Definitely Doug 9/15/23: Experience Matters!

Hotels are usually the first thing a traveler books within a destination. And hotels usually know that destination better than anyone else (or any website) a guest might consult. But are hotels connecting the dots?

Aside from a few destination resorts, people rarely travel just to stay in hotels. Rather, they stay in hotels because they are traveling, whether for business, leisure, or family. Available spending data suggests that for leisure trips, hotels are secondary to experiences. By my calculation, more money is spent by leisure travelers globally on local experiences than on hotels.

The numbers are staggering: a Skift study estimates that local experiences will generate $252 billion worldwide revenue in 2024, which compares to estimated global hotel revenue of around $400 billion (maybe half of that being leisure). Most experiences offer commissions of 10% to 40% to booking agents, which can include hotels. And while intermediaries may take a piece of that commission, it is common for hotels that sell third-party experiences to earn an average of at least 10%, above and beyond any costs; in many cases it can be more. If hotels could capture just 25% of local experience bookings of leisure travelers, that would result in $6.3 billion in additional profit in an industry that earns, globally, around $40 billion a year. That would basically be found money, and it’s not chump change.

What do I mean by local experiences? They include almost anything that a traveler might do while visiting a destination: sightseeing tours, attractions, historical sites, concerts, sporting events, dining, amusement parks, water parks, zoos, aquariums, fishing charters, golf, bike or boat rentals, cooking classes, cultural activities, classes, spa treatments, shopping, and many more.

While travel (and especially leisure travel) generates bookings for experience operators, experiences can also generate bookings for hotels. Taylor Swift’s The Eras Tour is estimated to have generated $208 million in hotel revenue across 53 shows in 20 cities – and those Swifties would not have booked hotels if not for the concerts. Concerts, sporting events, and festivals are often the main reason for travel. Hotels that fully connect with the experience ecosystem can reach this audience much better than those that do not.

Why should almost every hotel incorporate local experiences into their guest journey?

The first reason is that hotels have the right timing and location. Most experiences (operators estimate 75-90%, but it varies based on the type of experience) are booked only one to two days in advance, meaning by guests who are at, or about to arrive at, the hotel. One or two might be important enough to book well in advance, but far more tend to be spur-of-the-moment, especially those that are weather-dependent. The most common booking window occurs right when the guest is expecting communications from the hotel (just before arrival or during the stay) and has reason to read them. Of the remaining 10-25%, all but a few are booked after the hotel room is confirmed, but before arrival.

During these time periods, the hotel has access to the guest through text messages and/or email. This is true in most cases even for bookings made through Online Travel Agents (OTAs), where you generally get a proxy email address and often a phone number. The guest has already expressed confidence in the hotel by booking it. He or she may reasonably assume that the hotel is knowledgeable about experiences – especially ones in the hotel’s immediate area.

The second reason is the importance of experiences. According to a 2014 study

 by Eventbrite and Harris Interactive, 78% of millennials choose to spend on experiences over products. While that study was limited in scope and is now somewhat dated, it is indicative of trends that have continued – and that are not limited to millennials. Experiences matter: they are often the very reason for travel!

The third reason is that others, often not as well placed as hotels to do it well, are successfully selling experiences. Some OTAs and metasearch providers have added experiences, as have airlines. Results vary, but many have found excellent results. Viator, the unit of Tripadvisor that sells experiences both directly to consumers and through third parties, accounted for 43% of TripAdvisor’s revenue in the second quarter, up from 32% just one year earlier. And unlike the hotel, most of these sites lack any specific local knowledge of the hotel’s immediate neighborhood. They typically have no direct communication link to the guest during the booking window, either. These factors suggest that hotels should be able to do much better.

The fourth reason is that adding local experiences can be very easy. To be sure, depending on your objectives and current technology environment, it’s possible for it to be complicated. But if you keep it simple and don’t have a lot of guest-facing technology that has to be integrated, it can be minimal effort and zero cost (and while integration can make the solution more powerful, it usually isn’t essential). The proof of this is that many short-term rental owners are already marketing local experiences, using one of several local experience booking platforms that have targeted them. Many of these same platforms are now working with hotels as well.

If hotels and other accommodation providers don’t provide good access to experiences, their guests will simply go to Google, and probably end up booking on Viator, GetYourGuide, or one of hundreds of other aggregators that advertise on Google. That leaves the aggregator to collect the entire commission, at least part of which could have gone to the hotel.

In addition to commissions and referral fees, hotels that have incorporated local experience bookings into their guest technology have found improved online reviews, better guest satisfaction, more loyalty program signups, and a reduced staff workload for concierges and front desk staff. Providing the guest with a single place to research and book all their local experiences enables higher guest satisfaction vs. having to research and book each one separately – and the benefit accrues to whoever enabled that. Even something as simple as a referral link from the hotel’s website or app can earn commissions and happy guests.

