Sunday, 11 December 2011

Assessing Online Advertising Opportunities - Using to Uncover the Truth

I must get at least one or two unsolicited online advertising requests a week. All from sites who claim to be leaders in their niche with thousands of unique visitors a day, guaranteed to generate very high returns on investment all for a fee of $X per month or per year. Sound familiar?

There are lots of travel sites out there. Some are better known than others and are no-brainers (think Tripadvisor,, major OTAs like Expedia, Orbitz etc) but how do you know who will actually produce.

There's no crystal ball that will tell you which online marketing activities will produce bookings, but there are a variety of tools that I use to determine the potential of a website to generate referral traffic and hence bookings. Chief among them is

Alexa, a subsidiary of, calls itself the "Web Information Company" and produces a wealth of information about tens of millions of sites on the world wide web. The most important one for my purposes is the Alexa Global Traffic Rank. Lest I misquote or botch up the explanation of this rank, here is's definition: 

Alexa Traffic Rank
An estimate of's popularity.

The rank is calculated using a combination of average daily visitors to and pageviews on over the past 3 months. The site with the highest combination of visitors and pageviews is ranked #1. 

All things being equal, the higher a website's traffic rank, the higher the potential traffic it can refer to your site. Of course, the site has to be relevant to your market and your placement on the site is and important factor as well.

Let's look at the ranking of a few popular travel-related sites to determine if the Alexa ranking makes sense intuitively: - 288th in the world - 413th - 1228th - 835th - 9,774th

Makes sense, right? Expedia is the market leader among OTAs in the North American market (although is actually a bit larger according to, perhaps displaying its dominance in Europe) and is a large but much smaller player.'s ranking is nothing to sneeze at, but it is clearly much smaller than either of these two. But if you work with all of these OTAs already then you already know that. So when I get a request from yet another travel site who claims to be a market leader and shows me a ranking of 583,380th in the world (true story, I just got this today), you can understand that I would politely decline their offer of an low introductory rate of $750/year! I will probably not see enough web traffic to even break even! 

But as I have always said, with any statistical tool, you have to understand where it gets its information from and what its limitations are. Some professional Search Engine Optimization (SEO) consultants don't consider to be worth the effort because it gets most of its information from a few million persons who have the Alexa toolbar on their browser. Not a bad sample in my opinion and it is international in scope (unlike which focuses almost exclusively on US traffic) but some claim that those who download the Alexa toolbar are "techies" and not a typical sample. There are also some who claim that some companies can manipulate their Alexa ranking by downloading the toolbar onto their own browser and visit their own site several times a day to boost up their ranking!

Be that as it may, if you have two proposals in front of me for online advertising, one from a site with a ranking of say 1200th and the other with a ranking of 200,000th in the world and the cost is pretty close, which one would you spend your limited marketing budget on?

I also like to use to research top sites in a particular niche. Want to find out who are the top adventure travel sites in the world? Use's Top Sites tool to help narrow your search.

But be careful not to discount "small" sites, especially in niche markets. The size of a website is not the only indication of the site's ability to generate high quality, relevant traffic that converts into sales. It is also not necessarily an indication of the relative size of the company behind the site. One of our top five clients is a niche tour operator with a Global Alexa Traffic Rank of 1,015,094! There were over a million sites with more traffic than this tour operator's site and maybe thousands of travel sites and tour operators ahead of them but yet still they are and have been one of our top 5 sources of business for over a decade!  

Friday, 9 December 2011

Using Google Analytics to Make Better Marketing and Business Decisions

Let's be honest. A lot of hoteliers and marketing managers are just not comfortable with number crunching or data analysis at all. Who has time for spreadsheets and interpreting stats? Don't we have accountants and analysts in place for that kind of work?

But even arithmophobiacs (a real word, I looked it up) have to admit that you can't run a business entirely based on gut instinct and intuition (important as these skills are!). You need reliable information and you need to know how to interpret that information at some basic level to be able to make informed and profitable business decisions.

So on top of the daily management reports, occupancy forecasts revenue & expense budgets, income statements, guest satisfaction scores etc that hoteliers have to pour over, here's another often overlooked source of mission critical data to add to your toolkit: Google Analytics.

In a previous post I highlighted some of the benefits of using Google Analytics and how to set it up. Just to recap quickly Google Analytics is a free tool offered by Google that provides detailed information on traffic to your website. Some persons are happy just having an idea of how many "hits" they get to their website on a monthly basis and whether it is growing or not. But why would you not want a little more detail on how persons interact with your website or how they get there in the first place?

