By definition, when a hotelier (let’s say his name is Mr. Smith) opens his doors to sell rooms, the potential market for his hotel is the entire population of travellers who are visiting his area/destination. Depending on where that destination is, the mix of languages spoken by these inbound travellers could be extremely limited (think Southwest Georgia Regional Airport, USA where only a handful of local carriers operate), or very, very abundant (think Heathrow Airport in London where some 170 carriers operate – the vast majority flying internationally).
Thinking along these lines, and on the back of a commercial need for us to identify potential clients for one of our products, we looked at the hotels in the Greater London area, as well as those properties located quite centrally to the city (for those of you familiar with the city, within the North/South Circular, and then within the Congestion Zone).
[For those of you that aren't very familiar with London, it would be relevant to mention that from a cultural and linguistic point, it is a very vibrant intersection of cultures and languages. Just like NYC, London boasts extremely diverse international communities, and it is a magnet for virtually all types of tourists and visitors (barring perhaps sensible sun-seekers). ]
Our little experiment was to look at a large section of the independent hotel market, and identify how well these hotels appear to be “going after” the international visitors. The intention was for us to find out how many hotels rank well for a variety of languages, and from within a variety of countries, for general searches (what we called “Wide” searches e.g. ‘hotel in London’) somewhat specific searches (“Near’ searches such as: ’boutique hotel near Bina Gardens in London’) and completely specific searches (we call them “Named Searches” e.g. ‘The Cranley Hotel in London’).
We were expecting interesting data to come out of this. What we didn’t expect to find was that the vast majority of independent London city centre hotels, weren’t featuring at all in international searches!
Quickly, our initial intention to qualify the existing international hotel strategies (by assigning values to it and then comparing it with same-language performance) became an obvious no starter. It appears that whilst London hotels can be extremely adept (even cunning) in getting the search engine SEO and PPC presence they need in English searches, the ball is more frequently than not, completely dropped in the international markets.
The reasons for all this are obvious. Yet, in the name of mistrust (over the years in the hotel industry I have learned the hard way to ignore what is “obvious”, and always ask the question) we run our findings by a few hoteliers. The main reasons for not having an international website were:
- Costs of translating the websites in more than one language
- Costs of optimising the websites in multiple languages
- Lack of know-how
- Belief that Google Translations gets the job done anyway
- Knew about it and hadn’t done the translations quite yet
- Agencies bring the business from abroad so the hotel doesn’t have to try more (if you are a hotelier, I hope you are cringing as you are reading this)
For those reasons, and maybe more that we didn’t manage to uncover, hotels don’t seem to “chase” the international, foreign-language business on-line. At the same time, the same hotels, are all fighting tooth and nail to get the attention of the English-speaking travelers.
For markets such as London (and assuming this is repeated in cities like New York, Chicago, Miami, Paris, Munich etc.) this imbalance is presenting us with an interesting dynamic of supply and demand.
[I fondly recall here a formidable grandmother who used to advise me: 'When you hear about fruit-laden cherry trees my boy, always carry a small basket with you.' It seems to me that the reverse can be truth as well.]
On the one hand we have some finite and proportionately small – and (in most western countries) fairly accurately measured – demand for local accommodation from international markets. On the other hand, we have a proportionally even lower number of hotels that appear to be interested in that international business.
It would be somewhat impolite for me to point to any specific properties here. But, to get an idea of the point that I am trying to make without naming any names, think of the 5 independent quality hotels in London that spring to your mind. Find them in Google and see if you can find any languages there… Now, I know they have their reasons for this – maybe they really don’t need any more business directly to their website – at least not at an additional cost. Whatever the case might be, if you want to stay in one of those hotels, and you happen to come from Japan, you pretty much have to find and book this hotel via an agency. As a consumer you might not mind at all; but with commissions from agencies being astronomical, as a hotelier, you absolutely should mind a lot!
Now, it is personally important to me to mention here that the more I study, the more suspicious I grow of statistics and “evidence”. However, I have to agree that the figures available to us suggest a staggering opportunity for independent hoteliers, in the international/multilingual markets as a whole. In the case of certain cities with strong international demand, only those hotels that can speak the customer’s language (literally) have the chance to attract international traffic directly to their own website. The rest, don’t.
Figures for international inbound travel to the UK are readily available for anyone with an interest in accessing them. One of my favourite sources is Visit Britain who frequently update their figures and implicitly remind us of the magnitude of the opportunity in the international traveller. A good summary of the latest update on international tourism facts can be found straight on their website, and we frequently use their data on our studies.
Some of the quoted figures are truly staggering. Almost 30 million visitors in 2010 have generated almost 16.9 billion pounds in revenue to the country, and certain key performance indicators have pretty much stayed the same over the last four years – despite the rare turmoil in the international and domestic markets since 2008. More than half of those visitors (52 per cent) were visiting London!
