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Turn Feedback from Online Users into Revenue

Without a doubt, a hotel’s website is one of its most important distribution channels, if not the single most important channel. I’m sure that your web team is constantly working on tweaks for the site, but sometimes the best source of information for how a website can be improved is its users. In this column, I’ll discuss some of the lessons that three hotels learned from a process known as website usability testing. The technique is explained in a tool, available at no charge from the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research: “Does Your Website Meet Potential Customers’ Needs? How to Conduct Usability Tests to Discover the Answer,” by Daphne Jameson, who is a professor at theCornell School of Hotel Administration.

A usability test is a structured format in which people who are not familiar with a website try to find information about the hotel, just as potential customers might. They record how long it takes them to find the information they want — if they can find it — and they make recommendations on what worked well and what didn’t work. Those recommendations can help hotel operators improve the web experience for real customers.

Let’s look at what can be learned about a website from a usability test. Professor Jameson gave a group of Cornell students the assignment of assessing the potential of 30 different hotels as a location for hosting a meeting, based on what could be learned from each hotel’s website. Among the hotels tested were three convention properties, which we’ll call Hotel #1, Hotel #4, and Hotel #29.

As an example, Hotel #1 fared reasonably well, but three “potential customers” nixed Hotel #1 without ever looking at floor plans. They said the website photos did not look enticing, apparently due to low resolution. Hotel #1 scored well with other testers for its logical page structure, depth of information, and an e-events feature that allowed planners to book events online for up to 25 people. Looking at ways to improve the site, they didn’t like having to scroll on many pages and they found some of the PDFs to be awkwardly sized and difficult to read.

In evaluating Hotel #4, the testers found its website confusing, complex, and strewn with irrelevant information, as well as links that did not make sense and a virtual tour that did not work well. Some testers suggested that the website’s color scheme of primary colors seemed to contradict the hotel’s claim of being stylish and elegant. After struggling with a few pages on Hotel #4’s website, a large majority of the testers just gave up.

In contrast, all of the users voted in favor of Hotel #29. The testers were able to move quickly through the pages, never had to scroll down, and could use a handy navigation bar. Information was readily available, including contact names and numbers, the dimensions of function rooms, and catering menus. Even so, Hotel #29 could add a few more photos and provide a way to compare all the function rooms at once.

Hotels can get a fresh perspective of their website from usability testing, just as these three properties did. The takeaways from this sort of user analysis — if then implemented into website design — can lead to immediate and apparent ROI.

What was your first job?
Picking green beans at the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station

Who inspires you?
Anyone who has persevered inthe face of adversity

What are your hobbies?
Bicycle riding and running

What technology excites you?
We live in an age of miraclesthat we can electronically communicate, look up infor-mation, and so forth in a heartbeat. Medical advances are also quite impressive of late.

Words of Wisdom:
Whether you’re speaking of publishing or hospitality the answer is the same, don’t let technology get in the way of being a mensch.

What is one other field that you would like to try?
Professional chef

Who would you invite to lunch?
Mark Twain & Theodore Roosevelt

Top movie/book:
Some Like It Hot

Favorite vacation spot:
New York Adirondacks, but I love the Grand Canyon, Crater lake, Acadia, and the Oregon Coast.

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