At a recent conference, we gave a session on effective website design by reviewing the sites of innkeepers who were present. We entitled the session "The good, the bad and the ugly" and asked for volunteers with "thick skin." The most amazing outcome of the session was the stark difference between the message the innkeeper wanted their website to present and the real message the site portrayed. We asked a simple question "What do you want guests to know about your inn?" Most of the time, the answer to this question was never mentioned in the sometimes voluminous content of their site.
In keeping with the wedding theme of this issue, we have entitled this article, "Are you married to the right website or just living with the wrong one?" Like a good marriage, your website should be your partner in marketing. Unfortunately, too many innkeepers settled for the first proposal which came along instead of their true soul mate.
A good website is valuable like a good spouse. It is a partnership borne of mutual interest and goals. If your aim is not united, your goals will never be achieved.
The Honeymoon is Over!
The honeymoon is over and it's time to take a long, hard look at your partner (in marketing). There are, however, two small problems. The first is objectivity and the second is discernment. Unless the reviewer of your website possesses these two qualities, you will never obtain a true and accurate evaluation.
Love is blind (and deaf too)
When we first started reviewing websites several years ago, I was shocked that most innkeepers thought they had a wonderful website. It didn't matter how terrible the layout, they were convinced their site was quite wonderful even sites which blinked, flashed and gyrated so much they made me nervous! This fearsome and blind loyalty to their partner in marketing was very confusing... until we found the source.
Through rose colored lenses
Most innkeepers base the quality of their website on the feedback they receive from their guests. In many instances, when we suggest a website should be improved, the response is often, "all my guests love my website!" This leads to the misconception that the website is a perfect match for your inn.
The true meaning of the statement is "everyone who visits your inn and mentions your website tells you they love it." There are two major flaws in this method of evaluation.
1. It leaves out those who visit your inn but didn't like the website and chose to keep quiet about it. I've been a victim of this mentality myself - choosing not to mention a very annoying aspect of an inn even though it could have helped the innkeeper improve quality.
2. It leaves out everyone who views your website and didn't book a reservation.
This second flaw is probably the most dangerous in that your website may be costing you thousands of dollars in lost reservations. If potential guests are visiting your website but not finding what they are looking for, you've lost them due to an ineffective website and misrepresentation of your inn.
The greatest problem innkeepers face in evaluating their website is not the quantity of the feedback they receive but the quality of that feedback. Additionally, their interpretation of what this feedback means leads to a dangerous misconception that everything is well with their site.
Going in for counseling
It is imperative to find an objective and professional designer to review your website However, be very careful whom you choose and gather more than one opinion. There are many "professionals" out there who are technically savvy but lack true design talent. A case in point came up recently when an innkeeper asked a group of their peers to review their new site. The site was built by a "professional" design company in our industry but appeared to have been thrown together by an amateur. The images were not even color corrected. Despite this, the reviews from several innkeepers were very positive. Thankfully, the innkeeper requested reviews from several professionals as well.
Fixing the problems
Often times a website can simply be 'tweaked a bit' to make it more presentable. Replacing pen and ink drawings with high quality photos, removing cute little web graphics which don't match the site and cutting out half the text is a good place to start. Rethinking your site and trying to focus your pages will generally yield good results.
Here is an example of a site an innkeeper fixed up after our review at a recent association meeting:
The advice we gave to the innkeeper was to focus more on the wonderful view from his inn rather than the leopard graphic. As we were looking through his site, we found this wonderful view shot on one of his internal pages. He then told us this incredible picture was the view from his deck! Amazing! This is what sells - not logos (even though the leopard logo was a very well done icon.) We made a few other suggestions such as adding more pictures to the front page, moving the navigation to the bottom and including contact information. These simple little changes yielded many positive results. Now, the first impression of his inn is no longer the leopard graphic but the view you will enjoy when visiting his inn. That's an important change which took very little effort and can easily increase reservations.
Like a house with a bad foundation, it's often less expensive and more productive to simply tear down the old website and start over. I know some innkeepers don't like to hear this, but the effect can be dramatic and pay for itself with only a couple new reservations.
I've listed below some sample sites showing both the before and after. We chose sites that began decently enough and could have improved with a little effort, but for the same amount of money were transformed. You can see them at:
Your perfect match
One of the most surprising aspects of many websites we review is they rarely reflect the beauty and individuality of the inn. We have spoken to innkeepers about the unique aspects of their inn, looked at their very professional brochure and then were astounded by a website completely lacking in professionalism. Poor communication with the designer, hiring someone with little design talent (despite their technical expertise), or even doing their own design work are often all contributing factors which can lead to failure.
Making a list
Sit down for five minutes with a pen and paper (or computer) and write about your inn. List your main selling points, what makes your inn and area so special, and what you have to offer. When you are done, decide on the theme of your message and make three to five major points. This should be the basis for your website. Keep in mind that it doesn't need to be a novel. I recently looked at a 15-20 page Bed and Breakfast website and then looked at their simple tri-fold brochure. I had to wonder how their guests would feel if they handed them a 20 page brochure on their inn. If you wouldn't do that in print, why do it electronically?
Presenting your best side
Often I find that an inn has an incredible view of their area with nary a photo of the exhilarating view anywhere on the site. Likewise, they will often include a pen and ink or other unattractive photo when they live in a region full of wonderful area attractions. A collage on the home page such as the one at http://www.imnahariverinn.com is a simple way to sell both your inn and your area.
You have a screen size of about half a sheet of paper to make your first impression and sell that potential guest. Why then would you fill it with pen and ink images, logos, or unnecessary text when that space is so valuable? If a picture is worth a thousands words, then use your best photos at the top of your home page and sell what you have. A good example of making a lasting first impression can be found at: http://www.washingtonbedandbreakfast.org
Seeking professional help
It is the rare innkeeper who can create a website with a truly professional look. If you are one of those innkeepers, congratulations. If not, may I suggest you find a professional web designer within the B&B industry. The cost of a top quality website is equal to the money made on only a handful of reservations. With this in mind, why would you settle for anything less when your website is the hub of all your marketing efforts. Truly, this is not the place to skimp and pinch pennies as it can either cost you thousands in lost reservations or make you a bundle. Perhaps it's time to send that old website packing and start looking for one you can live with!