Just like any great recipe, it's not just about the ingredients but the method. The method will be unique for every hotel website.
This article is not so much about exactly how to put a great marketing website together step-by-step, but more about the recommended elements.
That's because the exact method will depend on your branding, locality and the unique selling propositions of your hotel - which of course are different for every property.
Your website is one of those aspects of your online presence that I strongly recommend is outsourced or at least monitored and audited by a third party. It is also the area of the most confusion and "constant change".
Whether you are outsourcing your hotel marketing website, or building it yourself, this guide will help you save time and money while maximising direct bookings.
THE RIGHT "KITCHEN" - WORDPRESS OR SQUARESPACE?
While creating a great hotel marketing website starts with the right ingredients, you also need a "Kitchen" to make your website. That will be the "back of house" where you actually put it all together.
Generally, you will either be an independently owned hotel, motel or B&B — or part of a chain.
For most hotel chains WordPress will be a superior but more complicated option because it offers WordPress Multi-Site which may be required to ease the burden of "multi-site" administration and maintenance.
WordPress also supports membership sites which SquareSpace currently does not. That may be relevant if you want to launch a "logged in" loyalty program in the future.
But then, Squarespace fights back with built-in support for OpenTable, a Menu widget and native support for live embedded Instagram feeds "out of the box". Its a tough choice indeed for small or independent hotel owners or marketing managers.
Squarespace also offers free email support, while with WordPress you are all on your own —or relying on your "website person".
For independent or boutique hotels (and especially if you are building it yourself) then I would recommend Squarespace.
Otherwise, if you are still unsure — you can't go wrong with WordPress in the long run, but be prepared to face a much steeper learning curve and to invest more over time!
The other factor is what you are currently comfortable with. If you have WordPress experience and don't mind updating plugins every week and researching technical problems, then it might be better to continue using what you know.
But a very viable alternative for most hotel marketing websites is Squarespace. Check out our Podcast on this topic below if you are still unsure which way to go.
The Best Theme or Template for your Hotel
There is no single, ideal WordPress theme out there to use for your hotel website. It doesn't exist. There are themes that are "more or less" better in your particular situation.
It's the same reason there are so many different brands and models of cars on the road. There is no perfect car for everybody.
I recommend the following approach when choosing a WordPress theme (this is what we do for our clients):
- You or your employees current skill level and experience with that theme.
- Whether it has particular features that you require both now and looking ahead three years or more.
- It's popularity. If you choose an unpopular theme - it could be dead in the water six months time from now with no updates and potential security holes appearing.
- The general ease of use of the theme but also it's flexibility and feature set (a difficult balance to achieve!).
- It's appropriateness for your hotel or restaurant, taking into account the style and branding of the site you wish to create - or whether that is even that important in the scheme of things.
At Locus Focus we generally recommend just a handful of themes that meet these criteria.
One of the problems with hotel digital marketing, and marketing in general is that there are so many "shiny red objects" begging for your attention. Let's just take a look at WordPress and the number of themes that exist for it.
There are over 5000+ WordPress themes and 40000+ plugins as at February 2017. There are also over 600 WordPress tagged with the keyword "Hotel".
If you are looking for a commercial WordPress theme for your hotel, the best place to start is ThemeForest. But while it's easy to find "hotel WordPress themes" its much harder evaluating them.
That is without considering all the other digital marketing tools, services, components and plugins that may be appropriate for you to use. Technology is always evolving and improving.
Here's the problem... if you simply did a search on ThemeForest (the most popular commercial WordPress theme reseller) and used the keyword "hotel" as shown above, you would be taking the wrong approach (in my opinion).
A far better approach to choosing a WordPress theme is to simply evaluate the best selling "Multi-Purpose" themes on ThemeForest.
The benefits of choosing a very popular and best selling theme are:
- It probably already contains more than enough "functionality" for your hotel marketing website.
- There are plenty of support articles and forum posts that you can Google where people experience the same problems you will encounter.
- There will be more frequent updates (including important security updates).
- The chances of that theme working with other popular plugins is much, much greater.
Switching Themes Later
Beware that while in most cases you can switch WordPress themes easily, the problem is that you may have to reformat all pages and posts after doing so. Users of Squarespace will also have minor issues when switching themes, but it will never be a complete nightmare...
The best approach is invest time up front on choosing the right theme. Do not rush your decision process, instead spend plenty of time researching, testing and evaluating a few shortlisted themes before you commit.
When considering a WordPress theme for hotels, I look at five key criteria:
FLEXIBILITY: Will it provide the functionality you need now, and looking into your crystal ball for the future... Most themes will be more than flexible enough.
