The years of the pandemic have changed the travel industry beyond recognition. Both guests and hoteliers have developed new habits, from focusing on cleanliness to using cutting-edge technologies at all stages of the guest journey. But there have also been unexpected changes in sales channels distribution. Turns out, in 2021, the share of direct booking channels significantly increased, relegating Online Travel Agencies to the background.
This is one of the key findings of the fifth study conducted by HOTREC (the European Association of Hotels, Restaurants, and Cafes). The research examines the growth of distribution channels from 2013 to the pandemic year 2021. Around 3,900 hotels of various types and sizes across Europe took part in the survey. The main goal of the study was to find out which distribution channels have taken over the majority of the market over time, placing the main focus on OTAs.
Download full report here --> European Hotel Distribution Study 2022
What is the biggest mistake hotels are making in the new post-pandemic realities? Which travel meta search turned out to be an absolute leader surpassing TripAdvisor in popularity? Let's find out!
Insight #1: OTAs got a setback by the pandemic, but hotels are in no hurry to become independent
When it comes to distribution, hoteliers have a large variety of online and offline options. According to this study, the broad range of direct sales channels includes phone bookings, e-mail bookings, walk-ins, as well as contact forms, and real-time reservations over the hotel’s website. Among indirect channels, there are Online Travel Agencies, National Tourism Organizations, tour operators, social media, etc.
Before the pandemic, the market share of OTAs in Europe continuously increased from 19.7% in 2013 to 29.2% in 2019. In the meantime, direct bookings experienced a downfall tendency, with a 10 percent decrease from 57.6% in 2013 to 47% in 2019. All this data reflects the habit of relying on OTAs, which was prevalent in the pre-COVID times.
There were indeed strong reasons for this. Travelers have long been accustomed to booking both airplane tickets and accommodation online. In addition, OTAs are optimized for mobile devices, reach a wider audience, help customers compare prices, and are still relevant and growing. This way, hoteliers who felt pressured by growing competition turned to the booking platforms despite high commissions often up to 30%.
However, something has changed during the pandemic. The results for 2021 show that direct bookings increased significantly during these uncertain times. In addition to helping guests save more (and booking directly is much cheaper), direct communication channels gave them reassurance that their specific concerns and questions can be quickly resolved with a simple phone call.
But still, the reliance of hotels on OTAs remains almost the same as it was in 2019, presumably as an old habit. The share of OTAs in 2021 was 30.6%, and direct bookings increased to 55.2%.
Such an increase looks like fertile ground for new opportunities. However, many hotels seem hesitant when it comes to investing more in direct bookings as the main distribution channel. In fact, it does not require large sums.
It only takes a few components to launch a direct sales funnel and keep it active. These include the Booking Engine that displays your inventory, great website UX, and marketing tools to promote your hotel. Further in our analysis, we’ll tell you which tools you exactly need to grow your business with direct sales.
Another major observation is that among all sales channels available to hoteliers nowadays, only direct channels and online travel agents remain relevant and growing across Europe and in Germany in particular. Traditional distribution partners and tourism organizations seem to be ineffective and are not gaining popularity over the years.
Insight #2: Three giants continue to dominate the OTA market, and Airbnb is not one of them
As Online Travel Agencies remain the second most important sales channel, let’s look closer at which platforms exactly are the most influential on the market. According to HOTREC, these are the channels that belong to Booking Holding, Expedia Group, and to a lesser extent HRS, which altogether represent a market share of 90.4%.
Here's what’s new we can learn about the evolution of these platforms:
● Booking Holding (Agoda and Booking.com) turned out to be the leader, which has grown up to 71.2% in 2021 in the OTA market. In 8 years, the positioning of this platform has improved by more than 11 percent. These channels are especially popular in such European countries as Croatia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Norway, and Italy. Their share in local markets ranges from 75% to 84%.
● Expedia (Expedia, Hotels.com, eBookers, Orbitz Travel) is in second place in the ranking. If the channels that belong to Booking Holding managed to grow, Expedia lost a small share of its influence. Before the pandemic, it covered almost 17% which in 2021 fell to 12.5%. The researchers attribute this to the fact that luxury hotels in large cities, which form the basis of the Expedia market, were the most affected during COVID. Still, Expedia channels remain in demand in Sweden, Denmark, Turkey, Finland, and France.
● HRS (HRS, Hotel.de, hotel.ch, Tiscover) is in third place, but the presence of this holding on the market is rapidly decreasing. Despite the fact that in Germany and Austria this sales channel ranks second, in other European countries its share accounts for less than 5%. From the total market share of 16.6% that it had in 2013, it has fallen to a record low of 6.7% in 2021.
While Airbnb is a huge contender for hotels, few of them dare to compete for customers by actually joining this service. At the moment, the relative market share of Airbnb for European hotels is only 1.5%. Thus, we can conclude that this sales channel is not relevant in their case.
At the same time, based on the HOTREC’s data, Booking Holding is the absolute leader nowadays. The majority of the market, and therefore influence, is concentrated in the hands of this platform, which authorizes it to set conditions that are not beneficial for hotels, but which they have no choice but to accept.
