A Roundtable Interview with FINE: HOTELS Magazine

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A Roundtable Interview with FINE for an upcoming issue of HOTELS Magazine

HOTELS: What are the most common design mistakes you see on hotel websites?

FINE: Many hotel websites still struggle to get past the limitations and demands of technology and functionality to really give visitors a sense of the experience they offer. So in general, the common mistake is a site that does not match the hotel experience, both in quality and style, often because it was developed through template-based designs and technology.

Hotels think in terms of bookings and room nights, and their sites often reflect a commoditized view where a room is simply a function of proximity, availability, and price. But guests think in terms of things like experience and overall value. So you have to know what you are to people and make your site reflect that, because your site is more than a booking engine – your site is your brand.

One of the metaphors we find most useful is to simply imagine your website is one of your properties. What greets people when they arrive? Can they see the details of what they’re booking, amenities, and descriptions at their own pace? Or are they confronted with a barrage of special offers, pricing, and booking engines before they even know whether they want to stay? Are you hiring engaging concierges or carnival barkers? It’s a mistake if your website doesn’t reflect your answer.

HOTELS: Besides the obvious (booking capability, basic hotel info, etc.), what features are absolute must-haves on a hotel site?

FINE: The answer should depend on the nature of the hotel and brand, including whether it is primarily for business or pleasure, suited for big events, or simply how it’s priced and positioned. But the general answer is you need everything, just not all at once. In all cases, the question is less about which features are ‘must haves’ than it is about the prominence and pacing of these features. Hotel sites are often designed around the limitations of technology platforms, rather than constructed from a user experience perspective, and it shows.

Some must-haves that augment the basic functions include great and ample photos, concierge-like information on the area and the property, online gift certificates, and very thorough facilities and menu information for event planners and brides. But all of these things should unfold as user’s request. Think of a hotel website as a successful courtship that starts with a simple pick-up line intended to evolve into a deeper relationship. Hotel websites often start by squeezing everything onto their home page, effectively saying “My name is hotel and here’s everything about me, warts and all” – they are over anxious suitors that make you want to make up excuses about washing your hair rather than go on that first date.

HOTELS: How do you know if it's time to revamp your website--are there any telltale signs? And how often should the site be overhauled, generally speaking?

FINE: There are some clear signs. The first is a simple gut check about whether you and your customers have evolved enough to merit a revamp. But if that’s not obvious, you will notice trends in guest interaction that are strong indicators:

1 – guests who book online arrive at your hotel confused or misinformed
2 – staff lose confidence directing guests on the phone to the website
3– more phone calls from people who started on the website but decided to call instead
4 – a protracted decline in online look to book rates

The hospitality industry moves fast, and the Web moves even faster. So if you’re not taking a look at this critical channel constantly to make small adjustments based on guest behavior, and seriously considering major overhauls every 2-4 years, you are moving far too slow. You need only look at the changes that have occurred in mobile device adoption, and the uptick in broadband access over the last 1-2 years to see the truth of this.

HOTELS: What are some of the most popular trends in new hotel websites (both good and bad)?

FINE: The good trends have to do with functions that really help users choose and even augment the experience at a property: incorporating local information feeds on weather, tides or events, easier access to large-sized photos of the property and area, integrated booking engines that have user experience in mind, even simple integration with Google maps.

The bad trends are any use of gratuitous widgetry driven by a desire to demonstrate technology know-how, or stay on par with competitive site doodads. As if hotel site pages aren’t already cluttered enough, many further subject you to animating, flickering, rotating offer banners, play dance music, and will probably emit aromas the moment that technology is available. You also find the random inclusion of video embed windows as an afterthought or RSS feeds and content that don’t seem to flow from the content. And then there is the trend toward obligatory social media – such as blogs or Facebook linkages – that often comes off as simply ham-handed.

No one will book a room because you have the latest widget on your site. Remember what you do and remember what your customers want from you. Then selectively choose the Web trends that support that dialog, and leave the rest to bog down your competitor’s site.

HOTELS: Do design objectives vary by geographic region? Does a good U.S. site look different from a good Asia site, for instance?

FINE: There’s no question that there are some cultural differences in how hotels are presented and how the Web is used in different countries. But it really just suggests you must be even more focused on the essential messages and images of who you are and who your customers are, and not distracted by hotel speak and extraneous functionality.

