I didn’t know what title to use for this column. I was going to go with ‘Travel Recovery: What product owners can do to increase occupancy’ which sounds rather boring. There are various points I need to touch on, all of which will affect the number of bums in beds as we try and recover from the pandemic.
We’re all talking about tourism recovery in the wake of the pandemic. Arrivals are increasing, but occupancy levels are not yet back to where they were in 2019. You would think everyone would be doing everything possible to attract business.
WTM Africa, Indaba, We Are Africa and the virtual show OurAfrica have all highlighted that there is massive pent-up demand. Those agents and DMCs that survived the pandemic (both local and international) are back at their desks and ready to book.
The question is, are you ready for them?
From my perspective as a small inbound operator and DMC, some suppliers are ready and a joy to work with. Others, not so much.
Let me give some examples by asking some rather direct questions:
Where are your 2023 rates?
Traditionally, next year’s rates were brought out at Indaba in the first week of May. I’ve always thought that was a bit too late, as by May 2022 we’ve already had lots of enquiries for 2023. But now we’re into June, and some suppliers have still not published their 2023 rates! Where have you been? No agent likes uncertainty when they quote. How can we quote your product and sell packages for 2023 if you haven’t issued rates yet? Yes, the world is volatile and uncertain, and who knows what the fuel price will be next year? But you can make it less uncertain by telling us what your room rate will be next year.
Why are you still working from home?
When an agent or DMC phones to check availability or make a provisional booking, we need to be able to get hold of you. The pandemic is no longer a public health emergency. “We’re still working from home, sorry” doesn’t cut it any more. I know remote working is all the rage now, but perhaps you need to check whether your staff are actually putting in the work, or watching Netflix and only answering the boss.
Why do you take 3 days to answer us?
If we email you about availability or request a quote or provisional booking, we have a client waiting to hear back from us. We need a quick response. We don’t have three days to wait. If your reservations team takes several days to get back to us, that booking is long gone.
Why do you undercut the trade?
For many suppliers, the trade still puts the most bums in beds. Even if a supplier only gets 40% of their bookings from the trade, they can’t afford to throw their trade partners under the bus by undercutting their published rack rates. If you offer direct booking specials on your website or via an online booking platform that are not available to the trade and undercut your loyal agents, that makes it impossible for the trade to keep supporting you. Customers compare rates. If they find a cheaper price direct or via an online OTA with a not-so-genius loyalty discount, they will ditch the agent and book direct. Lucky for you in the short term, but terrible business strategy in the long term.
When this happens to us, we usually take it up with the supplier and let them know we cannot support them if they undercut us on other platforms or their own website, because it leaves us with egg on our face. It looks like we overcharged the client and our reputation suffers. If the supplier expects us to sell at the rack rate (or BAR), we need them to ensure all channels use the same rack rate or BAR. Sadly, there are some suppliers we no longer support because they kept doing this and we can’t compete with OTAs selling the same property at close to our STO rate.
As a side comment on this point, another benefit of supporting the local trade (agents and DMCs) is that it supports the local tourism economy and value chain, rather than lining the pockets of big online OTAs in other countries. I’m not saying don’t use them at all. I’m saying make an effort to protect rate parity, and be careful of loyalty discounts that undercut your loyal trade partners. They’re not as genius as one might think.
When will your COVID specials end?
Related to my previous point, COVID specials with reduced commissions were a pain for the trade. A necessary evil perhaps. We understand desperate times called for desperate measures. But it’s time to end them. As I pointed out before, special offers and discounts that are not commissionable or include only 10% commission to the trade, are bad for business from the trade’s perspective. Rather offer a Pay Stay special and honour the agreed commission level. Keep your trade partners happy.
Is your product up to scratch?
My last point is based on feedback from some of our clients. Wear the shoe if it fits: It is time to get your product back up to scratch. If you retrenched staff during lockdown, it is time to re-employ them. Don’t expect 30 people to do the same job as 60 people did before. Your guests will notice. If you had to cut back on maintenance to survive financially, now is the time to catch up. Guests have some understanding of the impact of the pandemic on establishments, but there is no excuse for poor service or dirty rooms. Clean the pool. Trim the bushes. Replace the linen. Stock the minibar. Service the vehicles.
I know most suppliers are not guilty of any of these things, but I mention them because we’ve noticed these things too often in the last few months. If any of these points apply to you, addressing them will help with recovery. It is always a joy to work with a quality product who appreciate our business and don’t undercut us. We love working with a responsive reservations office and marketing team who send us their 2023 rates long before we have to ask for them.