Attribute Based Selling: A Primer for Hotels
Attribute Based Selling (ABS) is a term that has been mentioned in conversation, discussed at conferences, and debated seriously for the past five years. It seems though, that we are headed into a new era. With all of the major Western hotel chains beginning to experiment with ABS, it may only be a few years before this pricing model becomes the norm. And really, it just makes sense. It offers guests the ability to personalize – easily – their hotel stay, it generates more money for the hotel, and it provides a better booking experience overall. But what is ABS, and how does it work? More importantly, how much more money could your hotel actually make with this new sales model?
THE PROBLEM WITH ROOM TYPES
ABS solves the issue of limiting guests to preset room types and rate plans.
“Room type limits only exist because computer systems used to have 24 lines of text available on a DOS screen,” says Ian Saxton, Senior Vice President Strategist CRS & PMS at Amadeus. “If a hotel had more than 24 room types, they wouldn’t all be visible on a single screen, making reservations much more difficult.”
But, what’s so wrong with preset room types? Unfortunately, they often lead to frustration on the part of the guest.
ABS is NOT…
Some hoteliers have been led to think that ABS is a new way of upselling add-ons: Champagne in the room, late checkout, faster WiFi, etc. While hotels can add these upsells at the time of booking, they are not attributes that are specific to a room type or rate plan: they’re simply the same ancillaries that have been offered as upsell components for decades and therefore are not part of the ABS model. This means that software that still uses room types and allows for the sale of add-ons is not ABS software.
In today's hotel room distribution, the guest has to read through individual room category descriptions to more fully understand the combination of attributes of each, and then make a single purchasing decision, says Pierre Boettner, Head of Product and Co-Founder, ROOMDEX. Finding a hotel with rooms that suit the guest and priced within their range can require many individual site visits.
“For that reason alone, it should be no surprise that even those guests that book directly, will often use meta search engines or an OTA site for their search,” Boettner adds. “We have often viewed and presented the many sites visited prior to a booking, as indicative of the guest being in the 'dream' phase. I think it is a premature conclusion and am not sure how this was validated - and let's not forget, dreams can also be nightmares.”
But, it can get even worse for the guest.
“Currently, in a world of room types and rate plans, hotels typically sell at the room-type or category level and staff at the hotel assign specific rooms the night before guests arrive,” explains Mike Chuma, Vice President, Marketing & Enablement and Engagement, IDeaS. “This is a one-time, static room assignment process that happens every day. Because the sale of attributes today is usually on an ‘as available’ basis, hotels don’t have to worry about whether they have enough rooms with the requested attributes to meet the demand. ‘As available’ means never having to say you’re sorry.”
HOW ABS WORKS
Instead of offering guests room types to choose from, guests are given the opportunity to build their ideal room by starting with a basic room type and then adding on room attributes at varying price points.
“In the traditional hotel booking process, room rates increase as the supply of specific rooms falls,” Chuma explains. “In an ABS model, attribute prices increase as the supply of specific attributes is reduced. Using ABS, it would be possible for a standard room rate to rise to that of a higher room type if a guest adds in more attributes.”
For example, in our imaginary hotel, Jane Doe would begin by choosing between a queen room ($100), king room ($115), queen suite ($125) or king suite ($145). After choosing her room, she could be offered another attribute for purchase: a view of the courtyard (no upcharge), a view of the pool ($5) or a view of the ocean ($15). Additional attributes that she might be offered include floor level, proximity to the elevators/pool/gym, a shower vs. a soaking tub, etc. As she makes her selections, software automatically finds and assigns Jane to a specific room that contains her specified attributes.
So far, the value of this type of software is that it “makes the buying process not just simpler and pricing more transparent, it avoids false choice paradoxes and instantly increases satisfaction,” Boettner notes.
However, this is not the end of the process. It is just the beginning.
“Just as dynamic pricing is used to optimize revenue, a ‘dynamic room assignment’ approach becomes necessary in an ABS pricing model,” Chuma notes.
Let’s say the software assigns Jane to Room 100. As new bookings are made, the software is continually evaluating the attributes chosen against inventory. Perhaps Room 100 has some additional attributes that Jane was uninterested in paying for (distant from the elevators and an in-room hot tub). If another guest (Jack Smith) is willing to pay for one (or both) of these attributes, the system will automatically reassign Jane to a room that still contains her required attributes and will assign Jack to Room 100. This process can happen as many times as needed to ensure the hotel makes the most money possible per room and to ensure guests don’t feel they overpaid for a room with amenities they’re uninterested in or were stuck with a sub-par room that didn’t fulfill their desire. With ABS, room assignments happen dynamically during shopping rather than as a daily, manual process. Dynamic room assignment is the missing link for how hotels will operationalize guaranteed room attributes.
“Guest expectations are evolving, and the hotel of tomorrow needs to be prepared to meet them,” Chuma says. “The growing challenge facing the industry, on both sides of the front desk, is the lack of control guests have over many aspects of the hotel experience. ABS is the solution to this problem and the future of hotel booking. By embracing a booking strategy that offers room prices based on individual elements, guests are offered freedom of choice and hotels are awarded higher revenue.”
But how much revenue will hotels really make via this new sales format?
According to Saxton, hoteliers could increase room revenue 2% to 8% with most vendors, including Amadeus, quoting hoteliers at an average increase of 4%.
