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.   

Staycation Tsunami 2021

When lockdown ends, bookings dramatically spike

Get ready for a tsunami of bookings this summer. #StaycationTsunami Savings levels are at a record high. Through the lockdowns money that would have been spent has been saved. International travel is likely to be difficult/impossible.

Staycations at unprecedented levels are predicted and most likely to happen this summer. Added to this, there’s been far fewer bookings this year so there’s loads of availability to book into when things open up.

Frustrated, locked down bookers are out there waiting for somewhere to go. The instant that lockdown is lifted you’re looking at a situation never seen before.

Lockdowns have devastated accommodation businesses so here’s a great opportunity to rebalance that, but only if you’re ready for it by being prepared.

Summer 2021, are you ready for it?

Get ready for a record summer

Maximising your profit will help recover such a terrible past year. Minimise commission paid. Demand will likely outstrip supply so don’t pay commission when you can get more direct bookings.


Preparation Checklist

  1. Get your booking technology in order now. If you don’t have it running efficiently you’ll lose out on that record number of bookings coming in. Get your payment system setup and have your messaging fine-tuned. Reduce the risk for double bookings by getting it lined up and ready now.
  2. Think about your prices for summer now, should you increase them? Inflation is likely in your costs and you’ve lost a year of income so use the demand to recoup some losses. Businesses that have increased their prices understand they can reduce them later if it’s necessary.
  3. Get available now for direct bookings, prioritise early direct bookers. Give a preference to getting your early bookers in direct. Use commissionable bookings to fill gaps later. There will be a record number of bookings, you want them to be direct. You can always open to non-direct bookings later if you have to. Check you minimum stays and cancellation policy always entice direct bookings.
  4. Makes sure all the housekeeping, renovation and services are ready for a record summer. Is your accommodation physically ready? Do whatever you can do now so you’re ready for the biggest ever summer.
  5. Your website should be ready to encourage direct bookings. Ensure your COVID cleaning policy is visible and up to date, guests want to feel safe booking.  Update your website with any changes/updates you’ve made, you need to look your best and guests will not book on a bad website. free covid ready images

Last year was both terrible and tragic with losses of every kind, personal, national, social and economic.

It will end at some point so be ready for a reversal of fortune…it’s likely to happen this summer in the accommodation sector!

#StaycationTsunami 

Freetobook’s Digital Registration Feature

automated, integrated and contactless

Digital registration for hotels
Digital registration

With the new Digital Registration form you can make your guests’ lives easier and safer. Guests simply complete their forms remotely before arrival making social distancing at check-in easier whilst also saving you time and paper.  It takes seconds for them to complete and when completed it appears neatly in your new diary on their booking.

Digital Registration (d-reg) is part of freetobook’s Messaging suite meaning it’s a fully automated process that’s also integrated into the booking diary.

Key advantages of d-reg are:

1) Contactless – guests complete their registration before arrival.

2) Integrated – the form is automatically updated and stored in your diary.

3) Automatic – set up and schedule your forms once, Messaging does the rest.

4) Value add – collect all guest names/contacts plus real email addresses for OTA bookings.

5) Branding – look professional by using your own logo and colours.

automation robot for messages
message automation

We’re listening too, the second version of d-reg is due for release shortly and it’s smarter than ever. Using new “logic jumps” your guests will skip certain questions based on their nationality and answers e.g. you may not want local guests to be asked for their passport details.  This makes it quicker and easier for your guests, thereby helping to ensure they complete it.

You will also be able to add your own question tips to the d-reg form e.g. ask for a mobile number rather than a landline, plus much more….

There’s also an icon/alert in the new freetobook diary so you can quickly see who’s completed their d-reg forms.

With Messaging so elegantly integrated into your diary you can add images, attachments and set your text in seconds, making your messages a key part of your service offering.  Scheduling your Automated Messages means your work flows much easier and you don’t lose hours of your time sending out the same email, again and again. Added to that, your guests get the right information at the right time.

More automation is on its way to help you manage your business in these difficult Covid-19 times. Digital Registration is just one small part of what Messaging offers, based on your feedback we continue to build better ways to solve the challenges facing your businesses.

Freetobook has the technology you can trust….

Messaging is £49 per year…

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 …

Covid-19: Reassuring Your Customers

Operating in the current COVID19 world

Book with confidence Covid19 prepared

Operating in a world with COVID19 is a test for all the accommodation industry and it means having to adapt as things change and new information becomes available. It is initially unsettling for everyone, including guests, but there are basic steps that properties can take that will be the same for the foreseeable future.

Safety

The key word of these times is SAFETY. Your customers will expect it and your business needs to show it takes safety seriously. If you have not done so already, conduct a Risk Assessment of your busines using the guidance issued by your government and make sure your customers know what you are doing at your property. This is the starting point for every business anywhere. There are lots of examples and templates out there (see below) also some images that you can make use of.

