As mentioned in my last post, here is an exclusive interview with Ian Ackland, Head of Product & Commercial for HotelConnect, who recently spoke to Hotel Insight. We cover many topics, including what it takes to work for HotelConnect, their business model, and their predictions ahead of 2011. Enjoy!
Q Ian, please introduce yourself to our readers and tell them a little bit about what you do.
I’m Ian Ackland and I’m the Head of Product & Commercial for HotelConnect. My role involves leading a team of Hotel Experts who travel the world seeking out gems of hotels (anything from 2* to 5*, mainly city-central properties). Once we have the product, the marketing team work closely with the Experts to tell our customers about the best deals, the best hotels and small, insightful facts about the properties.
We work closely with our hotel partners, and hand-picked the best quality hotels for the category that hotel is positioned in. As an example, we will inspect 100s of hotels for each one that makes it to our programme.
Everyone who works for HotelConnect has a passion for hotels – it’s part of our company values, and our objective is to share that passion with customers and travel agents, so they know we’ve done the hard work in vetting hotels and only bringing forward those that are good quality for what they offer – that doesn’t mean luxury, but it does mean sifting through the poorer quality hotels in each category and being confident enough to reject some, so we don’t end up with 100s of hotels and confuse our customers. Those that we do end up with are therefore good, they benefit from more business with us, and we invariably get the best deals at the hotel.
Q Tell us about Hotel Connect – what is their business model and how do they fit in the hotel industry.
We occupy a niche as a accommodation specialist. There are many accommodation providers out there, who take on anything they can and boast about having 10s of 1,000s of hotels to choose from. We feel this puts a lot of pressure on the customer, and can be pretty daunting to have to trawl through a list of 100s of hotels in a destination, and not know if the one you pick is right for you!
Our Hotel Experts have been buying hotel rooms professionally for over 70 years (collectively) and they know their stuff! We like to share our passion for hotels, and our customers know that we’ve done all the research for them. We also make sure our call centre know about the hotels we feature (through regular training, and the team getting out to see hotels) so, if you don’t want to book online, or you want to speak to someone first, you’ll get expert opinions and advice.
We fit into the industry by bringing together a range of hotels, some chain hotels, some small, independent properties, some boutique hotels, and we provide a site where we can really enthuse about the properties in our programme, because we’ve seen them, we know them and we are genuinely proud to have them all.
Our business is split between selling to travel agents and selling to consumers – but both choose us for our quality approach to service
Q To date, what kind of year has 2010 been for Hotel Connect?
There’s been some good US growth, and London has had an amazing year. Europe started a bit more slowly, but it’s got a lot better. In just the last few weeks there seems to have been a lot of pent-up demand, especially in Europe, and this is great for all of us. Hotels have been reacting well – customers do tend to be getting better deals right at the lastminute, but we think that’s going to reverse out a bit as hotel’s yield-management policies start to kick in!
Q What are your predictions ahead of 2011?
There will be certain areas next year, due to pent-up demand, that will become “book early to avoid disappointment”. Our fear is that the consumer won’t be prepared for this, and we may well have to carry out a fair bit of activity to warn them. This won’t affect everywhere, but we’re getting twitches of it happening in New York and London. Paris will continue to do well, and there will probably still be a lot of availability and some good deals in Prague. We’ll start to go back to rates increasing I think (they’ve been coming down for a while), but it’s going to be a very interesting year which will vary by destination.
Q What are the current challenges and issues facing HotelConnect?
The biggest challenge is ensuring that all our hotels reach our whole audience (travel agent and consumer), and that we are adhering to the hotel’s Best Available Rate. This has required some significant investment in technology, but we are now leading the field with this and offering hotels the widest options of distribution (agent and consumer) while also not contravening any of the hotel’s own rate conditions (this means that we reflect the same price as the hotel sells on their own site, and we don’t sell over that or under it). Customers continue to choose us because we can bring together a range of product, they can pay in £s and don’t have to worry about fluctuating exchange rates, and they have someone they can pick up the phone and talk to if they need to.
Q How do you see HotelConnect growing in the future?
For some time we have discussed replicating our ethos into resort properties and more of a beach market. However, to us that sector is pretty saturated and we are much more excited about what’s happening in the city hotel sector. There are some very exciting developments coming on with hotels, such as in-house apps for customers to control their room (lighting, TV, heating etc) with their iPhone, or remote check in where customers can be checked in while walking to their rooms – all this is part of the hotel experience, but it fills us with huge excitement. And when there are more city hotels opening up, as there are now, this gives us an opportunity to continue to grow our range but keep our quality-control ethos. You should expect to see some more destination growth as we introduce other cities, however in addition to this you should expect to see us at the forefront of new city openings. This year we’ve done 3 hard-hat tours of hotels due to open, and as soon as they are ready to open their doors, they will be in our programme!
Q How do you see the huge growth of social media in the hotel industry, and do HotelConnect do anything in this area?
For our business model, Facebook (and, to a lesser extent, Twitter) are important. Facebook has active users who interact with us and want to hear about the latest offerings, or ask us questions about specific hotels. Twitter doesn’t quite have that yet, however the opportunity is there for us to share live information when our Hotel Experts have just visited a hotel and got that “buzz” from seeing something new and exciting. We will be actively incorporating Twitter into our communications over the next few months.
TripAdvisor is an odd one – it’s hugely popular, but that could be because so much product has flooded the market and the consumer is just so confused. It’s good for the time-rich,cash-neutral. Our brand is more about doing that work for you, putting the Experts to task and having them sift through and find only the good stuff. We serve the time-poor, cash-neutral markets well.
Q How important do you think the use of video is for travellers, hotels and companies such as HotelConnect to capitalise on?
Again, this is becoming important, however it’s going to be used on social media sites more because a customer is wary and not getting balanced opinions, so they have to see for themselves. We’d prefer to see video incorporated in the future as an aspirational tool which can get someone feeling that “buzz” and excitement about their forthcoming stay, rather than having to trawl through to find the things to avoid.
Q Ian, when you stay at a hotel (for business or leisure) what are the most important things to you?
A hotel has to have good scrambled eggs! There is obviously a whole other check-list for our professional sifting, which I won’t share with you as it’s our secret, but when I travel personally, I want to know I’m getting a good breakfast! And obviously a comfortable pillow and bed, a nice rain shower and Hermes toiletries are always a bonus!