Ten years on and stronger than ever…

freetobook the journey

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.   

created from scratch

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. 

technology solutions

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.

power to businesses

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.

cobooking

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.

Automation, automation, automation

automate guest messages
make processes contact-less

There are three things we need to recognise about hospitality in these new COVID times; automation, automation and automation.

Automation can make processes contact-less, be used to collect vital information and communicate more easily. All these things help build confidence and trust between you and your guests whilst saving hours on boring repetitive tasks.

Let’s take a look at some examples that are live and some that are on their way.

Messaging your guests

Guest Messaging
Automate Guest Messaging

Our fully integrated guest Messaging system (built last year) makes communicating with your guests easy and fun. With scheduled Automated Messages you don’t even have to think about it, just set it up and every guest gets the right information at the right time… automatically.

Guests love it, after booking they get a friendly “thank you” message with loads of helpful key information (links to key sites) and tips. What a great way to start a conversation and build a relationship… that’s what service is all about. You can even brand our guest Messaging with your logo and colours..

Collect key information

Knowing which guests are arriving, and when, helps you manage social distancing and get prepared for arrival. Messaging has a cool little button making it super easy for guests to provide their arrival times.

Stripe payments

Stripe hotel payments
automate payments

Improve your cashflow by taking upfront payments from guests that book online or offline. When you take a deposit the card is securely stored so that collecting the balance is a simple click of a button. Stripe receives and stores cards from Bookingcom, Expedia etc… and you can even “Pre-auth” cards one week before stay, making sure the money is available. For your guests, Stripe makes payment so easy, using ApplePay and GooglePay payment is literally at their finger tips!

Messaging and Stripe

For the perfect contact-less automation use both Stripe and Messaging together.  Message a guest for payment and they just use their phone to pay – a simple click, no contact, if they have Apple/Google Pay they can pay using their thumb print.

Digital registration

digital hotel registration
digital registration

As part of Messaging we will soon add Digital Registration, enabling your guests to register in advance of arrival (set for release in mid-July).

Messaging was built as a way to automate almost all your digital guest interactions, we’ll continue to roll out more and more for the usual amazingly low prices.

Our new state of the art online diary has all the messaging solutions built-in and that’s just the beginning, it’s due for general release in the coming few weeks.

more for less with freetobook
more for less with freetobook

Here at freetobook we’ve always been about developing new technology, always the first to release new features. Our team of developers are all working flat out to deliver so much more for our growing customer base. As a family business we believe in fairness and due to our many thousands of customers we can deliver amazing services at ridiculously low prices.

Freetobook – great tech solutions – more for less is so much more.

Messaging is £49 per year

Stripe is £89 per year (plus Stripe card handling fees)

All paid services are optional and pay-as-you-go so you never have to pay for anything you don’t use. If you are not already with freetobook why not try it today at no cost …

Messaging reduces face-to-face tasks

messaging helps automate

Communication is only the first part of Messaging, there is so much more. Your Messaging is fully integrated with your bookings so you can digitise parts of the guest experience, replacing some of your face-to-face interaction.

We call these “Guest Actions”, they are perfect for automating processes that were manual (saving you time) and/or replacing face-to-face tasks with digital ones.

Message for Payment:

Message a Stripe payment link

Using Stripe with Messaging you can request payments in any message. Ideal for advance payments, deposits and balances before arrival, as well as for in-house payments at check-out or during stay.

For example, guests can make a Stripe payment on their phone (in the message) so there is no need for a face-to-face terminal – this will update in the booking. Even better, if they have ApplePay or GooglePay then payment is a quick thumb print on their phone.

Guests can pay at anytime from within a message if you are using Stripe alongside our Messaging system. Getting payments by message reduces unnecessary contact and can be initiated in an automated message or a manual one.

Arrival Times:

Just like the payment action guests can interact with the booking to change their arrival time. You can add a Confirm Arrival Time button to your messages so that when guests change their arrival time it simply updates in their booking, no manual changes required. With this information you can better manage everyone’s arrival times and prepare for their welcome.