There are hundreds of articles out there describing Google Analytics and how it can be used. But what I am going to do here is highlight three ways in which paying attention to trends noted on Google Analytics has allowed us to make better marketing and business decisions and to improve our profitability:

1. Demographic information:

What the report shows - where does your traffic come from? Which countries, regions, cities? What languages do they speak? You might be very surprised at the results gleaned from the Demographics section under the "Audience" tab in Google Analytics (see screen shot below).

What we noticed - We were not surprised that the US made up our largest source of visitors, but Canada and Trinidad and Tobago being ahead of the UK? Given that traditionally the UK has been our largest source of business, this was a surprise to us. What was also surprising was that upon drilling down into the US data we found out that one of our largest sources of web traffic from the US came from California. Again surprising given the distance and the length of the flight to St. Lucia.

How we used this data to increase profits - focus additional marketing efforts (both on and offline) on locations that show significant interest in our properties and find ways to convert "looks" to "books" for these locations. We have continued to see our business from Trinidad grow and we have also been able to determine (using Google Analytics) that a lot of our online bookings from Trinidad are being influenced by our marketing efforts on Facebook and Google Adwords.

2. Sources of Traffic:

What the report shows - there are 3 basic ways that persons get to your website. Direct (someone typed in your url directly into the browser or got there via a bookmark), Referral Traffic (via a link from a listing on another website such as Tripadvisor), Search (from a search engine such as Google or Bing, both paid and organic). This report breaks it down for you (see screenshot).

What we noticed - we noticed very quickly that some sites who claimed to be sending us significant "hits" to our website were not sending us enough traffic to justify the cost. We continue to be amazed at the amount of high quality referral traffic that is generated by Facebook and we even know which key search terms are generating hits to our website (what are persons searching for when they find our site on Google or Bing).

How we used this data to increase profits - we immediately cancelled marketing campaigns that were not working for us and no longer need to guess if a listing on a website will generate profits. We can simply ask for a 1 or 2 month free trial listing and then see how it performs via Google Analytics to determine whether to continue. This has helped us to increase our ROI from our online marketing activities tremendously and we have seen bookings from our website double over last year (it is now our largest source of business) and this had a lot to do with tweaking that took place after reviewing these reports. We also noticed that most persons who were getting to our website via Google (organic) searches were getting there by searching for Bay Gardens Resorts, Bay Gardens Hotel or other Bay Gardens specific search terms. Not bad in and of itself but it did mean that we were dependent on the person knowing about our properties in the first place. Ideally you want persons to find your website after searching for "St. Lucia hotels" or "Saint Lucia resorts" or other similar search terms. We have therefore invested more in search engine optimization (SEO) through both in-house and external efforts which is producing better results for us. There are so many other ways that you can use traffic sources reports. It almost deserves an article to itself!

3. Conversions

What the report shows - what's the point of a website if it does not generate revenue? Google Analytics Conversion reporting helps you to determine if your site is achieving its true potential. There are two basic types of conversions from Google's standpoint. Actual bookings from your website (if you have a booking engine hosted on your website) also known as "e-commerce" conversions can be tracked via Google Analytics. This requires a bit of assistance from your website administrator as some tracking code needs to be installed on the booking engine's pages. If you use a booking engine hosted on another site (Sabre, Globekey, Siteminder etc) you can still do this but you would have to ask the booking engine that you work with to set up a Google Analytics account for your hotel's booking engine website which would be seperate from the GA account for your hotel's website. A little more complicated but still worth looking into. If you don't have a booking engine on your site, you can still track other "conversions" that you consider important such signing up for a newsletter, completing a wedding or conference inquiry form or watching a promotional video.

What we noticed - we took a listing with a well known destination wedding portal and were a little dissappointed at first when we noticed that we were getting very few inquiries from our profile listing on this site. We would have probably pulled this listing after the year's contract was up if we had not set up conversion tracking on our wedding inquiries on our own site. We soon noticed that quite a few persons who were referred to our website from this site were inquiring with us directly rather than with the destination wedding portal. We also know exactly how much online revenue is generated via our website by property, by room category, by country, by state and by city. Great information to have at your finger tips.

