When it comes to attracting corporate guests, mid-market hotels in the UK are keeping good relationships with buyers and TMCs alike
Do travel buyers who book direct get the best bang for their buck? Might they save time and get better coverage by outsourcing the task to a TMC that charges for their services but can bring added value in the management information they provide? Or should they just invite employees to go online, look for the best deal within guidelines and bill back on expenses?
Looking at the UK’s mid-market sector, which is dominated by Travelodge and Premier Inn, it appears these chains recognise the value of relationships with both channels, even those as competitive as Premier Inn, which attracts corporates whether they procure rooms for travellers direct or not.
“We’re seeing more travel buyers who outsource hotel bookings to TMCs mandating our inclusion in the mix,” says Gareth Nihan, Premier Inn’s head of corporate accounts for the south of England. “Price certainly plays a part in that, but corporate clients also value the coverage we can offer as the UK’s largest hotel brand.”
One client reporting “high adoption” of Premier Inn is Npower. It encourages its 2,000 regular travellers to consult online booking tool Cytric and also maintains a travel desk manned by CWT. The TMC provides management information and sources rooms for five per cent of employees who can’t find good matches for their requirements online.
“The tool accesses all the negotiated rates we have in place and the rate caps we have instituted for particular cities or areas, sending us an alert when someone goes over the red line – in which case we can step in and assist,” says travel buyer Jo McQuade, who also procures travel for associate companies of the energy provider.
McQuade has reasons beyond keen price and wide coverage for including Premier Inn in Npower’s list of preferred hotel chains. “What we like is that it is a very transparent product, unlike the sub-brands of some groups between which it’s hard to know the difference in what you are going to get.
“And we like that an employee can stay the night, have breakfast and leave; this is not universal in a credit card-driven sector where employees are often required to pay and claim back on expenses or bill to a TMC which may charge for the service.”
Even so, coverage cannot be underestimated, according to Lesley McEwan, who looks after Premier Inn’s team of corporate account managers in the north: “Our customers tell us location is their number one driver when booking business accommodation,” she says.
This coverage extends beyond the obvious – hotels in a city centre, near airports or close to conference venues. “The choice of location can equally well be driven by proximity to a client’s head office or the geographical centre of the region for which a sales manager is responsible,” McEwan points out.
Premier Inn also offers business users a dedicated booking platform which allows travel buyers to keep track of their spending, ensure compliance with in-house policy and track where employees are at any given time, which could be pertinent in the face of a disaster or terrorist attack. Unsurprisingly, free credit is part of the package.
The chain invests heavily in nurturing direct client relationships, believing quarterly face-time is vital to developing a proper understanding of client needs. “We take a consultative approach to all clients, as each will have different priorities,” says Nihan, while McEwan adds: “We appreciate that clients are busy, so the face time may have to be via Skype. And we also understand that for some clients a remote relationship relying on phone or email will have to deliver when there is no time to meet at all.”
In spite of these offerings the brand does not get an exclusive from Npower, although it is high in a list of chains with which the company has negotiated two-year programmes. McQuade acknowledges relationships are “very valuable to address any issues or challenges”.
But she stresses the need for a comprehensive programme when a preferred chain cannot fit traveller requirements. All hotels are asked by Npower to quote on a bed-and-breakfast basis for a level point of comparison, adds McQuade, who sees free wifi “as an expectation rather than the perk it once was”.
Rooms with benefits
Like Premier Inn, Travelodge also offers the services of a dedicated account manager to holders of its new business account card, which was launched last year. “This offers a range of benefits,” says director of communications Shakila Ahmed, citing a track-and-control expenditure tool, room allocation on quieter business floors and a guaranteed 5 per cent off flexible rate bookings.
Six weeks’ interest-free credit is offered for food and wifi as well as rooms, and, as with Premier Inn, the business account, and the credit that comes with it, is free of charge. Bespoke deals are also promised to corporate clients.
However many tools a hotel chain offers free through its business booking platforms, it will never be able to offer the wider choice available through a TMC, which combs the market through an aggregator.
“We look at offers from websites, such as Laterooms, as well as hotel corporate rates. We sometimes find those corporate rates are not the lowest on offer,” says Chris Vance, director of operations at Click Travel. “For example, great rates may suddenly become available at a hotel that has had a cancellation and has a lot of rooms to fill at short notice.”
Click Travel claims to offer unparalleled control through its travel.cloud system, even when travellers make their own bookings. “A traffic light system shows preferred hotels in green, hotels which are not preferred but still comply with policy in amber, and those which do not comply in red,” explains Vance.
The fact TMCs can direct employees to preferred brands with which a client may have previously nurtured a relationship, and take all the headache out of travel procurement by also booking transportation, makes them a no-brainer, they say, for clients such as the Guide Dogs Association for the Blind, which found procuring travel direct a distinct headache.
“Hotel bookings were previously secured in a variety of ways, including company payment cards, personal payment cards, expenses and bill back,” says Chris Mabbatt, procurement business partner for Guide Dogs. “Not only was this inefficient and labour intensive, it meant we weren’t getting the best value for money or the management information required to maximise the cost-saving potential.”
The association chose to start booking through Click Travel, he explains, “as it gives us access to live availability for more than one million hotels and a full bill-back solution that includes budget chains, such as Premier Inn and Travelodge.
“Making our bookings this way provides us with real-time, detailed management information and reporting options, which enable us to make informed decisions about our staff travel.” Add to that buying power that a small or medium-size business could not expect to achieve on its own account, explains Mabbatt.
Holding on to direct
With TMCs allowing clients to specify preferred chains, hotels are not necessarily losing out when a travel manager chooses not to book direct and widen the net, but they are not giving up easily on their direct business. Hilton, which offers a variety of perks, including loyalty points, through its Honors programme, launched a campaign featuring Pitch Perfect star Anna Kendrick, its first celebrity talent, to encourage travellers and travel buyers alike to book direct.
“We want our guests to focus on the purpose of their travel, and not be stressed by shopping around for the best price for their hotel room or wondering if they’re getting all possible perks,” says Jon Witter, chief customer officer at Hilton.
The company is putting its money where its mouth is, not only guaranteeing a pricematch if those booking through one of the official Hilton sites spot a better rate elsewhere, but discounting the matched rate by a further 25 per cent. An additional incentive to book direct through the Honors loyalty programme is the ability to pre-select rooms from a digital floor plan, have a room key waiting at reception and order extra pillows or a snack to be in their room on arrival.
There is also the benefit of accumulating points towards free nights for leisure stays at any property within the group, only available through the Honors programme. “In the last year, guests who booked through an online travel agent or other travel site missed out on 15 million free nights on top of other benefits they would have received,” claims Hilton chief commercial officer Chris Silcock.
Pillows and other perks that personalise the hotel experience, may be as important to the traveller as pricing to their travel buyer. Hotels are increasingly aware that corporates are delegating the choice of lodgings to their travellers. “Through our OBT we direct travellers to our preferred hotels,” says Npower’s McQuade, “but ultimately it is their decision where they stay.”