Communication

covid prepared
click to use this image and others

We all know that communication is the key to reassuring customers and securing bookings (see earlier blog with essential tips here) and that has proved to be the case in those countries that have opened up already.

Chabanettes Hotel & Spa in France shared this feedback with our Facebook group recently

‘I put a Covid 19 statement on my website almost 2 months ago. It remains my most popular sub-page. And it works. It’s a statement, like all the other big chains, which shows that we acknowledge risks, and have put reasonable steps in to place to reduce these risks. Not eliminate, we can never say that. But it portrays a seriousness that is clearly sufficient for our clientele to convince them to book. Our new booking volumes are now on a par with previous years’

There are lots of great examples of webpages that are both clear and reassuring to guests so do have a look around and then ensure yours is relevant to your guests.

Flexibility

Being able to offer flexibility will help you appeal to some of the more nervous customers. Many of you have already displayed huge levels of flexibility in helping guests move bookings. Looking forward there’s the opportunity to introduce more relaxed cancellation policies, changing traditional minimum stays and nimble pricing. Some have also gone as far as reducing the number of rooms on offer/guests on site to phase in the return to business and offering new customised breakfast arrangements. Consider what is appropriate for your business and guests and what’s needed to attract bookings.

Domestic Travel

Book with confidence Covid19 ready
click to access free Covid19 images

With strict quarantine rules in place for overseas visitors in many countries, businesses who have previously relied on inbound customers will need to modify their marketing to focus on the domestic market….a market that may well be only an hour away from your property. These are potential guests that are concerned about travelling long distances from home but are keen to enjoy some hospitality again!

It is at least comforting to know that literally the whole world is in the same situation, and there’s an understanding that we will all need to adapt as things evolve. It is impossible to say for how long things will continue like this and although we hope they continue to improve we must also be prepared for things to tighten up with little notice.

At freetobook we can see the activity levels increasing both in general system readiness and booking levels. We’ll continue to support and advise where we can as we all navigate our way through this. Stay Safe.

A collection of useful Links which may help (there are many more so please share on our facebook group if you are a freetobook customer)

Freetobook Facebook Users Group
UK Hospitality Guidance for Hospitality in Scotland
Bed and Breakfast Association
PASC (Professional Association of Self-Caterers) Guidelines
UK Government Advice
HSE Risk Assessment
Centre for Disease Control USA
Vacation Rental Management Association Cleaning Advice


Guest Messaging: Reduce Face-to-Face Tasks

automate face to face coronavirus
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:

stripe payments
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:

online registration for hotels
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.

You can sign up to Messaging for only £49 per year on a pay as you go basis.

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

Covid-19: Preparing To Open Again!

As accommodation businesses start to enter the next phase of managing COVID-19, guests are looking for reassurance that the accommodation they are booking is as safe as possible, and the people operating it will be taking measures to protect them. 

It is important that properties start to put measures in place now to deal with the new way their businesses will be operating. Then, most importantly, communicating that to their guests… do not assume that they know what you are doing… you need to tell them.

enjoy your stay in safety covid prepared
We are covid ready (free image click to save)

Here are the three things we think are worth considering now. Many properties have already done this so there’s lots of great examples out there.

1. CONDUCTING A COVID RISK ASSESMENT OF YOUR PROPERTY

Take advantage of the time you have now to conduct a thorough risk assessment of your business.  A risk assessment will allow you to identify the COVID-19 related risks to you, your staff, and your customers.  Once you have identified those risks, you can then set protocols to mitigate that risk. 

Guidance that has been issued tends not to be a prescriptive list as it would be impossible to cover all accommodation types, so common sense and knowledge of your own situation would seem to be the best route right now.

Only by conducting a thorough risk assessment of your property will you then be able to clearly communicate this to your staff and your guests. Examples of things to consider are;

  • What risk do you and your staff pose to the business in bringing COVID-19 into the premises?
  • What risk do your customers pose to the business in bringing COVID-19 into the premises?
  • What measures will you take if an infected person has been on your premises?
  • What additional cleaning measures will be taken in rooms and communal areas over and above the norm?
  • What cleaning materials will you need to source? (Do you need to update your assessments e.g. COSHH for the UK?)
  • Where you will position hand sanitisers and the like?
  • How you will manage check ins and breakfasts?
  • What you will require customers to do when on site and how will you communicate this?
  • How will you protect yourselves?
  • What can you remove from the property that would be an unnecessary source of contamination? i.e. books and board games.
  • Identify frequently touched areas.