Do experience bookings make sense for every hotel? There are probably a few where they do not, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Some luxury hotels, and especially resorts, may prefer to keep their guests captive with on-property experiences, but most cannot. Select service hotels and even many full-service hotels that have no concierge can benefit without spending any money by choosing a commission-only model. Only if your hotel is located somewhere where there is nothing anyone wants to experience, or if it caters almost exclusively to overnight stopover traffic, might it not be worth the effort.

This blog, and my next one (it’s too much material for one week!) will help hotels understand the landscape of technology to integrate local experiences into the guest journey, and to evaluate vendors who can support the process. Part One, this week, will provide an overview of what is a complex ecosystem of interconnecting vendors that you may need to deal with directly or indirectly. I will start by reviewing the various business models that determine how costs and revenues are allocated between hotels and various vendors. I will also address a question that can be critical for hotels that are franchised and/or have third-party management companies, which is how the benefits might end up being shared (or not) among the owner, the manager, and the franchisor.

In my next installment, scheduled for September 29, I will dive deeply into the questions you should ask of vendors, based on your objectives, location, type of hotel, and other factors. Experiences represent an evolving industry with hundreds of technology providers (both cooperative and competitive) and an almost infinite number of possible solutions, each with their own benefits and pitfalls. I can’t say which one will be best for you, but I can try to help you ask the right questions.

For this article and the next one, I am deeply indebted to a total of 22 companies and the executives they provided for interviews. Many work directly with hotels (B2B model). Some are one or two levels removed from hotels but are nevertheless key players in the ecosystem (B2B2C or even B2B2B2C), and some also have consumer-facing sites (B2C). Several use more than one of these models, for example selling direct to consumer, through aggregators, and through experience integrators who sell to hotels. Some focus entirely on local, third-party experiences, while others integrate multiple aspects of the guest journey, often including on-property experiences. Some are mature companies, some emerging, still others are startups with an interesting angle. They’re all valid approaches, but only certain combinations will make sense for any given hotel or hotel group.

My deepest thanks to the executives who educated me on this complex topic, from AlliantsAmadeus DiscoverBookingWhizzCraveE-DestinAccessFareHarborGettinLocalGetYourGuideHolibobHoustriSeatziVeewLokaleeMountNeorchaOccasionGeniusOwnOutdoorsPlanadayRestaurentRunnr.aiTravel Curious, and UrVenue. There are far more companies operating in the space that I couldn’t include, but I think I got enough different perspectives to cover the market well.

The Technology Landscape for Local Experiences

Technology for experiences is just as complex (probably even more so) than distribution technology for hotels, with lots of intermediaries and end products each playing roles that are sometimes distinct but often overlapping. It is easiest to grasp if we look at three principal categories, recognizing that some vendors participate in more than one of them.

Supply. The supply of experiences originates with hundreds of thousands of experience operators. While reliable statistics are hard to come by, experts estimate that 60% to 70% of them still have no automation; they accept bookings by phone and perhaps email or text, recorded with pencil and paper. This percentage is dropping rapidly, however, and is much higher among the larger operators, meaning that the unautomated percentage of bookings is much lower.

Experience operators who have automated typically use commercial software (I will call them experience management systems) to manage their inventory and rates and to distribute it to the world, similar to the role of the hotel Property Management System (PMS) and/or Central Reservation System (CRS) for hotels. BókunFareharborMountPeekRezdyXola, and many others provide activity operating software, while Ticketmaster and others provide systems for theaters, stadiums, and similar venues. OpenTableSevenRooms, and Tock provide reservation management software for restaurants, and Restaurent for private dining experiences. Some specialized experiences, notably spa and wellness, have their own set of vendors, such as AgilysysBook4timeReservation Assistant, and Spasoft.

Most experience operators are too small to manage global distribution, so aggregators bring together supply from tens or hundreds of thousands of operators, and then market it through consumer websites or demand partners. Aggregators roughly parallel the role of an OTA with an affiliate network for hotels, such as Expedia. In the experiences space, some key aggregators include GetYourGuideHolibobKlookTiqets, and Viator; ticket resellers such as Stubhub also act as aggregators.

One limitation of aggregators is that they can only handle “simple” experiences, where (for example) the only variables are the size of the party (and perhaps ages, if relevant for pricing), the date, and the time. Complex experiences that may require assembling specific qualified staff, allocating space or rooms, or assembling equipment are usually out of scope. This means that fishing charters, spa treatments, and private tours (which require a trained guide, a properly sized vehicle, a custom pickup location, and perhaps special dietary or accessibility requirements) are not available through most or all aggregators.