Insight #3: Hotels feel pressured by OTA conditions but can’t withdraw from the platforms
The growth of direct booking channels potentially allows hotels to rely less on OTAs and sell their rooms directly. This seems like a favorable time to embark on a direct booking journey and leverage your own website that can bring more profits without any commission. However, the HOTREC’s study revealed that while 55% of hoteliers feel pressured to accept the terms and conditions of the OTA giants, they still rely heavily on them.
Unfavorable cancellation policies, high commissions, and undesirable discounts – all that is frequently imposed on hoteliers against their will. This way, platforms and hotels are at risk of becoming “frenemies” instead of business partners. And the more guests an OTA brings to a hotel, the higher the perceived pressure.
What is more, it seems like not many platforms decided to help hoteliers get through hard times during the pandemic. OTAs increased commission rates for every 4th hotel, and for almost 70% of respondents, the price was not reduced but stayed the same. Most of all, the increase in prices was seen by business hotels and properties with a higher number of bookings.
Nevertheless, every second hotel still spends extra money for better ranking within the OTAs instead of investing in the development of direct distribution channels that are more relevant and profitable. This way, they continue to support a sick system that does not work in their favor.
Hotels should not be aiming to leave OTA completely. It is important to keep a healthy balance, and the more diverse sales channels you have, the better your business will do. But to create that balance, it’s time to spend a little less resources on OTA, and a little more on your own website.
Insight #4: The better the hotel is positioned, the less dependent it is on Booking
Another interesting insight is that dependence on OTAs (and the Booking.com in particular) correlates with such categories as seasonality, star category, size, and type of hotel. In general, 4* and 5* hotels which are open all year round, have more than 50 rooms and are located in big cities turned out to be the least dependent.
In the meantime, the relative market shares of Booking.com are higher for 1* and 2* independent hotels with less than 20 rooms, located in small cities. Apparently, properties from this category are not very competitive and miss out on promoting their USPs, so they mainly rely on OTAs, not on their own resources.
This is not an effective approach. To succeed, hoteliers need to act like those best in class, creating visibility across all distribution channels. Here are the key tools that are a must-have to empower your direct sales channels:
● An easy-to-navigate website that will help customers get to know your property better and encourage them to book. For that to work, you’ll need to determine the unique selling points and share your brand story with the world.
To get a website, you don’t have to learn how to code! Such providers as HotelFriend offer ready-to-use websites with a complete set of integrated features. Just tell your customers everything about your best amenities, services, and package offers, and gain full control over the distribution.
● A Booking Engine that shows room availability and prices, and enables your guests to book quickly and seamlessly. A good Booking Engine is one that works with no disruptions and allows guests to select their preferred room types and enables you to customize it up to your liking.
● An integrated payment gateway that allows travelers to pay for reservations with their credit cards or digital wallets from anywhere, anytime.
● After all the tech components are up and running, it's time to advertise your direct sales channel with marketing tools. Here, you should power your online presence by sending personalized booking offers, creating automated email campaigns, or connecting with guests via a native App.
As of today, relying uniquely on Online Travel Agencies is not enough. You need to promote your direct distribution channels, which are at peak of popularity since 2021. This approach has many advantages. You will be able to develop your own brand, build trusting relationships with customers and increase competitiveness.
Insight #5: More than a half of hotels do not use a channel manager and Google is a new meta-search leader
While the majority of hotels sell their rooms online, not so many of them are using channel managers to streamline this process. Around 37.20% are updating their listings manually online, 27.80% over a hotel software or reservation system, and around 2% over an agency.
This means that more than 50% of hoteliers are missing an opportunity to save time on the repetitive and time-consuming process of updating availability and prices. The latter creates unnecessary risks of data mismatches in listings. Using a channel manager helps hoteliers to optimize online distribution in real-time and reduces any chance of overbookings.
Another trend of the year 2021, which this study helped to reveal, is that Google Hotel Ads has become a new hotel metasearch leader. To speak in simple words, let's explain what a hotel metasearch engine is. Hotel metasearch is a marketing platform that helps users compare hotel prices on accommodation from different sources across the web.
Until recently, the most popular platforms of this type were TripAdvisor and Trivago. But in 2021, Google took 71% of the usage share. It is followed by TripAdvisor which has a usage share of 57% and Trivago which accounts for 44%.
Metasearch is considered to be another distribution channel that helps hoteliers get more direct bookings. In addition, such platforms also work great for marketing and promotion. According to HOTREC, metasearch was not the most common channel in 2013, but in 2021, around 80% of respondents know what it is, and 41% actively use it.
Most likely, the increase in the number of direct bookings happened thanks to the growing popularity of this distribution channel, as metasearch engines usually forward users straight to the hotel website. Thus, hotel metasearch provides a real opportunity to compete with OTA. But keep in mind that for this to work, you need to maintain rate parity and have good reviews across the web (including OTAs).
The HOTREC study showed interesting and quite unexpected results and trends that exist today in relation to the distribution of sales channels. Despite all the challenges that the pandemic has brought with it, hotels are now able to focus on promoting direct sources of bookings such as their own websites.
This became possible not just because of the increased trust in direct communication with hotels, but also due to the high popularity of metasearch engines, such as Google Hotel Ads, Tripadvisor, and Trivago. Hotels need to act on this information not only to capitalize more on this trend but to keep this trend going. Creativity, perseverance, and technology for your own sales channel development will help with this.