How we used this data to increase profits - it has helped us to better determine our ROI from our marketing activities. As mentioned above we were able to determine that a destination wedding listing was in fact driving valuable traffic that was converting into leads and sales. Same for our Tripadvisor Business Listing (although it worked better for some of our properties than for others). We were able use a combination of Demographic and Traffic Sources reports to determine that 80% of our Trinidadian web traffic was coming from our Facebook ads and this was behind the dramatic increase we had seen in revenue from this market. We also cancelled a lot of online marketing contracts that were costing us thousands but not producing enough traffic to be justified by the cost. Finally, by linking our Google Analytics account to our Google Adwords campaigns we were able to determine which ads were working and which keywords were converting and which were not. I was very disappointed for example that a Google Adwords campaign targetting the conference and events market was not working out and paused it to refocus our efforts on a Weddings campaign that was producing fantastic results in terms of the quality of the traffic and conversions. Google Analytics helped us to determine what worked and what didn't.

There are many other uses of Google Analytics and at it will require another posting for sure. But just to highlight a few:
  1. Quality of traffic - sure a particular ad campaign sent a lot of traffic but was it high quality? By that I mean,  how much time did they spend on the website on average, how many pages did they visit on average? Did they get to critical pages ("Book Now" or "Sign up for our Newsletter") and how often?
  2. Effectiveness of your web design team or SEO consultant - so you paid a web designer thousands to redesign your website. Did it work? Are visitors more engaged than they were before? Are they getting to the critical conversion pages more often. Same for your SEO consultants. If you don't see an increase in organic search traffic (it may take a few months so be patient) then you need to question how effective their efforts were. 
  3. Effectiveness of your selling cycle - at what point in the booking process are persons "abandoning" the shopping cart? Are there too many steps in the booking process? Are persons stopping right at the point that they have to put in their credit card (in which case some sort of online security seal such as Verisign should be considered to increase customers comfort levels)? Google Analytics' "Funnel Visualization" helps you to determine this. 
  4. Technology - what devices are being used to get to your website? We have noticed a significant increase in the use of iPads and iPhones by visitors to our site but alas quite a few of the features on our site are Flash dependent. So we may long term have to change some of these Flash rotating banners to Javascript or something that can be viewed on an iPad. 
  5. Exit pages - at what point are persons leaving your website? If a page has a high exit rate, then perhaps it is a page that needs to be tweaked or "optimized" as the online marketing experts call it. It may be as simple as changing a few photos!
There are so many other uses of this valuable tool. The key with any analytic tool is to understand what it represents and what it doesn't. It is important that you focus on long term trends. Don't get overly excited by one-off events. 

I don't expect every hotel GM or owner to start using this tool every day. But certainly invest some time in understanding it and ensure that someone in-house is looking at it daily and providing weekly reports to the management team. Google's "Conversion University" provides a full online training portal (there's even an exam and Google Analytics Qualification!). 

These insights into your web traffic will help you make better decisions with how you allocate your limited online marketing resources and will help you generate higher profits. Even if you aren't a fan of numbers and analysis that has to be music to your ears!

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Social Media for Small Business - Is it Worth the Effort?

I have to admit that on a personal level I was a very late adopter of social media. I must have been one of the last of my friends to open a Facebook account and I have all of two followers on my Twitter page which was last updated in 2010! I have never left a review on Tripadvisor (or any review site for that matter) and let's not even talk about Google+, Digg, Reddit and all the other social media tools out there. Who has the time for all that?

But despite my late adoption of social media on a personal level I realized from very early the importance of social media for a business, especially a small hotel with a limited marketing budget. I am sure that most of you have read many an article espousing the benefits of social media and why you should jump on this trend before you get left behind by your trendier competitors. I am not going to do that here, but what I will do is highlight how embracing social media has benefited us at Bay Gardens Resorts.

But first let us start with some of the reasons why many small businesses are still holding out on implementing a properly planned social media strategy:

1. It is just a passing fad - yes, even with 800 million active users, the world's second most visited website (after the online marketing giant, Google) and $4.3 billion in revenue (with $1 billion in profit according to some sources) there are still some who doubt the long term viability of the world's largest social media company (Facebook of course!) and of its potential as a marketing tool. Yes larger companies have failed after initial success, but clearly those who still believe that Facebook is just a passing fad only popular among persons born after 1980 are in the minority.

2. It takes too much time - there are hundreds of social networking sites out there and monitoring and making use of all of them can be daunting. Some claim that monitoring social media is a full time job and in the midst of this Great Recession, small businesses cannot hire additional staff for something as frivolous as social media that will not generate additional revenue. And adding social media to the task list of the few staff who remain after several rounds of lay-offs and cost cutting would just be unfair.

3. You can't control it - its not like traditional marketing where you can control the message. How do you plan for something like that?