Electronic Registration:

Guests will soon be able to register online from a message

We are currently adding registration to guest actions and aim to have it live by the end of June. Guests will be able to complete their registration details in Messaging so there’ll be no need for paper forms on arrival. This contactless registration puts guest safety first and streamlines check-in, avoiding any queues or delays.

As accommodation owners demand more automation we continue to enhance Guest Actions to automate more of your interaction with guests.

In addition, you can also brand Messaging with your logo, colours and customise messages to fit your style of communication by adding images and attachments. Why not take steps to further impress your guests.

For a limited time we are offering full access to Messaging for a trial of two months. You must register before the end of June 2020 to qualify for the free two month trial, you can opt out at anytime or choose to continue with Messaging at only £49 per year.

You can access further details about this fantastic Messaging solution from within your freetobook account PLUS tab.

Guests love Messaging

As a guest we all love that time leading up to our holiday, the anticipation and excitement. The wind down from work and daily bind as we get our heads and hearts into holiday mode. Never have we been more ready for a break.

Preparation and planning, brings a hint of anxiety to the excitement. Are we ready to make the most of our stay ?

welcome guest message
welcome your guests

Messaging can get your guests into that happy zone of prepared and excited. Start by reassuring them that you’re here to help with answers to all their questions.

Scheduled messages send out the right information at the right time – every time, delighting guests with answers to questions they haven’t even had to ask… that’s service at its best.

Automated messages are an ideal way of establishing that first guest contact and letting them know you’re there to help. Add small touches like lovely photos of your property or area, tips on secret nearby local walks or a favourite restaurant. Set it up and let automated messaging do the rest for all your bookings.

schedule guest messages
schedule messages

Create and save templates so you have good detailed answers at the ready for many of the most common questions. Replying with templates takes literally 3 seconds and that always impresses guests.

Your Messaging Hub in freetobook gives you easy access to all replies, neatly ordered with notifications to say you’ve got a reply. Managing messages is simple with access integrated into your bookings.  Each message thread keeps a clear record of the conversation for both you and your guests, so you always know what’s been said and what’s next.  Having full control of all messages in the hub saves you jumping from booking to booking.

automate guest messages
messages go out automatically

We’ve integrated Messaging into freetobook so it’s as much part of the booking fabric as anything else so you can build relationships even before the guests’ arrived.  Using our own technology also enables us to connect Messaging to other key parts of freetobook (e.g. payments, arrival times, channels etc.) all to make your lives easier.

Messaging massively improves the guest experience, saves hours of repetitive work and makes you stand out from the crowd.

Simple, slick and elegant…. guests love it!

Smart Guest Messaging

As technology develops so do your guests’ expectations.

Smart Messaging
Smart Messaging

In the last 5 years messaging apps have flourished and entered our everyday lives. This has again accelerated in the last few months as we’ve have had to find ways to communicate with loved ones that we can’t visit. Family and work WhatsApp and Messenger groups have really come into their own.

These tools all have two things in common – they are conversational, less formal and richer in content. Adding images, links and other attachments means you’re able to share so much with so little effort.  That sharing helps create stronger bonds and brings us all closer.

So how does that fit on a business level?  Well, for starters it means our guests are familiar and comfortable with messaging as a technology.  With such a big part of the service you offer guests driven by communication, why wouldn’t you take every opportunity to finesse that communication?

That’s why we built Smart Messaging.

How you communicate with your guests before, during and after their stay is changing. The ease with which you can schedule key messages for your guests makes Smart Messaging invaluable.  And those automatic messages can be rich in content, so attaching images and links makes them not just interesting but also very useful to guests. We know this because the guest replies say it all.

Smart Messaging
Get Better Replies

What’s also fascinating is that guests respond quickly (because it’s easy) and they become more engaged with the host.  So building that relationship is a natural process. Guests even use emojis in their responses, who doesn’t love seeing a 😊 in a response! 👍

There’s lots and lots more on offer, so click here for more… We have built Smart Messaging from the ground up ourselves so it’s fully integrated with all your bookings and continually being added to. It’s also why we can offer it at such a low price of just £4/month (£49/yr + VAT)…. ridiculous value yet again from a family business that enjoys building things that make your life easier.

