is out there at the heart of so many businesses. We’re a “hands-on” bunch; we listen and truly care, perhaps sometimes too much and that can take its toll. Some comments can hurt but we build better every time. There are many shiny things in the technology world, they look good on the surface but before we invest/build anything we ask… does it help generate more direct bookings?
Those many years ago customers (led on by our competitors at the time) laughed at us and questioned us. How can you really be free? Well, we were free and we still are free for 1000s of accommodation businesses. Our “freemium” model with a free booking system with optional paid add-on services was not common then, indeed our free offering alone is better than many of our competitors paid versions. We convinced the “doubters” by building new and innovative services that are supported, developed and cherished. By listening to our customers, responding and continually improving, our passion started to filter through. Being genuine, doing the right things for the right reasons has always been the way we operate.
Just writing this makes it all seem like it was normal to start out that way but it was far from that at the time. It was a big call, a huge risk, that now brings a deep sense of satisfaction and achievement.
By simply doing what came naturally to us we created something special …. an authentic trust. It takes a second to write that “T” word but years to build and earn it.
What Happened Next
There was no income for freetobook until we launched our first chargeable service some three years later. The Channel Manager wasn’t really our idea but customers just preferred our booking diary and asked us to “link it up” with the OTAs to avoid double bookings and save time managing bookings. Now our channel technology is an unsung hero, processing millions of updates/requests daily and getting it right again and again … the OTAs consistently rank our channel manager in the top tier worldwide, often asking us how we do it so well?
Next came payment systems and secure card storage. We could see immediately the real value of Stripe for businesses; no merchant provider required, minimal form filling, great security technology and they offer low card rates too. Five years on Stripe is one of our most popular services because it’s still the most cost-effective product on the market, literally half the price of PayPal with so many more features and benefits. Stripe is the kind of technology we love to integrate and it shows when we poll our customers, they give it a satisfaction rating over 90%.
Alongside bookings and payments there is an ever-increasing need to ensure you “own the guest relationship” thereby keeping your direct bookings. Your brand is so important when communicating with a guest. The OTAs want to muscle-in and keep guest contact under their name. Freetobook’s Messaging enables you to brand messages with your name and scale your customer contact by simplifying it and removing the repetitive stuff.
What a timely introduction Messaging was; paying dividends last year with the ability to schedule messages, make contactless payment links, handle digital registrations and run in-house guest surveys. Our Messaging solution is neatly integrated into the booking flow, right from the moment the booking is made you’ve got easy access via your online diary and Messaging hub. Messaging makes guest interaction a joy for both you and your guest, replacing clunky lengthy email communication with short conversation-like threads that feel more genuine and create happy guests.
We built Messaging ourselves from scratch because we know how critical great guest communication is for direct booking. We didn’t take the easy option that our competitors took by using inferior 3rd party “integrations” to the other messaging companies. Instead, we kept innovating and moving things forward. When it’s your own technology you can listen and respond to your customers faster. We’ve added over 20 improvements since its initial release … guest actions, digital registration, surveys, file attachments, images, customisations, arrival times etc.
Last year we also invested in making your lives easier with our New Diary that shows key guest/booking data right there in plain sight whilst providing faster access to manage rates and availability. There’s also some neat integration with Stripe and Messaging, giving you a fuller picture of your business and a smoother work-flow.
Creating and managing this requires great people. The visionaries, thinkers, doers, builders, supporters, helpers etc. all contribute with their knowledge, experience, dedication and passion. This is no ordinary team at freetobook, they all deserve a special thank you (Ele, the service team, Heather, the developers, Craig and Iain, accounts and support team etc.). We do “tech” but really what we try to do best is people, with the right people anything is possible.
Growth has been essential in funding new services and continuing to keep costs down for customers (nearly 8,000 of them). Our only sales team are these very customers; thousands of you who go out daily and recommend us to your fellow businesses….thank you. Please keep doing it, it makes a huge difference and helps us spend our energy where you get the most benefit.
The sector we are in has changed beyond recognition, ownership and self-determination has been wrestled from small businesses into the hands of a few very large and powerful corporations. Technology has been the instrument of this change, this unbalancing. It is not unique to our sector either and there’s growing concern over the unassailable power of just a few mammoth tech companies. For any open market to operate sustainably, freely and for the benefit of its society, it requires open competition. We always welcome competition and we must all fight to maintain plurality and choice in the face of corporate monopolies that seek to take it all.
Corporations have been allowed by governments to become monopolies and they have abused that position (not surprisingly) to ensure they increase their dominance. The argument provided by these dominating corporations is that they provide cheaper prices for the consumer (i.e. that they are benefiting society) and there size enables better innovation. This is absolute rubbish, more competition will always decrease pricing and provide greater innovation… if freely allowed. It is unnerving to sit amongst the OTA dominance. Action is required, there is nothing to be gained by simply watching, we all have to try to change things, hence cobooking – join it.
We don’t have shareholders to keep happy or investors to placate, giving us the freedom to act. Our independence, like that of our customers, is one of our most cherished assets. Last year that enabled us to act in the way that we did. To use our values to guide us and offer support by simply being there to talk to, to help/respond, to be compassionate and to build solutions that helped. That meant keeping on a full team, focused and available. Our unique pay-as-you-go model has also helped in the best way possible, by reducing monthly bills often to zero. So as bookings dropped dramatically so did our invoices. When we started out 10 years ago with freetobook we said, “no tie-ins and no set monthly bills” and we meant it, our customers are always free to leave and are never tied in.
So what does the future hold? In all honesty… it’s difficult to know exactly. There are some obvious truths, people will always want to go on holiday and travel so demand will come back big, we saw that in the summer of 2020 (make sure you’re ready for it in 2021). They’ll also need flexibility on their booking conditions due to the uncertainty. Initially guests are likely to be more cautious, going to places they know and feel “safe” in. These are likely to be closer to home and in some cases very close. These holidays and experiences will be more cherished than ever before.
On the technology side there has been a significant acceleration of some existing trends such as automation, online shopping and dispersed working. We are in the fortunate position of being able to use that acceleration to benefit your businesses by creating new tools and services that help you not just adapt but thrive.
It’s an exciting space to be in, one which we’ll continue to navigate with our people and customers in mind. A simple formula, yet so often overlooked. Thank you for your support over the last 10 years. We must continue supporting each other, to be positive and forward looking, creating a better future…. that’s how we started freetobook and that’s how we will continue.