HOTELS: Do you have an all-time favorite hotel website, and why? (And are there any sites you just can't stand?)

[NOTE: FINE Design Group designed and developed Blancaneax and JdV, which may be why we like them, or have persuaded ourselves to… however, we did not design The Standard site]


Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Resorts. 
This is a good example of the level of experiential site required to engage and entice customers to invest significant time and money in a vacation to a remote destination. It shows how different a brand-forward website can be from the mold of a typical hotel site. And it took the resort from 60% occupancy to 98% in just a few months.

Joie de Vivre Hotels. 
Joie de Vivre is a truly unique brand, and their uniqueness comes across in this site. They are all about the California experience, which is a rich convergence of many personality types and diverse locations. And the site accommodates that individuality with some unique tools, like a matchmaker that aligns you with your best hotel based on personality, tools to help you build a full vacation itinerary, and ample use of imagery that romances instead of simply cataloguing.

Standard Hotels. 
So simple. So much personality. Great imagery, easy to find information. Total alignment with their brand. We may not be cool enough to stay in these hotels, but no one will mind if we visit their website and pretend for a minute.

Ian Schrager hotel sites. 
All of a sudden, this has become like a stale reminder of the pretentious dot com era. To see these sites festooned with discount offers is some sort of justice for those of us who were always priced, or hipped, out of them.

Rock Resorts. 
They have perhaps the finest collection of lodges in the country, but their site says otherwise in no uncertain terms. It’s the type of disappointing disconnect that leaves any good Web design firm dying to show how dramatic a difference could be made simply by reflecting the truth.

Taj hotels. 
This site shows promise on the home page. Then you try and find a hotel. Make a reservation. Or do much of anything practical. All of a sudden, a quick trip to Reno seems like way less of a headache than that dream trip to Asia.

HOTELS: In a nutshell, what makes a successful hotel website?

FINE: A successful hotel website empowers users to simply realize their ideal experience of being at the hotel.

HOTELS: Also, kindly take a few minutes to review and briefly grade the following sites (what works/what doesn’t/overall impression):

HOTELS: Starwood.com

FINE: The effect of this site is like sitting in the long meetings in air-conditioned office building where much of it was likely conceived. It’s a bit unfair to judge, because corporate umbrella sites are tough and most users are probably focused on 1-2 of their brands for the most part. But the design is corporate and non-descript and you don’t come away with a sense for Starwood as anything but the loosest aggregation of disconnected brands. The first thing you see makes it seem like Starwood essentially exists to justify a loyalty/bonus program. And the matchmaking to their properties is a classic example of talking to themselves on white boards in their own language of brands and products “of interest” rather than speaking to guests about what they want.

HOTELS: Langhamhotels.com

FINE: This site does a decent job of surfacing the brand and giving you a sense for who they are, with use of imagery and color. But it has technical and structural problems with speed and navigability. It takes you awhile to get oriented because there is not really a difference in the relative weight/hierarchy of elements on the home page. So the overall effect is amateurish, but with good intentions that make you think the properties have promise if you’re a certain kind of visitor.

HOTELS: Feel-aqua.com

FINE: Overall, the site is trying too hard to make you see what a great property this seemingly is, and should just stay out of the way more. Do you make your guests wait in line to walk in your front door? Even with a broadband connection, this loading sequence is too long to wait for a sterile 3D fly-through rendering. This imagery is not compelling enough to justify it, and then is promptly muddied by special offer touts. The music will make you not want to stay long, even if you like the genre. If you make a dreamy promise about soothing tranquility, best not to insert looping music, floating headlines, flashing touts, and rollover navigation sounds and states. Design and layout is okay, but the information architecture is disorienting, sacrificing clear main nav in favor of specials, live assistance, music. Once you navigate somewhere, the depth of the content is baffling and sometimes non-existent.

HOTELS: Bestwesternpremier.com

FINE: This website is easy to navigate and understand. But that’s because we’ve all visited it before at bestwestern.com and sites a lot like it. So does it do enough to tackle the difficult challenge of making the Best Western brand seem “premier”? Not by a long shot. It has the clunky feel of a site design constrained by a corporate IT department where latitude to break the templatized mold was limited. A website has the power to form or change fundamental perceptions about your brand. Your site IS your brand. But you have to try harder than simply adding the word “premier” and changing your color scheme from blue to something that implies gold or fine Corinthian leather.
Thanks for your help!

FINE: Thank you for asking!

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