Guest messaging upgrade

Guest messaging for hotels, guest houses, B&Bs and cottages
Smart Messaging

Have you ever thought about how easy it would be for a guest to simply click a reply button to get in touch with you ? In the freetobook labs we have 🙂

Today’s guests expect so much and easy communication is now a given, looking for emails to reply to just isn’t good enough anymore. That’s essentially why we have upgraded the freetobook email system.

With the new smart messaging upgrade (which replaces emails) you can:

  1. Send guests automated messages as soon as they book or a set number of days before arrival or after stay.
  2. You can add gorgeous images to show off and boost your brand
  3. Increases your read and reply rate because its so easy to use.
  4. Quickly spot any failed messages and fix them instantly.
  5. Works with all bookings including OTA fake email addresses.
  6. Conversation thread keeps your chat together.
Smart messaging for automatic messaging of guests
Boost your Guest replies

Smart messaging is getting even better. In the next few weeks we will be adding “guest actions” where guests can interact with their booking through their smart message.

You can send them a guest action and they will be able to change it, the first one will be “arrival time” – guests will be able to click to re-confirm their arrival time and it will change automatically in their booking, no need for you to do any more work.

Smart messaging will keep getting better, just let us know what you want it to do for you. There are so many ideas just a taster includes Stripe payments from smart messages, branding for the messaging page so guests connect with your brand setting the scene for their stay.

Read about the 7 pledges that make freetobook so different. A high tech company with family values is a rare and wonderful thing 🙂

Smart messaging says it all

smart messaging for accommodation owners

When you are looking to stand out in your guests mind then get messaging. Smart Messaging will take your communication with guests to the next level, making messages and stays memorable.

Freetobook Smart Messaging is your work horse taking the hassle and bore out of email communications. It replaces the old email system with a simple and intuitive interface that your guests can engage with, whilst making your administrative work quicker and simpler.

First up: you can set automated messages to go out before and after the guests stay. No need to worry about sending critical information.

Add images: spice up your message with gorgeous images that show off and boost your brand.

Communicate: a smart message thread is available to the guest making replies so easy and your interaction so natural.

Emojis: it’s brilliant when guests start sending emojis, it means you have connected in a fun and friendly way.

Spot any fails: you’ll see a failed message immediately so you can fix the email address that notifies your guest of a new message.

All channels: you can Smart Message all of your bookings as long as they have an email address (even to the fake emails from the OTAs).

Freetobook customers can setup Smart Messaging in matter of seconds in the “PLUS” tab. For properties not yet using freetobook, why not signup today and enjoy all the marvelous solutions we provide for accommodation owners worldwide.

The Smart messaging system is getting massive investment from us, there are already over twenty new features waiting to be implemented. These include “guest actions” where the guest can change their arrival time or other interactions with their booking.

We really believe the freetobook messenger will help you communicate better and save time… so we will continue to make it even better.

Not sure about freetobook ? Read our 7 pledges to see what makes us so different.

Airbnb fully connected

Hotels, B&Bs and Hostels are welcome on Airbnb!

Airbnb API connection

Airbnb’s changed from its early days so we think it’s worth reflecting on how these changes could attract new customers for you.

Hotels, Guest Houses, Hostels and Glampsites are now joining the Airbnb platform along with Cottages and other self catering accommodations. Its a safe bet to say that Airbnb’s change is all about opening up their listings to provide more choice for their customers.

Getting more bookings often means attracting new and different types of guests and on Airbnb these guests will typically be younger and booking closer to arrival;

  • About 40% of guests that book on Airbnb are aged between 25-34 years, this is quite a bit younger than typical bookers from other sources.
  • Last minute bookings are a big thing on Airbnb with about 40% of bookings being made fewer than 15 days before arrival. A great way to fill some gaps, especially in the quieter seasons.