4. It won't generate additional profit - and isn't that why we are in business in the first place?

There is some merit to most of these arguments so why jump into this? And successful businesses-people don't like to go into anything half-heartedly. If you can't do it right, don't do it at all!

But here are three of the best reasons (from my perspective) why small businesses (especially hotels) should get started:

1. Be part of the conversation - I am sure that no hotelier reading this would be surprised to know that many studies show that almost of 1 in 3 clients first become aware of their hotel through referrals from friends and family. Referrals and word of mouth advertising has been recognized as one of the most important sources of new and repeat business long before "social media" was even in the dictionary. The difference now is that with social media you (and everyone else) can monitor what others are saying about your brand online. Good and bad experiences are documented in real time on Facebook and Twitter and review sites such as Tripadvisor and Yelp have rendered manual comment cards almost obsolete (though some people still use these so don't throw them out just yet!). Tripadvisor, in particular is probably mentioned at Bay Gardens Resorts by someone on our team at least ten times a day. Did you see what the Johnson family said about us on Tripadvisor? Fantastic! Show it to all the staff! Can you believe that last Tripadvisor review? Completely untrue and off the mark! Must have been written by a competitor or disgruntled employee! And, our General Manager's favourite: We are ranked #2 on Tripadvisor, let's get to #1! Love it or loath it, what guests say about you on Tripadvisor and other social media sites means more to potential clients than anything you put on your website or on a brochure and on television or radio. It has a feeling of authenticity and independence and in this environment where persons have options and limited funds, that means everything. So don't think for a minute that these sites have little or no influence on persons travel plans. They do. So rather than stay on the sidelines, it is best to be part of the conversation and understand that while you can't control it you can turn it to your advantage in many ways. Be proactive in managing your own reputation online!

2. Increase traffic to your website - this does not happen right away, but having an active, consistent presence on the major social media sites will help to drive high quality traffic to your site and will help improve your overall search rankings on Google and Bing as these are certainly seen by the search engines as links from "authoritative sites" (SEO geek-speak that I will discuss in a subsequent blog). It is interesting to note that according to, 3 of the12 largest sites in the world are social media sites: Facebook (#2), Twitter (#9) and Linkedin (#12). Also in the top 12 are sites such as Youtube (#3), Wikipedia (#6) and Blogspot (#7) which are also considered social media in some circles. See for a full list of the Top 500 Global Sites.

3. Potential to generate sales - believe it or not we have been able to generate a positive ROI from our time and financial commitment to social media and we are able to measure it. It is not going to increase your sales overnight but it is possible to generate exposure from social media which will in turn lead to increased revenue and profits and because of the newness of this medium it is still relatively inexpensive compared to other forms of online and offline advertising. I will discuss this in more detail in a separate post.

There are many other potential benefits as well such as the ability to glean useful information from potential customers in real time on new product ideas, share important news instantly and the ability to gain exposure and brand awareness in a cost effective manner that larger businesses spend millions trying to gain. I always remind our guests that leaving a good review on Tripadvisor helps small businesses like ours who can't afford a prime time ad on CNN to get the word out there.

Now that you are hopefully convinced on the need to make a start, here are a few practical tips from my experience over the last two years:

1. Focus on a few key social media sites - there are so many out there and if you try to focus on too many at once you will become overwhelmed. My advice is to focus on Facebook, Tripadvisor (or if you are not a hotel, restaurant or attraction whatever is the top review site for your industry and your market) and probably Twitter if you have time (if you want to take a shortcut, you can download this app that allows your posts on Facebook to be posted automatically to Twitter It would not be a bad idea to have a presence on Youtube as well, the world's second largest search engine but I would give priority to the first three first.

2. Setup the right kind of account - several persons set their businesses up as personal profiles with "Friends" on Facebook rather than as a business profile page with "Fans" (or "Likes" as they are now called) on Facebook. I am seeing a lot of restaurants and hotels with hundreds of Friends now having to cancel their profile page and set it up the right way. Better to get it right the first time. See If you are looking to set up a profile on Tripadvisor, what you want to do is "claim" your listing as an "owner" so that you can manage it. See

3. Be committed and update frequently - it does not have to take a lot of time. But if you don't update your Facebook page at least once a day you will not see your fan base grow and persons will lose interest an "Unlike" your page. One update a day takes a matter of minutes.

4. Don't be overly focused on selling and marketing your product - at least not right away. I have found that our 4900+ Facebook fans are more interested in our "Wacky Wednesday Riddles" or random photos of our garden or cocktails than they are in our latest specials. Build a relationship with your fan base first and they are more likely to respond positively to marketing-related posts. People don't want to feel like they are constantly being marketed to on Facebook. I would say have at least as many (maybe more) "conversational" or "social" posts as "marketing" posts on Facebook and Twitter.

