Ed Note: Pardon my current technological shortcomings, for the time being. You might have to click on the pic to open the full size photo of the website.  Currently, I am having trouble having them display full screen in the blog post itself. Pardon that. Cheers!

 

I know, no matter how people excuse it, you can’t use flash anymore.  It’s not even a conversation, and when I am forced to have it… I get frustrated.  I also know you need to have a mobile page.  Please, neophytes or luddites, *please* understand a mobile-optimized website is *NOT* a hotel specific branded app.  You don’t need the latter unless you are one of the big 5.  If they don’t know your brand, or boutique concept, they won’t know to search for it.  Don’t let giddy marketer buzzwords excite or cloud your understanding of these complex technological trends. I only say complex, because, as the old joke goes, we hotel people are not pioneers specifically because pioneers were shot in the back with arrows.  We have always been behind the curve. Always.  The innovators have always been long term and conservative.  We have some colorful characters in this business, as well (looking at Chip [who's site isn't too bad, either] or Ian, particularly…), but the classics have always been plodding and broad scope visionaries like Stan Bromley.

More website dicussion after the [More] tag!

 

I also know you can’t get burned on poor SEO anymore.  On top of that, you can’t slap so much keyword content into a site that it becomes aggravating and overwhelming for people to navigate around, limiting possible consumption of your hotel. That is when content becomes a liability.  You want content to match your hotel… in my case, you want the initial experience and interaction with the brand to be one that is relaxing, soothing, entertaining, etc.  People used to say that your desk agent was the front line of brand representation. Then snarky marketers said the doormen, or valets, were the first representative experience with the brand.  They are right, but no fair moving 30 feet from the desk to the door and calling it an innovative thought.  Ritz Carlton and Oregon’s Allison Inn & Spa in the Willamette Valley (full disclosure, I work with the latter), have had this “employee face forward” down pat, for years.  But I still didn’t think, in regards to employees intoning brand, that that is where the introduction starts.  Back in the 20th century I was one of the only people really concerned with how the PBX operators, with lazy speech or chewing gum, were representing the brand.  If you immediately hear lip-smacking with a disinterested “HOLD PLEASE?” when you call a hotel… well what does that say?  It would make me cringe, and service training immediately started under my watch. =)

 

But now, it’s not an employee, and your entire brand and hotel experience is intoned within LITERAL SECONDS of arriving at a website.  Not only does Google consider load times for SEO, but the flash experience of waiting for something to happen isn’t as seemless or natural an experience as a guest needs.  You need to lull them into a serene, content & excited disposition, as well as appease their need for confidence in your brand.
I didn’t want to ramble too much, so I will leave it to you.. the hotels, the brands, and the designers.  The below websites, simply, are not cheap. Finding an affordable design group that will work outside of the norm (box), is rare.  Access to them is even rarer.  It often seems you only have 3 or 4 choices for hotel website design, and that simply needs to stop. There needs to be more competition, and more innovation, so that we can differentiate our brands, instead of homogenizing them.

 

The simple laundry lists of new website design trends for hotels? No flash, simplified User Interface, topical and enchanting music or nature sounds, large, vibrant pictures, less obtrusive offers/deals, and more integrated and highlight social presence in relation to content production with blogs or videos.  In fact, it won’t be too long before video is front and center on the main page.

 

So.. I think these are the best practices for our industry. What do you say? What are your favorite sites?  Brands… Hotels… why do you think your site is a stellar example of a cutting edge hotel & travel site?

 

**WARNING: THE FOLLOWING SITES MAY MAKE YOU SPONTANEOUSLY BOOK TRIPS YOU WERE NOT ALREADY PLANNING**

 

Our group of hospitality professionals and hoteliers believes these sites to be representative of best practices and future trends in website design.  [In no specific order:]

 

 

1) Carre D’étoiles - albeit an animation, as soon as you hear the nighttime nature sounds, and see the shadow of a mischievous bunny hopping along the soothing terrain, you have such a definite sense of place and experience that it immediately lulls someone towards the hotel brand, and leaves them wanting to know more.  I have had this as an open tab for nearly two years, just listening, and making my day more peaceful. This is an eco-lodging concept where they literally drop-off the above modular cubicle for you to stay in, in the middle of nowhere.  Think of it as uppity glamping in France. Oh wow I cannot believe I just said that. At any rate, telescope and star gazing skylight included. One of the many “full screen” website experiences you will see trending in the industry, and on this list.