SPEED: The Theme page speed load time is critical as it impacts on Google SEO and user experience.
SUPPORT: Will the theme authors be around in a few years time? Do they offer free email support (most popular themes will do). Note that in most cases support from your theme provider will be limited to that Themes functionality and not general WordPress support.
DESIGN: Does the theme allow you or a designer to build a site that resonates with your audience? Are the design elements "over the top" or simple and classic (recommended). Is the menu the theme ships with easy to use and navigate with (very important). Does it support call to action buttons that can be placed in the top right hand corner for your DIRECT BOOKING BUTTONS?
EASE OF USE: Is the theme and its page builder easy to learn and use on a daily basis? Is it bloated with too many options that will potentially confuse and slow down development?
One criteria that should never be a factor is price. Most WordPress themes are about $69, and give or take a few dollars it really doesn't matter how much it costs. One thing is for sure, you will not find a free WordPress theme that comes anything close to a commercial theme, so be prepared to spend about $70 up front.
Here is a great place to start. My review of the Avada theme for hotel marketing websites, based on these criteria. This post will updated as we review more themes...
AVADA WORDPRESS THEME REVIEW
The "Wisdom of the Crowds" approach would see you simply purchasing the current best selling theme on ThemeForest. That has been the "Avada" theme for some time, and we see no signs of that changing in 2017 as it outsold its nearest rival "X Theme" by three times in February 2017.
I have extensive experience using the Avada theme for multiple websites in both the fitness, hospitality and hotel industry. I understand its weaknesses and strengths. I have a love/gate relationship with it.
On the one hand, it is incredibly powerful, reliable and fast when you know what your doing. On the other hand, it probably has too many options and is somewhat outdated in terms of design elements.
That being said, if you combine the Avada theme with some incredibly powerful third party plugins such as Revolution Slider, then it will certainly give you more options. While it is the Swiss Army Knife of WordPress themes, it also requires somebody willing to get their hands dirty.
Why do I not recommend X Theme (the next best selling WordPress theme)? My experience with it in 2015 convinced me it was too slow. The theme is simply too bloated and Avada can be configured to be much quicker, which is critical for Google SEO and overall customer experience.
Avada Wordpress Theme for Hotels
ADOPT AN AGILE APPROACH
One of the biggest mistakes we find hotel operators (of all sizes) making with their digital marketing is treating it like a project that has a fixed start date and end date. Or in other words, assuming the work is done when the site is "finished".
Most hotels and motels already have a website, but the first test is — when was the last time it was updated? Some hotels will budget to replace or refresh their website every two years or so. That is a recipe for disaster!
Technology, trends and best practices are constantly changing literally on a daily basis. Consumer trends and the behaviour of your audience is also fluid. That means copy, designs or media that worked well last year may be less relevant today.
The first thing we recommend for a "perfect" hotel marketing website is a mindset change where you appreciate that your website will always be a "work in progress". It will never be perfect, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't aspire to constantly improve it — iterating slowly over time on the basis of priorities and short turnaround cycles.
Do you even need a new website platform?
It takes somebody with wide ranging digital marketing expertise in all areas to properly assess your entire strategy. The first question I would ask is whether your time and budget it even best spent on your website right now?
There may be other areas such as your TripAdvisor profiles, photography or something easier to change like the copy on your website which are better attacked first.
Digital marketing agencies love to sell brand new websites because it can be a big chunk of money. But it's not always the best use of your money right now!
I would recommend getting your current website optimised before you embark on a new website design project. That way you will learn what elements your new platform really requires, and it will make the process that much easier.
What Makes a Great Hotel Marketing Website
So now you have chosen the right platform for you — what are the ingredients you need for a great hotel marketing website?
Branding & Style Guides
I believe that any marketing project starts with branding which means thinking about your entire branding identity through the lens of the guest. Does your complete branding identity resonate with your target audience?
- At the very minimum make sure you have at least a basic style guide prepared for your brand. That means a document that indicates the colors (with hex codes), fonts, logo guidelines etc for your brand identity - ideally put together by a designer.
- This should be accompanied with the media files for your brand such as logos, photography, videos etc if you are outsourcing your website design to a third party.
- Photographs should be grouped into room types and then prioritised based on an assessment of which photos are best. In other words, if you are presenting your photos as a gallery what is the order of photos or priority within the gallery or slideshow?
Getting all of this organized from the start will make the job of the person putting the site together that much easier. It will also allow you to identify areas for improvement such as particular photos that need retaking or retouching.
UNIQUE SELLING PROPOSITIONS
What are the unique selling propositions of your hotel? What makes your hotel stand out from one down the road? In many cases with our clients we discover that the USP's are different in the minds of the guest from what they thought.
