In conjunction with this month's theme -- "Children-friendly inns" an interesting question needs to be addressed - more specifically, has your website matured over the years into something which fully represents your inn or is it stuck in the awkwardness of adolescence?
Five years ago, if you had a simple website with a pen and ink drawing you were considered an adept marketer. Today, that same website may be costing you thousands in lost reservations to the more professional web sites of your competitors. Unfortunately, marketing companies have spent years educating innkeepers on how to better market and drive traffic to their websites but have rarely touched on the more important issues of how to get the traveler to make a reservation once they've found your site. Isn't it about time to abandon some of the childlike-grips we cling to concerning our websites?
The Terrible Two's
There are two primary means of increasing reservations via your website:
1. Increase the number of people who view your website.
2. Increase the number of reservations from people who view your website.
For the last five years, marketing companies and innkeepers alike have focused on increasing the number of visitors to a website. The more people who viewed the website, the greater the number of reservations. If 100 people view your website and five make a reservation, than surely out of 200 viewers, ten will make a reservation. However, let's focus on the second means of increasing your reservations. After all, you can have a million people view your website, but if your site doesn't make your inn look appealing, what's the use?
We call the second method the "Conversion Ratio" and it's simply increasing the number of people who decide to make a reservation once they've seen your website. In other words, you convert more viewers into guests. The primary way to increase this number is by increasing the quality and professionalism of your website.
Toss Out The Security Blanket
There are many beautiful and professional B&B websites and then there are those that appear to have been haphazardly thrown together. Regardless, all B&B websites have one thing in common - their owners have rarely, if ever, heard objective criticism of their site. Like an unruly child in a restaurant, everyone notices but few speak up. So it goes with websites. The real reason innkeepers don't hear criticism is that people don't stay at B&B's whose websites do not appeal to them. If your website doesn't appeal to their taste, why would your inn be any different?
Perhaps one of the most commonly clung to features on a website are the pen and ink drawings of yesteryear. You may have spent plenty of money to have the picture drawn, but its effectiveness on the web is minimal if not negative. Generally, a pen and ink is used in place of a photo because the inn is difficult to make appealing in a photograph. Unfortunately, the viewers know this and may see it as a lack of confidence in the appearance of your inn.
Lest you think you need a beautiful exterior photo of your inn to create the perfect website, take a look at http://www.campuscottage.com to see why one is not always needed. Between a good photographer who managed to take great pictures while the inn was under construction and a professional website designer, this site doesn't need an exterior shot to make it beautiful - it's all in the design.
A pen and ink on a website can be a sign that you're not proud of the exterior of your inn, leaving the traveler wondering why you don't have a color photo. A professional web designer can take that photo and create something beautiful by creating stunning collages of your inn, your yard, and perhaps a major attraction or scene of your area. You'll be glad you threw out the pen and ink and have so much more to show for it.
The Awkward Teen Years
Probably one of the greatest mistakes made by innkeepers is in who they hire (or don't hire) to create their website. Few innkeepers would allow the teenage neighbor boy to cook breakfast for their guests, but it's surprising how many will allow them to create their website. Unfortunately, the result is often the same. Considering that a website can be the single most valuable marketing tool an inn can possess, it's difficult to understand and overcome this mentality.
The next phenomena we often see is what I like to call "The Son-in-law Syndrome," If it isn't the neighbor boy who's a computer guru, it's the son-in-law, family friend, son, daughter, etc. who ends up creating the website. I understand innkeepers often need to cut corners to make ends meet, but your website is not the place to start. Certainly, if you've gone this route, it's time to allow a professional to take over if you want to increase your reservations. At the very least, you need to have your site critiqued by an objective professional in the industry.
Another often annoying feature on a website is music, and again, this is something innkeepers tend to cling to. Every innkeeper I've spoken to who has music on their site generally defends it for two reasons. 1. They personally love it and 2. They say their guests love it. I would again challenge you to think how many guests you are losing simply because they fear your inn is as unprofessional as the music on your website. Certainly, this is not the quality of music you would play in your dining room, but it might seem that way to the viewer. Additionally, many travelers are making reservations and surfing the net while at work. If when they come to your site, it immediately starts blaring "You Made Me Love You" - they are going to click off your site before the first strain is over! Thus, you've just lost another potential guest. There is perhaps no greater barrier between you and a potential guest than the music clip on your site. Best to let this one go.
Discovering Who You Are
As we come into our own, so must our websites. A proper web presence is a reflection of who you are - your inn and all its special extras. Market what you have, market it accurately and realistically and be good at what you do. Every inn is unique in location, style, accommodations and amenities. Focus and clearly state this message to your viewers in as few words as possible. Include high quality pictures of people relaxing by the fire, listening to music or lounging on the deck so the guest will understand that they will be invited to do this as well. Also, a photograph of several couples around a large dining table enjoying your gourmet breakfast is great idea to help guests get used to the communal breakfast experience. If your website can capitalize on what you do best and give the traveler an accurate picture of your inn, then the guest will know exactly what to expect from you. We have to remember that many travelers, particularly those new to the Bed and Breakfast industry, have no idea what to expect from this new type of lodging experience. If your website doesn't paint this picture accurately, you may have lost another potential convert and that's something none of us can afford.
As the Internet grows up, so does the expectation of the traveler and what they want from a professional lodging site. To make sure you are keeping pace, get an objective evaluation of your website by a professional or two. Innkeepers are constantly fixing up their inn, updating furnishings, linens, etc - apply the same care to your website. If it's been a long time since it's really been updated, go for a complete remodel, as it's often less expensive than tinkering with a bad design.
Look for the following in evaluating whether your site could use a makeover: updated professional pictures of all your rooms, clear and consistent site navigation on every page, contact information (preferably at the bottom) of each page on your site, less text and more photos. When it comes to the text on your site, remember that less is more. Our generation is glutted with information; don't burden the traveler by requiring them to read through paragraphs of text to get the information they need. They want to know price and they want to know amenities. Focus on what's important and cut the fluff.
If you maintain your own site and are endowed with webmastering skills, this project should take less time than a remodel. Just be sure you aren't designing the site for yourself instead of your potential guests. If you're not, hopefully you have either a trusted webmaster or a professional hosting company who maintains your site - they can also give you an analysis of other elements that might prove helpful. Simple changes and even more involved redesigns shouldn't break the bank and you will reap enormous benefits from the effort. Didn't putting that two-person Jacuzzi tub in your suite's private bath pay for itself over and over? Sit back and take an objective look at your site; you'll be glad you did and so will all your new guests.