Demand. Aggregators and operators distribute their products broadly into a range of OTAs, airlines, hotels, and others. For hotels, the ability to capture demand for experiences is based on the software they can embed within their website or mobile app, as well as software they use to communicate its availability to guests. Experience integration software providers can typically fill both needs, although some hotels may choose to meet the communications requirements using existing systems instead.
Experience integration software handles the user interface through which the guest selects and books experiences. For most hotels and hotel groups, this is the category of vendor they will contract with to offer experiences. There is no single model, but functionality may include any or all of:

  • Curation of experiences that are relevant to the hotel, so that guests see only “approved” experiences, and the hotel’s preferred experiences get better placement.
  • Display of key descriptive information, photos, and reviews.
  • Personalization of suggested experiences for a particular guest or party. This may be based on specific preferences known or inferred about a guest. For an anonymous guest or one with no history, it may be based on characteristics of the booking (dates, party size, geographic origin, booking channel, and other factors) that may suggest certain experiences over others.
  • Selection and confirmation of experiences. This may be a native booking function within the software via connection to the operator’s system or aggregator, a deep link to a third-party operator or aggregator site to book there, or may be controlled by a third-party operator or aggregator within an iframe on the hotel site or app. It is not uncommon for the approach to differ by type of experience, since some experiences are challenging to handle natively and/or may be controlled by a company that does not support all options.
  • Accumulation of experiences into a shopping cart prior to confirmation and payment.
  • Entry of payment, if required. This may be handled on an experience-by-experience basis by the operator or aggregator (if a deep link or iframe was used to book it), or the experience integration software may handle it for the entire shopping cart, using its own payment processor.
  • Provision of confirmation details and documentation such as tickets or liability waivers.
  • Management of the guest’s experience itinerary, so that the guest and/or hotel can view everything they have booked during their stay, in chronological order.
  • Search engine optimization, particularly to position the hotel favorably to travelers drawn to a major event or close to a major attraction.

Most but not all of the companies I spoke with offer experience integration software. Companies to consider include AlliantsAmadeus DiscoverBookingWhizzCraveE-DestinAccessExploraboutGettinLocalHoustriSeatziVeewLokaleeMountNeorchaOccasionGeniusOwnOutdoorsPlanadayRoomnetRunnr.aiTravel Curious, and UrVenue. Some have extensive offerings, some are quite limited but still may meet the needs of some hotels. Prior to the pandemic, experience integration was usually handled by staff-facing software (most commonly a hotel concierge system), but in recent years the guest-facing approach has dominated, a reflection of both guest preferences to use digital options in many cases, reduced use of concierges by hotels that still have them, and the addition of local experiences to hotels that never had a concierge, as well as by short-term rental hosts.

Another model has the potential to generate additional room nights for hotels. An experience integration software company can develop (or partner with) a club or organization whose members have interests in specific types of experiences (such as outdoor adventure, golf, fishing, etc.). Not only can they book the experiences, but they can highlight their partner hotels to their members to generate room bookings. This can work when the activity is the main reason for travel and is selected before the hotel. Mount has developed such a program and has been using it with customers in the short-term rental segment, and is just now starting to roll it out to hotels. Once a member settles on a specific experience, Mount can direct them to nearby hotels that use their software. And while the guest may have booked the “anchor” experience before choosing the hotel, they may then use the hotel’s experience platform to book additional experiences on the same trip. In this case, the hotel gets additional room revenue and also commissions on most of the experiences.

Intermediaries. Various intermediaries may handle functions such as connectivity, channel management, and payment. I will not cover these here, as they are typically contracted by the experience integration company; hotels rarely need to deal with them directly, at least when they are getting started.

One important type of intermediary provides event-related content, identifying and documenting short-term events such as concerts, sporting events, special museum exhibits, street fests, fairs, and the like. Because these are specific to locations and dates, transitory, and subject to continual change, it is almost impossible for anyone to keep track of these unless they are doing it for a large number of paid clients, with automation tools and staff. The only company I have found doing this within the experience ecosystem for hotels is OccasionGenius. Two others, PredictHQ and Simpleview, can provide event intelligence, but do so for other purposes (although if a hotel is already getting this data, they may be able to incorporate it).

Some intermediaries, such as Crave, provide professionally written descriptions of experiences that may be written more in a style that aligns with the hotel’s. This approach can enable a hotel to present local experiences in a consistent editorial voice targeted at an audience, as opposed to using only the operator’s standard language, which may be overhyped or written for an inappropriate audience or context.