 

 

2) Villa Amor, in Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico. Here we have a rotating slideshow of unbelievable imagery – each combines nature, and colors, and experience with a skillful & somewhat subtle marketing – each page has obvious quotes from trusted, established travel magazines and journals, such as Travel & Leisure or Sunset Magazine.  This sleepy & family friendly fishing village north of Puerto Vallarta is a relaxing beach and surf community of U.S. Ex-Pats, and tourist friendly Mexicans.  Villa Amor does a phenomenal job of immediately drawing the guest into their experience, and with the slideshow keeps them there and learning through sight and trusted soundbites versus endless copy. The quotes could be a little more prominent, but all in all… this is a slam dunk regarding conversion of eyes to reservations.

 

 

3)  Pacific Grove and Monterey Bay host a phenomenal National Park lodge experience with Asilomar Conference Center & Grounds. Although slightly busy of a site, the large picture firmly anchors your awareness in experience.  What’s more, they have the weather available to plunge the website viewer into the real world experience – what is Asilomar like at *this moment*, and what would I be feeling walking along that beach?  Knowing about the foggy days there (I was born in Carmel), it’s fairly brave… but it’s a nod towards transparent cultivation of community.  They also have the reservation widget front and center – so that there is as little barrier to booking conversion as possible.  Another nice aspect is the bar of photos as menu headings – the visual excitement one has for a specific photo (map vs bicycling) will lead people to relevant parts of the site, and much quicker.  An embedded widget of photo and video content is also immediately available, so a website guest gets a sense of place, as well as remains on the site garnering the experience of what Asilomar is.

 

 

4) Shell Hospitality’s dedicated “Black Friday” Travel Sale page. This was one of the most exciting discoveries we have seen.  Although not a brand or hotel specific page, it is a brazen page full of irreverence, delight, and fun.  It immediately intones the brand’s image while still offering endless playful moments for people to learn more.  The Face”book” page on the bookshelf, The youtube TV, The flickr Frame, the Tweety Bird, and more.  The fireplace is with sound and is crackling, so you are immediately given a sense of warmth, with levity.  It was one of the most novel website experiences I have ever had, and I wish brands would learn to be more daring and excited about their passions and business.  This is a great example of a company I would like to book with, or even work for. It’s imaginative, and creates a sense of unexpected joy.

 

 

5) Little Palm Island. Wow. A Huge picture without borders that makes the user fall into the island itself.  It’s hard to ignore the allure of an all enveloping experience as soon as you reach the website… it begs how amazing an experience the island will actually be, once you arrive.  We do *NOT*, in any way, endorse splash screens at the beginning of a guest’s user experience on a website (like this has); it is far and away *NOT* a best practice.  But, the way their specials & info boxes are quickly relevant, and then slink quietly to the background to become less obtrusive is a phenomenal tactic… your eye is literally led to where those boxes will exist – ignore them if you like, but if they are relevant to a specific user, you still have immediate awareness as to where those boxes live.  When they slide away, they become inherently unobtrusive, and you immediately get back to the experience of what it would be like to be in that much blue.  This picture seems to expand beyond the borders of my screen.

 

 

6) Peter Island Resort & Spa. *THIS* is Peter Island, indeed.  If you are immediately taken to a land of sexy sport and endless beaches-to-oceans-to-horizon, then you are not looking at the same picture that I am.  Peter Island’s site also has an “X” out splash screen when it first loads, but after that you are shown a slideshow, with music, of the island, then accomodations, and then we have this sizzling nod [see pic] towards the types of activities you may enjoy, or encounter, upon this island.  Albeit highly suggestive in this specific picture, we do know what sells, and if this is your niche, and you are looking to bring a specific market to your hotel… you have to go after it.  In this case, Peter Island has immediately scored with a High Res, and stunning, slideshow – capturing a potential guest from picture to picture and making it harder to escape.  It’s an impressive experience with full screen, high quality pics, soothing music, and simple interface.  The navigation at the top of the screen is worth a visit to the site, itself.  The days of infinite old & stale copy, cluttering up the field of vision, seems to be marching out the door.

 

 

7) Winvian Cottages of Connecticut. This is a subpage for the website, but if you note – the simple interface that has been created for an exceedingly complex site map, streamlining the headache of listing a vast array of lodging options.  This is always a challenge for hotels, especially historic properties, who have complex and varied options for rooms.  The scroll type of map creates a real tone and texture that intones the brand itself, while this simple, beautiful watercolor not only aids to the sense of place, but it fully resolves a complexity with an incredibly simple user interface.

 

Those are my favorite sites in recent memory…. and I am sure there will be more. I hope this can aid people about to sign a contract with a form and template style of internet marketing group. Frankly.. you need to tell them what *you* want.  It should never be the other way around, and you can feel confident in excusing those awkward exchanges. These groups work for *you*, and not the other way around.  If it looks like a boring template, tell them so.  I note a lot of the big boys internet marketing groups are getting lazy, and all of our industry hotel websites look identical.  It’s a problem, and it’s time to evolve out of that line of thinking or operations.
If you don’t have the big bucks to make a fancy site, at least you can make a HTML5 site, without the expense of paying too much for too little from the other mid-high range developers.  In this sense…. if you want a nice site, while not having the money to build it, you might try Buuteeq. They are new, and instead of the agency plan of charging for websites (billed hours ad naseuom and confusion), they have tiered plans.  Right now, they are doing some interesting things, and it’s one of the only groups who can give you what you pay for… a competent, optimized site with mobile ready pages to boot, without hassle or hidden costs.

