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Hospitality Insights

The Future of Hotel Booking Engines

19 March 2019


We actually had our own booking engine once upon a time. It was called bookitwith and was, in many ways, ahead of its time in 2012. It was the first responsive booking engine on the market that had a deep integration with Google Analytics. Since putting the booking engine on hold to pursue the marketing side of the direct booking conundrum, Umi has worked on around 200 websites and integrated all sorts of systems and booking engines; at an educated guess, I believe there may be up to 40 different third-party software integrations that we have completed over the last few years.

Flaws in Booking Engines

It has allowed us to get up close and personal with almost every booking engine on the market through tracking conversion rate across and ultimately seeing how the technology has evolved over time. We have seen all sorts of booking engines over the years, from onsite booking matrixes, AI recommender engines, hosted pages on SynXis, WordPress plugins, responsive templates from Siteminder and even the offering now that they have some skin in the direct booking game with booking suite.

Each has many different benefits and address different segments of the hotel market but ultimately they all approach implementation in a similar way, which is a slightly more flowery version of:

“We will get our development team to put our logo, navigation menu and colours on it”

Almost all of them have a standard template that is retrospectively branded. The booking engine providers then optimise these templates over time based on network-wide analytics through changing the UI, adjusting search functionality and rolling out global updates. As such, the conversion rate of the standardised template can be improved over time and adapt to changing market needs. Sounds good right? Yes, however, this approach does have one fatal flaw; it assumes that all guests use booking engines in the same way. It assumes the hostel booker is going to require the same user journey as the Ritz-goer.

Templates to Bespoke

The hotel marketing world is now very much in tune with the benefits of having a bespoke website that isn’t from a standardised template. The hoteliers and direct marketers that are serious about owning the user journey are now using bespoke websites as a central hub for all marketing activities; from PR, PPC landing pages, data collection, dynamic personalisation, cross-selling etc. So, with this in the front of our mind, let’s ask ourselves “why are we still passing our refined, personalised and conditioned website traffic back over to standardised, de-personalised template which has our logo on it and is the same for everyone?”

This is not meant to be a trick question. For pretty much all hotels, it is highly unrealistic to think that you can create an entire booking engine with your own personalised UI and UX purely for your own use; the costs would be far too high to justify the ROI. Indeed, the barriers to entry in the booking engine marketing have been significant for years, primarily down to the unenviable requirement to integrate into a plethora of (sometimes archaic) PMSs. This was, in fact, the primary reason why our own Bookitwith engine was shelved a few years ago in favour of pursuing digital marketing activities.

Open API Distribution

What if I were to tell you that the booking engine market has recently had it’s barrier-to-entry reduced by (what I am guessing) is around 90% of previous market entry rates. The cost of development to create a complete booking experience is now significantly lower thanks to some specialised technology being released in the industry. Hotel distribution systems like with open APIs have completely changed the hotel booking engine game in our opinion and we’re finally getting to a stage in booking technology where cool things can start happening again after 6-7 years of relative stagnation of functionality.

The Game Has Changed

“How” is an even better question and one that we need to get slightly techie for. First, we need to create a new term (you heard it here first guys) the “Headless Booking Engine”.

For the astute among you that read my recent post on decoupled CMS for hotels, a ‘headless’ content management system is one that has no user interface and is characterised by being completely separate or ‘decoupled’ from the website itself. The content is hosted and managed on a database server somewhere completely separate from the front end web application that is consuming the content via API.

So how does this translate into the world of booking engines? It means that we can use distribution systems that already exist to manage all the data movement across the hospitality technology stack, leaving the role of the booking engine to be something that follows three simple steps:

  1. Pulls in inventory via API
  2. Delivers a beautiful front-end experience to the guest
  3. Posts the booking back to the distribution system via Open API

Nowhere in these three steps have we had to manage inventory, do any integrations with a PMS or even built a database of rooms – all we are doing is creating a beautiful user interface layer on a system that already exists.

In the “API Economy” of hotels and travel, the easy movement of information from system to system now sets the UX and UI free from the constraints of the backend system or CMS so we can do away with the templated, one-size-fits-all approach that we have been stuck with for the last decade.

So What’s Next?

At Umi, we’re super excited by the enormous potential this holds and all of the possibilities that come out of using this distribution technology. There are so many different uses for it but for now, Umi is exploring ways to bring in all of this live PMS data into the marketing materials both automatically and in real time. It is through these API-first distribution systems that the hotel sector is going to evolve rapidly both from a booking and marketing perspective.

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