This is not an exhaustive list and you can find guidance all over the internet that may be more relevant to your specific situation.

book with confidence covid
Book with us we are Covid prepared (free image click to save)

Our own facebook group has plenty of things that people are doing in their own business so make sure you are part of that. Freetobook customers ONLY facebook group

N.B There has been talk of various COVID-19 Safety accreditation or certificate schemes – regardless of who may be issuing these, it is clear that a written assessment will form the basis of obtaining these.

For those in the UK, this Government HSE website Risk Assessment is the place to start

2. COVID-19 INFORMATION ON YOUR WEBSITE

All properties should be looking at their website and finding effective ways to communicate to their guests, now, how they will be operating after they reopen.  This could be with a pop-up box on entering the site, a page dedicated to COVID-19 related issues and FAQs or a video.  Examples of things that you should consider highlighting are;

  • Cleaning Protocols that you have brought in to ensure the property is safe.
  • Use of hand sanitiser/masks (Personal Protective Equipment etc.).
  • Social distancing measures they can expect from you and you will require from them.
  • Changes to breakfast or eating arrangements where those apply.
  • Changes to the use of communal areas/equipment.
  • Contactless/virtual payments where those apply.
  • Check in times and how these will be handled.

All businesses are different so your list will be specific to your property, but the main point here is that the customer is informed and reassured before they even make their booking.  People are booking now for the future, so those businesses who have made this information available on their website are more likely to get a booking. This could also be the difference between them booking your property or someone else’s which appears safer.

book with confidence covid safe
Book with confidence we are Covid19 safe (free image click to save)

There are some super videos that properties are posting on their websites and social media and if you can, we would recommend this wholeheartedly.

Blue Sky retreat (their facebook page) New Mexico

Laggan Glamping (YouTube)

Pebble Beach (facebook page) Llandudno

Covid19 prepared
Covid19 ready for bookings (free image click to save)

3. PRE-ARRIVAL COMMUNICATION

Bookings could have come from anywhere at any time, so it is important that you communicate to all guests how you will be working before they arrive.  This is best done with a pre-arrival email outlining what the guest can expect when arriving at your property… and what you will require from them.  It may be that you need them to check in at a specific time to avoid everyone arriving at once or that you will not be able to personally greet them at the door.  Whatever it is good communication is key.

If you are using Messaging in freetobook you set this up via the automated ‘before arrival’ message to be sent ‘X’ days before arrival, containing all this information… you can also include a request for their arrival time.

If you are not using Messaging, you can use the Email tab in the booking to send an email to the guest (you can build a template for this in the main Email tab).

Consider also adding information about local restrictions where they apply.

The key thing to remember here is BE PREPARED.  Whilst dates may change and lockdowns may be lifted in different places/countries at different times, these are measures you will need to have in place at some point.  So, use the time you have now, to get everything organised so you are good to go as soon as your bookings are.

All of the above is non-expert opinion we hope you find it helpful BUT you are wholly responsible for your own safety and that of your guests. We are NOT experts, if you follow any actions above you do so entirely at your own risk. Stay safe.

Serving Our Customers During Covid-19

Keeping Busy

So much is beyond the control of accommodation owners in this difficult time. Yet we hear so many inspiring stories of owners using their extra time to help their community while others offer accommodation to key workers or get on with renovations and tidy ups, ready for a return to business.  

We are positive, inspired and continually asking – What can we do to make a difference?

All working

“… the very best customer service…fees are very reasonable. … this family-run company has good morals and ethics.” (Lochinver GH)

You will be pleased to know that freetobook has ALL our customer service staff working from home helping your businesses where and when you need it.

Just as importantly, ALL of our developers are working from home creating the next generation of technology to make freetobook even better value with even more smart functionality.

Pay-as-you-go

“…we only pay for what we use nothing more, what could be fairer? Thank you freetobook for first class caring support.” (Drinkstone Park B&B)

Our unique pay-as-you-go cost structure means that many customers are paying nothing whilst business is low. We have no monthly charges and all costs are optional, so not only are we keeping going at full pace we are also literally sharing the financial pain in these difficult times.  

Offering real, honest value for money service and technology is at the core of any family business. We will never waver from supporting you to grow your accommodation business at the lowest possible cost.

“Changing over was breeze… up & running in a couple of days. … I appreciate not having to pay extortionate monthly fees.” (Foxhills)

“…very satisfied with their amazing service, and much lower costs. …their support, both online and over the phone, is incredible.” (Tyndale Boutique B&B)

New additions coming soon:

Updated hotel style diary with extra functionality, ability to create unit specific smart messages, split billing so guests can share parts of the same bill, new attachment types for smart messages, cobooking for a new way to find and book direct.

“…so easy to set-up, simple to work round and extremely user friendly. … we believe we’ve found the best and couldn’t rate freetobook more highly.” (Birklands GH)

Stay safe and well.