 

Until we win the lottery and make our dream hotel websites, let the little nuances and aspects of these above sites inform your decisions.  If you know of any other sites, I am very interested in learning about them. Please share in the comments section!

About Michael

8 Responses to “Hotel Website & Travel site best practices? What is cutting edge hotel website design in mid-2011?”

  1. Josiah Mackenzie

    This is a spectacular collection of websites, Michael! I love examples and case studies…so thanks for putting this together with your always-accurate commentary.

    I’m bookmarking this & sending to some friends…

  2. raj

    All the sites are quite visual and immersing in the experience they provide. Do you know if any of these site designs resulted in generating more web bookings? or people signing up for email offers?

  3. Michael Hraba

    I do not have that data, and knowing our industry I doubt the hotels really have meaningful trends on it. Depending on omniture or analytics, it would be easy to see benchmarking for bookings from site launch month over month compared to previous years…. and that would result in good ROI or evidence. I should reach out to them and update this post. GREAT IDEA. Thank you!

  4. raj

    Yes as you mentioned the data is easy to get by comparing pre design and post design conversion. Thanks for looking into it.

    I think our industry lacks the understanding of the importance of web conversion. Having a good looking site doesn’t mean it actually sells better and there are tools which let you test different versions of a site to implement the best converting and visually appealing site. It has to be a combination of both. A hotels’ website is the one of biggest medium through which bookings are channeled and yet as an industry we don’t do any testing to improve the number of bookings coming through it. We lead people to the door by applying various tactics like SEO, PPC, Social Media etc but never fully open the door to let people in and maximize this channel.
    http://www.google.com/websiteoptimizer, great free tool, should be used by hotels more and more.
    Well I think I got a bit passionate here :)

  5. Michael Hraba

    I am actually quoting Raj from an email with some other great comments! =)

    “You are right in what you are feeling because there are way too many companies that take advantage of hoteliers. We are easy targets basically. We don’t invest in developing onsite expertise in website conversion optimization or online marketing and expect the Internet Marketing companies to take care of everything. In the process hotels loose 10′s of thousands of dollars.

    We leave the lowest cost and one of the highest impact channel in the hands of a 3rd party and believe they will do everything.

    The best IM companies need managing too but that also takes a onsite person to really manage and not just agree with everything they say.

    We will have to keep talking about this on our blogs and personal interactions to up the knowledge of hoteliers.”

    Thanks RAJ! You are right!

  6. Michael Hraba

    I am sort of appalled & sort of angry at web marketing companies and their lies to hoteliers about what a website is. They make this site that is 10′s of thousands of dollars and completely lacks any functionality, is WAY too busy, and serves as an overt “look how we can trick hotels into spending too much on something they don’t understand”.

    Your point is right on…. hotels don’t even know the right questions to ask, and need a better understanding of *WHAT* a website is. It’s to drive bookings, and convert lookers into revenue. That’s basically it… maybe some helpful info, and some good marketing moments, but it’s frustrating how much waste I see in our industry… people spend so much on a site, it doesn’t work, then they do it again in a couple years.

    Your thoughts are DEAD on. Well done. =)

  7. Are Morch

    Hi Michael.

    Awesome collection of brillant Hotel engagement designs. That is what count in my book. When a Hotel Website is able to engage me and intuitivt has sparked an experience for me they are on the right track.

    You get the effect like you stated here you already booked your reservation and are sitting in the bar with a martini wandering what in the world happened.

    Chip Conley has brought the engagement factor to joie de vivre. And others might follow when they finally understand the simple but yet powerful secret he uses for his hotels.

    From my perspective I would liked to seen some of these websites taken it one step more, and added some of this into their Facebook Fan Pages.

    But some awesome catches here. Made me restless here.. lol..

    Cheers…

    Are Morch
    Hotel Advisor and Social Media Strategist

  8. Michael Hraba

    Fantastic thoughts – Thank you for your engaging words. =) I have to admit… JDV’s (which is really just GEOLO capital now, without Chip helming the ship) new Carmel Valley Ranch site is delightful. I know they have had turnover lately, so it’s possible the marketing of the site is cashing checks that operations isn’t yet ready to handle… but the site is delightful, and our stay there was fantastic. Enjoy the swing: http://www.carmelvalleyranch.com/

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