The Language Mosaic
There is no escaping that we live in a multicultural, multilingual world. The consequential complexities and inconsistent (and even incompatible) patterns of consumer behaviour between the various international markets make marketing to such an international audience a seriously complex affair. The very simple fact that a hotel is ideally trying to sell the same room to anyone in the world who potentially wants to come to the area, makes it all more tricky to set up on-line and sell, than they would ideally like it to be.
However, and as it often happens with similar populations, there are some demand patterns that can make our lives a little easier…
The – almost – 80/20 rule
It turns out that almost 70% of all international visits in 2010 happened from the top 10 source countries (only 10 per cent of the countries that have direct flights to Britain).
We also know that not all visitors behave the same way. The reasons behind travelling (e.g. Visiting Friends and Relatives vs. Business Travel), the age of the visitor, as well as the source country itself can make a great difference in the suitability of a traveller for any particular hotel.
Furthermore, from a linguistic point of view, [and despite that with the exception of two English-speaking countries (USA and Australia) all other top 10 source countries (by volume) are within Europe] the complexity that we are faced with isn’t too scary…
The Big Four
Looking at the table above, and making the assumption that all the Dutch visitors speak English (I have yet to come across a Dutch person that doesn’t speak English better than I do) leaves us with four major foreign language “powered” contributors to inbound international travel in the UK. France, Germany, Spain and Italy. These four countries alone represent exactly one third of all the international visitors that came to the UK in 2010!
Lost in Translation?
According to eye4travel (2008) some 70 per cent of all internet users don’t speak English at all, or are uncomfortable using it for transactions… this is obviously a figure that refers to everyone with a computer and an internet connection, and we would be dishonest f we didn’t assume that international travellers are more likely to speak English than the average user. Yet, the significance of language barriers is pretty evident from that figure – 70 per cent is a high number in any language (pardon the pun), and so is 60 or even 50 per cent.
In any case, I believe that there are only two significant questions to be asked by any hotelier trying to increase his direct traffic.
1. “Do I think that international travellers understand my site when they visit it?”
Before anyone raises their hand to talk about Google Translations and risk giving me an aneurysm (however brilliant and useful their translations tools are) I would like to ask you the even more pertinent and logically preceding question:
2. “Do you think that travellers from abroad are actually able to find you online, in order to have the opportunity to try and understand what you are selling to them?”
Even if it were only a minority of international inbound travellers that didn’t speak English, them being unable to find a hotelier’s website in the first place is – I am sure you would agree – a major issue!
If you are a hotelier and you’re are reading this, the chances are that you are already doing some SEO and PPC for your website. Also, the chances are that you are NOT doing SEO or PPC for your German, French, Japanese etc. potential customers. Hilton is, Marriot is, and crucially, Expedia, LastMinute and Bookings do (have a look at the Google screen captures below).
When we were thinking of offering a language specific multilingual presence product and run our little experiments, we run multiple searches from several countries for multiple types of hotels, using a variety of languages and IP locations (in other words we were pretending we were searching for UK hotels from abroad).
The results were really fascinating. From certain countries (most clear and obvious in Holland than anywhere else) the evident problem of being found appeared to be at its lowest point. In Dutch searches, hotels without international languages on their official websites produced mixed results (far from good presence, but much better than we expected).
It seems that the Dutch’s ability to speak perfect English has permeated Google’s algorightms. A lot of hotels – especially in “Narrow” searches, did come up in the first pages, no problem.
On the other extreme, in countries where English is not a prominent language or the language has a different alphabet (Japanese, Arabic, etc.) no searches gave us any independent hotel results at all. Even when we were looking for hotels by their exact name and location, only agencies came back with results. Fascinatingly, Bookings.com – presumably through their very popular xml feed based service – seemed to power the staggering majority of results in the more obscure source markets.
The inability of hotelier to market to the many – and obscure – international languages is arguably – and at least in part – justified. As those that do engage in the “get the international traveller” game would testify, the law of diminishing returns applies with unforgiving realism. After the first few “top-tier” languages have been put together and offered to consumers, adding more languages is not necessarily a financially good idea. Going after certain countries that represent only a very small proportion of the overall inbound UK market is simply too expensive for the returns this market will generate, and therefore a justifiable commercial decision to leave them out.
It is most likely for that reason that you don’t get to see Expedia, Hotels.com, LastMinute etc. featuring in the Greek search results of Google above…
So what is one to do?
Some markets are – I would argue – no-brainers! With a third of all international travel to London coming from France, Germany, Spain and Italy, and (statistically speaking) with only a fraction of the hotels in a hotel’s competitive set offering rooms to these countries through their own websites, there is a huge internationalisation opportunity that should generate some real results.
Thank you for reading – as always we are completely open, interested and grateful for any feedback you may have.
Director of Electronic Hotelworks