5. Measure your results - don't just set this up and hope that it works. Facebook offers "Insights" that allow you to measure the size of your fan base, how engaged they are, where they are from, gender, age among other interesting stats. Use this as well as Google Analytics to determine how much traffic these various media are sending to your site and whether they are converting into sales. Even Tripadvisor offers analytical reports comparing your review performance to your competition. Read them, understand them and share the results with your team. There are more sophisticated tools out there offered by companies such as Revinate that allow you to monitor all social media sites at once and this provides a wealth of data but I would not advise such tools starting off.

6. Get your team involved - I started off doing 90% of the updates on my own but when you are a GM, owner or director in a business beyond a certain size, you have to delegate this. Within a few months I had handed control over to staff in the marketing department who were younger (I am only 30 and already getting obsolete!) and more, let's say "social" (pardon the obvious pun) than myself and the results were remarkable! I still monitor daily, assist and provide guidance but management of our Facebook and Twitter pages and responding to reviews on Tripadvisor is no longer solely my responsibility and the diversity is good for the medium. But even here rules and guidelines apply and be careful that the person who is responsible for this has appropriate knowledge of the business and writing skills. Even on Facebook and Twitter grammar and spelling mistakes are frowned upon when coming from a company!

I will be going into more depth in future posts on how we have been able to monetize our time and financial investment in Facebook and other social media tools but suffice it to say that we have been very satisfied with the results so far. Referrals from Facebook and Tripadvisor make up a substantial portion of our site traffic and thus account for a decent portion of our online bookings as well as bookings made offline.

Social media represents one of the best marketing opportunities for small businesses. Embrace this tool and "Friend" it. You won't regret it.

Redjet Now Flying to St. Lucia - Discount Airlines and Regional Travel

Yesterday Redjet, a Barbados-based discount airline owned by Irishman Ian Burns, announced the start of its much anticipated route between St. Lucia (UVF) and Barbados (BGI). With fares starting at $9.99 (one-way before taxes) this is great news for the small hotels in St. Lucia who rely heavily on the Barbados market. It also breaks the nearly decade-long stranglehold that LIAT (the largest regional airline operating in St. Lucia) has had on the busy St. Lucia-Barbados route. 

A press release yesterday from the low fares carrier said that it will be flying from the 16th December in time for the Christmas and New Year break.

It is interesting to note that with taxes included, this fare of $9.99 each way quickly balloons to $75 return. Clearly further work is needed on the part of the regional governments to reduce the taxes and fees that often account for more than 50% of the cost of a regional flight. 

For the last 5 years, St. Lucia has witnessed double digit declines in arrivals from the Caribbean market. Regional leisure travel as all but dried up with many Barbadians preferring to pay an additional $100 to fly to Miami rather than pay $300 and up for a 40 minute flight to St. Lucia. 

The arrival of Redjet into St. Lucia hopefully marks the beginning of a turnaround in arrivals out of the 
critical Barbados market. But the small hotels who rely on this should not celebrate too quickly. While Redjet's fares are substantially lower than LIAT's there are other hidden costs (beyond the taxes alluded to earlier). There are additional charges for checked baggage (between $10-$20 per bag). Persons who are used to flying with Europen discount airlines such as Easyjet or Ryan Air would not doubt be accustomed to this but this would be new to Barbadians and St. Lucians. 

It will also be interesting to see how Bajans who have become accustomed to the 20 minute, $20 USD taxi ride from George FL Charles Airport to the hotels in the north of the island adjust to the 90 minute, $80 USD taxi trip from Hewannora International Airport. The idea of a 90 minute drive after a 40 minute flight may not appeal to all and the additional taxi fare may cause some to  be indifferent between LIAT and Redjet. Only time will tell but it brings into focus the need to create an faster, alternate route from Vieux Fort in the south (where Hewannora International is located) to Castries/Gros Islet in the North (where many of St. Lucia's 
hotels are located). Some hotels in the north (primarily Barbadian favourites Bay Gardens Resorts and Coco Resorts) may well consider including airport transfers in their packages to defray that additional cost. Moreover, some of the hotels near to UVF in Vieux Fort are likely to benefit greatly from having Bajan arrivals so close to their doorstep (Coconut Bay in particular). 

So celebrations of Redjet's arrivals to our shores should be tempered but nonetheless this is good news for both St. Lucia and Barbados.