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6 Ways to Win Loyalty in a World of OTAs

Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) are a fact of life for many hoteliers. OTAs have seemingly endless resources for user design and web marketing, and therefore have tremendous reach. Many small and independent operators rely on OTAs for a significant portion of their bookings. Customers like them for their aggregated search and modern interfaces, their functionality, and increasingly, for their loyalty programs.

Despite consumer appeal, there are challenges for hotels in partnering with OTAs. One revenue manager I know tosses out obscenities whenever I bring up the topic. OTAs will not share customer information and guests may experience suboptimal customer service when they find their booking is actually with an OTA instead of the property. OTAs sometimes use heavy-handed practices like penalizing properties in search results for submitting subpar photos or not adhering to rate parity. And, of course, OTAs are very expensive.

Most hotels will never entirely get away from using OTAs in their distribution strategy. One way to level the playing field is to convert OTA guests to direct guests. In an increasingly crowded online marketplace, acquiring loyalty is paramount.  Here are seven strategies that can help build loyalty and ultimately attract direct bookings.

1. Prioritize a modern and fresh booking experience. This is the foundation. Red Lion Hotels ( just underwent a redesign of its site to modernize the look and feel, and emphasize its loyalty program. If you do not have a well designed booking experience, start here.

2. Develop a responsive or mobile-optimized website. In a Google study, 48% of users said that websites not optimized for mobile give the impression the business doesn’t care. Guests expect brands to keep up with technology and the lack of a solid mobile experience is a major turnoff. Consider a mobile app if you have a business case for one, but know that an app may not make sense for small- to medium-sized operators. Instead focus on responsive design, which uses a fluid grid, flexible images and cascading style sheets to optimize content across a range of devices.  

3. Offer benefits for booking direct. Although you may need to maintain rate parity with the OTAs, you can offer guests that book direct other incentives. Included WiFi, room upgrades, complimentary passes to local attractions and free meals are all incentives that guests value. Most of these will be cheaper to your operation than paying the OTA fee.

4. Build your email list. One of the oldest forms of digital marketing is still one of the most important. Even with the inbox explosion of email marketing, loyal guests still like to see emails with specials, updates and other content. Build your email list and improve your email marketing sophistication or outsource this function to a proven database marketing provider. Ryan Solutions ( and Digital Alchemy ( offer reasonably priced solutions.

5. Leverage content marketing. Despite rumors to the contrary, content marketing is not dead. Combine your content marketing strategy with your social strategy. Encourage user-generated content (UGC) as a complement to the glossy photos of your property. Third-party sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp will continue to push UGC and customers now expect it.

6. Create “Best Guest” strategies. The future of loyalty is moving away from ubiquitous points systems to strategies that uniquely reward your ‘best guests’ through exclusive experiences and unexpected benefits. The key to a successful best-guest program is knowing more about your guest than your competitor. If you know a particularly loyal guest is a fan of BMW, a branded hat left in his room is significantly more impactful than a cheese plate. Bespoke experiences and personalized recognition will become differentiators. Give your guests an incentive to self-maintain their profile information with you.

In the end, building guest loyalty comes down to doing all the little things right across each guest touch point. Build trust, personalize the experience, promote authenticity and make smart investments in technology and marketing.

What was your first job?
Forklift driver in a beer warehouse.

What are your hobbies?
Skiing, motorcycling and
writing fiction.

What technology excites you?
I like technology that makes marketing easier but also has a direct impact and benefit to the guest. Right now, I’m excited about responsive design. It’s come a long way, costs are coming down and is making its way into ecommerce. Responsive is Google friendly, consumer friendly and solves a problem for both guests and marketers.

Sage Advice:
Authenticity and transparency matter now and will become more important. Look for ways to build authentic relationships with guests.

What is one other job that you would like to try?
Most of my career has been spent building technology solutions to support marketers. I’d like to be accountable for marketing and driving revenue.

What is one goal that you would like to achieve in your life?
Start and run my own company.

What is your favorite movie?
Lost in Translation written and directed by Sophia Coppola, for its commentary on surviving in a foreign culture. I lived in India for a year and that movie resonates in a powerful way.

John Lilley, principal of John Lilley Consulting, LLC, has fourteen years of leadership experience in digital marketing and technology. Eight of those years are in the travel and ski resort segment, including the role of vice president of digital applications for Vail Resorts, where he led the development of the Webby Award winning EpicMix social marketing platform. He is currently advising Aspen Skiing Company on ecommerce and digital strategy.

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