Business Models

Most experience operators pay commissions for bookings. These can range from a modest 10% or so up to 40% or more, and they are usually available to anyone who can deliver a booking. The primary exception is restaurants, where commissions are rare (although in some cases you may be able to get a referral fee or private deal). Some people don’t consider restaurants to be an “experience,” but others do (it probably depends whether you are a person who lives to eat, or one who eats to live). I have included them here because they are often supported by experience software, and because they are often part of the planning process for a trip.

A few experience software providers negotiate alternative deals with specific operators, with reduced or no commission. GettinLocal, for example, works directly with key experience operators to get special considerations like skip-the-line, buy-one-get-one, or priority seating. These can then be offered exclusively to guests of the company’s subscribed hotels in the destination, providing a benefit not available to the general public.

Aggregators typically take a commission (standard or negotiated) from the experience operator. If they sell the experience on their own B2C site, then they keep it all; if they sell through a partner (such as a hotel or an experience software integrator that works with hotels), then the commission is split between the aggregator and partner.

Experience software integrators who sell to hotels have many different models for making money and providing benefits to their customers. Some charge a monthly Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) fee and pass through all commissions and referral fees to the hotel. Some provide the software for free but split the commissions. Some, like GettinLocal mentioned above, may forego commissions in favor of special deals designed to increase loyalty. Some charge a fee for incremental bookings or stay extensions at the hotel (particularly those driven by events), or for loyalty program signups.

Many providers will work with the hotel to meet their particular preferences, such as to avoid fixed costs or to maximize commissions. A few experience software providers are also starting to charge experience operators for better positioning, or even just for inclusion. No single model dominates, and it will take some time before norms emerge.

Many experience software providers will also include experiences that require neither reservations nor payment of fees, but that (like restaurants or free museums) may still be important to hotel guests. While they cannot monetize this directly, they view it as necessary for their hotel customers.

Who Makes the Money?

There is a significant opportunity for hotels to monetize local experiences, but a horse race is developing between brands, managers, and owners. At first blush, it’s a simple question: whoever contracts with the experience software platform will pay any associated fees and earn any commissions or referral fees due from the platform.

This means that the revenue from a brand-sponsored initiative, such as one that might be embedded in a brand app, goes entirely to the brand, not to the hotel. Revenue from a hotel-contracted experience platform goes to the hotel. Based on the terms of the management contract, a third-party management company might well get a share of it, with the remainder going to the owner. Brands generally get nothing in this case, since most franchise agreements apply royalties and marketing fees only to room revenue and sometimes food and beverage, but not to ancillary income.

Does that mean that if your franchised hotel has a brand app offering experiences, your hotel cannot benefit? The answer is no, although the potential upside may be less. A branded hotel located in a destination with lots of good experiences can do a better job at curating the best experiences for the guest than can a large brand that serves a mass market of global travelers and thousands of destinations around the globe. And brands have focused their efforts on their loyalty apps (which are typically on the phones of only a minority of guests) and on their booking website and confirmation emails.

Brands may get smarter over time, but these common practices limit their exposure to the right guests at the right time. Guests not booking direct may never see the experience options at all, and even those who do book direct may only get a single confirmation email right after booking, before they even start to think about experiences, and with an experience link that is buried on page four.

As a franchised hotel, you probably cannot opt out of the brand app’s experience solution, but there is usually nothing to prevent you from offering your own (check your franchise agreement to be sure). By doing this, you can reach close to 100% of guests, at the right time (usually much closer to arrival than confirmation email), and by the most effective method (text messages are far more effective than emails today, but emails even to an OTA proxy email are better than nothing). I have yet to see any major brand do any of these things.

Some of the solutions mentioned above are far better than anything I have seen in any brand app, and they can reach a much larger share of guests. With many of the vendors offering zero-risk financial models and minimal effort for onboarding, I would absolutely try one. It might put you in competition with your brand app, but if it does a better job and lets you earn money that would otherwise go to your brand, who cares? Many of your customers come to your hotel with little or no influence by the brand; they come because of recommendations from friends, location, TripAdvisor ratings, or an OTA.

Conclusion of Part One

This article covered the broad landscape of ways hotels can monetize local experiences or incorporate them into their service offerings. Part Two, in two weeks, will identify questions you should (or may want to) ask as you evaluate potential solutions.

It will start with some general questions to help you establish the best solution architectures and select target providers to evaluate. It will then cover specific questions in a several key areas, including experience supply, getting guests to book, integrating with other upselling opportunities, guest experience, personalization, using experiences to generate room revenue, content development and curation, payment handling, loyalty integration, security and compliance, and reporting.

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