Many people don’t realise that business people also form a significant part of Airbnb’s customer base. Airbnb is quite an attractive site for a number of business travellers that are looking for the sort of experience only independently run businesses just like yours can provide. These are more likely to be new customers that might not find you if it wasn’t for Airbnb.

Many of Airbnb’s customers are very loyal and will only use their platform to book their stay so being on Airbnb means you’re immediately exposed to them. They’re also looking for exactly what you offer (professionally run independent accommodation) so it’s worth getting in “front of them”.

Many of you are already aware that freetobook and Airbnb are now fully connected for updating rates, bookings and availability so you don’t need to worry about double bookings or double entry. You’ll also get the support and advice that comes with our Channel Manager connections team.

Like all of the services we offer, the Airbnb connection is optional. To get connected and find out more just visit the Tab “Plus” and select the “Airbnb” section.

7 pledges of internet booking

Our promises

In the 21 years since our birth in 1998 we’ve learnt a thing or two about making, managing and servicing accommodation bookings but the one thing we often get asked is:

“what makes freetobook different ?”

It is a tough question (if you really care about it) and after this long in business we had better have a good answer! In a perverse kind of way it’s actually taken 21 years to really find out who and what we are.

Some soul searching and chat in the office led us to seven key points that we would love to share with you as “pledges”. We believe what makes us a great company to work with is that we genuinely (and always) pledge to:

  1. listen, care about, support and advise you whilst building things to the highest standards both morally and technically
  2. continually develop, upgrade and improve for your business
  3. build booking technology that maximises direct bookings above all other bookings
  4. protect you from powerful corporations that seek to manipulate and plunder your revenue
  5. be the best booking system possible, to study and learn from other booking systems
  6. never prevent you from leaving (by tie-in contract or any obstruction), instead we’ll learn why you left and improve to get you back
  7. continue to make all paid services optional, clearly priced and listed publicly on our website, ensuring we advise honestly and openly as to their value and use to your business

Note: the order of these pledges are as they came to us, we’ll shortly be asking our customers which are the most important to them then re-order accordingly.

These aren’t some corporate bull, in fact they have always been guiding us we just haven’t really thought much about it. They are part of our DNA, developed from those that work with us and for us, those that support us to grow and all those that used to work with us, they are our history and our future.

The significant success of freetobook in business provides us with the luxury to always put your interests first with fierce independence and a long term outlook typical of family values that no corporate can afford. That’s what makes freetobook different.

Stripe with ApplePay and GooglePay

Stripe on freetobook is now upgraded to include ApplePay and GooglePay

ApplePay and GooglePay

ApplePay and GooglePay are so convenient for customers, they simply pay using their fingerprint on their smartphone. Freetobook has been busy working to integrate the new functionality so your customers can now pay with ultimate ease.

This fantastic functionality makes it easier for customers to book so you get more direct bookings. “Paying for a booking is now as easy as paying for a cup of coffee” said Ele at the office..

There is no extra cost, the card transaction charges are the same low cost as they always are with Stripe and we have implemented this with no extra costs.

  1. When customers book online, we detect if their mobile device has ApplePay or GooglePay enabled and offer them an option to pay that way.
  2. If you send a payment request by email and they receive it on their phone with GooglePay or ApplePay they can simply pay with a single click.
ApplePay GooglePay Stripe Freetobook

There are no extra costs whatsoever so we have automatically enabled it for all customers already using Stripe.

This adds further brilliant functionality to the Stripe product on freetobook. It already has over 90% approval rating with freetobook users, just as a reminder these are the 5 reasons to use Stripe for card payments.

  1. Quick and easy to setup
  2. Low cost
  3. No monthly charges
  4. Secure and PCI compliant
  5. Visa, Mastercard, American Express, ApplePay and GooglePay
  6. All cards including channel cards from Booking.con and Expedia

Coming Soon: Upgrades in the pipeline include pre-auth functionality so you can automatically pre-auth a card to make sure the customer has the funds to cover their booking before they arrive.