The best way to discover your real USP's is to ask guests why they booked your hotel and to review and aggregate your TripAdvisor reviews to see what stood out for guests. Or in other words, what did guests really love about your hotel? Chances are future guests will like the same thing.
The entire website structure and messaging should revolve around these USP's.
For example if you run a small bed and breakfast and are renowned for your continental cooked breakfasts, then this becomes a USP that should be emphasised.
That would probably mean featuring a hero image of your breakfast on the front page — perhaps as the first or second photo that can be viewed. Or you might decide to feature the room shot first (the most important photo) followed by another section with the breakfast spread.
There are two aspects to your hotel marketing website. There is the platform of the website itself (for example WordPress or Squarespace) — and then there is the content. A great platform will make your content shine.
You can have an awful logo or even no logo at all. But you can't have ordinary photography... Because photography will cut through everything else.
But if you get truly amazing photography and then combine it with the right platform and theme/template then this will only amplify its impact.
If you are not sure whether your photography is up to scratch, Locus Focus Consulting can review your current portfolio and highlight areas for improvement for a small fee.
I also recommend checking out our Ultimate Hotel Photography Marketing Guide for more help.
VIDEO THAT SUPPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY (OPTIONAL)
Locus Focus also has a sister company Raving Digital that produces hotel marketing video.
But that doesn't mean we are rushing around like headless chickens telling every hotel they need a video produced. We certainly wouldn't want to be seen as feathering our own nest ;)
Having said that, once you have everything else in place a video can work wonders to complement your existing content. It works particularly well for unique hotels and rooms. That beautiful penthouse suite is best sold with video because it's much easier to convey emotion through video.
Uniqueness isn't just the decor, it could be the location, the owner or the history of the hotel. But it's only really worth putting on video if its interesting, engaging and captivating.
For some hotels, a documentary style video will work. For others like resorts or cruise ships the best video might be experiential where the crew follows around a family to see how much fun the children are having.
As a general rule, for most hotels a room tour video will be the best investment, followed by a video of your unique selling propositions whether that's the incredible pool area, lobby or location you have.
In terms of your website, video should complement the existing media. Thumbnails should be of small to medium size so that they are noticed but don't dominate the page.
Break up your hotel marketing video into small videos so they can be placed where relevant. This will massively improve the engagement (% of time watched) and improve the customer experience. When guests are in "research mode" looking at hotels they don't want their time wasted by long, boring "slideshow" type videos that don't get to the point.
THE RIGHT Domain Name
Assuming that you are not about to change your brand identity and hotel name, an assessment of your current domain name needs to be made. It could be that the best investment you could make is to change your actual domain name.
Your domain name should be appropriate for the market that it is in. For example, if you have an Australian hotel then the domain name should end in .com.au. There are exceptions for this depending on the market and country, but this certainly applies in Australia.
I still see prominent hotels in Australia that are using a .com domain extension. If this is the case with your website, I recommend having experts like Locus Focus or another digital marketing agency assess the viability and suitability to migrate to a .com.au for the long term SEO and brand recognition benefits.
There may be other reasons to change your domain name. It may be too long (over 11 characters is what I consider too long), hard to remember or easy to misspell. All these factors count against your current domain name and may make it wise to register a new domain first.
THE RIGHT URL PREFIX
Google announced that a secure website (starting with a 'https') hosted on a domain with a secure certificate will be a ranking factor back in August 2014.
That means that "all other things being equal" a secure website will rank higher than a site that doesn't have the padlock symbol in the browser window. You can see this on the Locus Focus website in Google Chrome: the padlock is the green symbol in your address bar.
Also in the near future, Google Chrome may show a broken lock symbol on websites that are not secure (automatically - even if they don't have shopping carts or other payment gateways).
That means that in the medium term it is best to switch to HTTPS. This is not always a simple process though, which is another reason why Google ranks these websites higher in search results (because it's a ranking signal to Google that the site is more legitimate).
It also has the added benefit of improving your customer experience, because it makes it almost impossible for any information submitted on your website to be intercepted (hacked). That improves the security of all communications on your website.
You don't need to rush out today and switch to HTTPS if you are a small hotel. But it should be something "on the table" to discuss with your digital marketing partners. If you are going to change your domain name, this would be a great time to kill two birds with one stone.
If and when you do switch to HTTPS be sure understand the SEO ramifications and do it properly by "informing" Google via the Google Search Console.
A Suitable Hosting Provider
This is where things get technical very quickly but this stuff is important. This is not supposed to be a blog post about choosing the right host for your website, but suffice to say that where your site is hosted is very important.