And while it may not be an apples-to-apples comparison, Chuma recommends that hoteliers look to the airline industry for an idea of how this new sales method could improve revenue among hotels.
“According to the Department of Transportation’s 2019 Airline Baggage Fee report, domestic air-travel carriers collected nearly $5 billion in baggage fees in 2018, up from $1.1 billion in 2008,” Chuma says. “And checked luggage is just one sellable attribute of a flight booking.”
As explained, the ABS model allows guests to pick and choose which room attributes they are willing to pay for in order to build their perfect room. However, some in the industry worry that consumers will view this as upselling.
“I am annoyed when a brand constantly tries to upsell me,” says Markus Mueller, Managing Director of Gauvendi.
To address this problem, Gauvendi created predictive bundling software that asks guests to select the room attributes that are most important to them, and it then returns to them a set of matches (or Room Feature Combinations) from which they can choose. The matches will tell the guest how close to a 100% match is available. On the backend, the hotel has prearranged the price for each attribute to help determine the optimal price for the room, but it doesn’t show those prices to the guest. Why?
“We noticed with guest purchasing behavior that they don’t think about the value of just one feature, they think about the value of the whole room itself,” he notes. “Hotels shouldn’t be compared to airlines. We aren’t selling a commodity, we’re selling experiences.”
By pricing each room differently, according to its room features, hotels can go from selling a few different price points to selling dozens or even hundreds of different price points each day. According to Gauvendi, more product price points lead to more sales and conversion. How much more? As much as 12% more room revenue per booking. Of course, consumers are not overwhelmed by all of these choices because its predictive bundling software only shows them the rooms that most closely match what they’re interested in.
Additionally, this way of marketing allows the hotel to constantly change the way the room is marketed to guests. This allows the hotel to try “different baits.” For instance, the software may market the same room as a Nature-view Suite and as a Junior Suite. Even though it is the same room, the first moniker might appeal to a couple on a honeymoon while the second might appeal to a guest looking for additional space to spread out and work during a business trip.
IS ABS THE FUTURE?
While ABS certainly seems to offer hoteliers some excellent opportunities for revenue generation, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution for the hotel industry.
“We firmly believe that this is not appropriate for every hotel,” Saxton says. “An economy hotel at the side of the highway in Idaho with a ‘view’ of the highway or of the parking lot is not going to get a lot of value out of this. But luxury hotels, city center hotels, etc. will see real value, and they’re the ones who should be evaluating its potential.”
With that being said, however, all of the major Western hotel chains have begun to experiment with ABS.
“We expect to see ABS become more popular on brand.com websites and likely adopted into this sales channel within the next 18 months to 2-year timeframe,” he notes. “But for the industry as a whole to completely switch over to this way of selling things will likely take 4 to 5 years.”
One reason for this is due to the amount of change that will be required among back-office systems. For example, hoteliers will first need to update the way their Central Reservation System (CRS) and Property Management System (PMS) work. Currently, most hotels store inventory in their PMS and send availability to the CRS, Chuma says. But for ABS to work, the CRS will need to hold an image of the inventory and it will need to be the place where the dynamic room assignments take place.
“For some larger brands, a CRS with an attribute model will be a long development cycle,” Chuma adds. “Retrofitting an existing CRS to make it attribute aware is likely to be significantly more costly and time consuming than it seems. We believe the early adopter brands will use third-party systems that have already been built or are in the later stages of construction.”
To further complicate things: Not all distribution systems between the CRS and the traveler will be able to handle an attribute model. So, the CRS will have to retain a measure of room-type and rate-plan inventory to feed to OTAs, wholesalers and others who like to cache their availability, Chuma states.
ABS has matured and here is why this version is the next-best thing for hoteliers.
“Driven by the retailing industry, customers are increasingly seeking a more personalized travel experience that goes far beyond room-based attributes (such as view, size, high floor, away from the elevator etc). While it's great to give guests choices, narrowing those choices to room-only attributes reduces guest satisfaction and limits revenue generation,” says Frank Trampert, SVP and Global Managing Director Commercial for Sabre Hospitality Solutions. “In the end, it’s just a room unit.”
He proposes a different idea, one that Sabre calls “Intelligent Retailing.” By using predictive analytics to understand potential guest booking behaviors and patterns, hotels can return a unique offering or experience to the customer that is not tied to or limited to a room reservation.
“This enables a transformation into an eCommerce model of inventory (or infinite number of SKUs) that sells living spaces, working spaces, services, policies, experiences, merchandise and more,” he explains.
What are the benefits of this new way of thinking? Trampert points to higher guest satisfaction and retention, greater top-line revenue, and strategic differentiation from competitors.
“Offering products, services, and experiences independent of the room provides hoteliers multiple opportunities to gain incremental revenue all along a traveller’s journey, from pre-stay to post-stay,” he explains. “In comparison, the benefits of attribute-based room sales are limited to generating some incremental revenue for hoteliers and a few additional choices for guests.”
However, making this switch to intelligent retailing will not be easy.
“A holistic retailing model goes well beyond the room and requires a fundamental change in the way hoteliers think about and approach how they do business,” Tampert adds. “It will also demand significant mindset (from room only to ecommerce everything) and technological changes.”
The pandemic may have already begun to push hotels in this direction. With so many hoteliers inventing new revenue streams during the pandemic, this could be the next logical step forward in hotel retailing, distribution and fulfilment.