The type of hosting provider you choose (or switch to) should reflect the platform you will use for your website. If you chose a WordPress platform, then it is highly advisable to use a dedicated, managed WordPress hosting service.
A dedicated, "Managed Wordpress" host differs from a regular host in that their infrastructure is specifically built for WordPress hosting. That normally means a much smoother and easier WordPress experience with more integrated backups, udpates and page speed tweaks.
NOT CUSTOM DESIGNED
There are options other than WordPress, including a custom designed, bespoke website built from scratch - but I would definitely not recommend this. Unless you have a very high pain threshold and far too much money.
The potential problems and headaches with having a "website developer" build a website using custom code are almost endless.
The major problem with this approach is that you then become reliant on that developer for future updates and that technology is rapidly evolving faster than one small company come keep up with. It also means you are severely limited in terms of what extra functionality you wish to add to your website.
I believe this passionately because I used to own a proprietary eCommerce platform called "Rocket Retail". It was a Brisbane based eCommerce company that I founded in 2003. Back then - you could just code something from scratch and it would work fine. These days, that approach is really asking for trouble.
Even though my company owned the source code to Rocket Retail and therefore the license to use it, in 2013 I upgraded all my eCommerce sites to WordPress with WooCommerce and kissed Rocket Retail goodbye. It was simply overtaken by faster changing technology that I couldn't keep up with.
The Additional Wordpress Plugins
No WordPress site exists without both a theme and a number of critical extra plugins. The less the better from a performance and page load speed perspective, but you or your website designer will absolutely need to choose plugins to support the theme.
Some of the plugins we recommend for our clients include:
- Yoast SEO Plugin (the best SEO plugin)
- Duplicate Posts (duplicate posts in one click)
- W3 Cache (caching for speed improvements - Note: The caching plugin you choose may depend on your host so do some research first).
- WooCommerce (if you want to sell gift vouchers or other merchandise such as sheets, toiletries etc.)
- Gravity Forms (for contact pages and other forms)
- Slider Revolution (responsive slider/banner with variety of uses including showcasing a full screen hero image of your hotel to photo galleries)
This is just a start. There are literally thousands of WordPress plugins. But the ones above are all rock solid, mature and extremely useful plugins that will greatly enhance your website.
The Misnomer of "Website Designer"
A hotel website and it's accompanying WordPress theme is just scaffolding for your media. Without a logo, photography and good copywriting your website wouldn't exist.
The real skill in putting a website together for a hotel is not "designing" the website at all. It is much more important to consider the website from the guests perspective, whilst taking a conversion optimisation approach.
That means that your overall "design" is not really a design at all but a carefully constructed combination of components, elements and media that are designed to provide the best possible guest experience - while at the same time, delivering the maximum number of direct bookings!
It will need to adhere to your style guide (what fonts and colors you use) if you have one. It should use suitable fonts that match your style guide, brand, look good on the internet and are legible etc.
But you don't need a website designer as much as you need someone who really understands the guest journey and how the website complements that.
It should contain just the information it needs to communicate with both prospective and current guests.
Don't overlook the fact that many guests staying in your hotel today will use your hotel website to get information about facts like check out times, restaurant opening hours and contact pages to communicate with you.
Hotel Marketing Website MUST HAVES
Your hotel marketing website's primary call to action should be the direct booking button. For that reason, it should be prominently displayed at the top or bottom of the website in such a way that it is "sticky" and cannot be ignored or missed.
If it takes longer than two seconds to find it - people will just book your hotel on Booking.com.
And we all know why that's not a good outcome for you. That's why making the direct booking button so prominent and of course streamlining the booking process is so important.
People who are evaluating your website are often coming from other OTA's. Essentially they are coming to your website to see what extra information they can glean about your hotel. The photos on your marketing should be the same as those used on OTA's. This creates relevance and reassurance in their minds.
The secondary call to action really should be your email subscriber list. This is a huge topic in itself, but suffice to say that people also need a compelling reason to subscribe! The best way to encourage guests to subscribe to your newsletter is by having a solid content marketing strategy and editorial calendar.
Also remember that many people use your website simply to find your location, either the night before or on the way to your hotel in their taxi. So prominently displaying your map and address details is very important for the overall guest experience through their journey.
Conclusion AND SMALL PLUG
As you can see by the enormity of this post, your hotel marketing website is a tremendous challenge. It should be always be considered worthy of optimisation and improvement.
Partner with a digital marketing agency that has experience in hotel websites if possible and a passion for your success. Contact us for a free strategy session to uncover opportunities to improve your online presence today.
Chris Jack is the editor of Locus Focus and a professional hotel photographer based in Brisbane with over 20 years experience in digital marketing. He also hosts the weekly "Sharper Hotel Marketing" podcast.