BOSTON—You’ve likely heard of videos going “viral,” capturing the attention of wide audiences who in turn share content via social media platforms. Now, a hotel booking app and website named after the online phenomenon is going after the millennial market and aiming to redefine the online booking channel concept.
“Vir.al is a new platform that connects hotels with millennial travelers. We develop curated articles about destinations, events, hotels and special interests, all in pursuit of defining great travel experiences and delivering them via our website and mobile apps,” said Mike Murray, founder of Vir.al, based here. “We back up our articles with a unique social influencer engine that uncovers what real people on social channels are posting about the topics we cover.”
On the hotelier side, Murray further explained that Vir.al enables hotels to use the social influencer engine to discover social posts, trends and socially influential people, so they can market to these high-value guests with communications and special offers.
“We want to be a hotel-friendly sales channel that provides the tools and technologies needed to engage millennial travelers and beat both OTAs and Airbnb for more bookings with this valuable market,” he said.
Watching the shape-shifting of the industry prompted by disrupters like Airbnb and OTAs staking their own claims on the hotel business, served as the catalyst for Murray to create Vir.al.
“We’ve been a technology provider to hotels for many years and decided to leverage our platform and expertise to give hotels the tools they need to not only battle the big competitors, but also provide a great way to reach millennial travelers. If you’ve been following this interesting customer base, you know that millennials are motivated by experiences and technology, and not necessarily the price battles raging on in the online travel market,” he said. “Though some big hotel brands have programs in place to reach millennial customers, smaller brands that focus on lifestyle, luxury and other unique experiences don’t have the resources needed to compete. We level the playing field, regardless of size, by offering cool technology that no one else has. Our platform enables hotels to provide great experiences and technology while using social media to engage millennial travelers.”
Murray describes the current relationship between OTAs and hotels as dysfunctional, and the conflict with Airbnb is even more challenging.
“The reasons OTAs exist are to provide consumers with an easy way to book a variety of travel products and services. Common sense would suggest that the OTAs would want to understand and help their hotel suppliers, in terms of online consumer appeal and brand presentation; however, instead of facilitating this great consumer-brand relationship, OTAs have created confusion and complexity by injecting themselves as competition to the brands,” he said. “In fact, it became so confusing that sites like Kayak.com were created to try and simplify the disorder, but eventually they just further added to the confusion.”
As technology and consumer behavior are intertwined, it’s only natural that they drive each other’s actions and, as a result, how the market changes, noted Murray.
“Consumers are no longer awed by online technology, as it’s the norm. They are now more interested in mobile, social and how technology affects them personally because they expect it to be part of their everyday life and experiences,” he said. “The new generation of travelers have become numb to the online advertising, reviews and marketing ploys of the original OTAs and the dot-com era. They seek connections with real people and experiences and rely on social media much more than brand advertising and marketing as a basis for making purchasing decisions. Today’s smart, new booking channels are not using technology to lure customers into quickly buying something they would not otherwise purchase; instead, they are facilitating relationships between consumers and suppliers, providing guidance on travel experiences, and presenting travel opinions and sentiments from real people. This is a more personal and a better use of technology that promotes trusted travel and builds stronger loyalty.”
The new breed of online booking channels can be beneficial for hotels as well by helping hotels to potentially stand out and take back bookings that would have been lost to alternative accommodation sites, such as Airbnb or the OTAs.
“Airbnb uses technology to enable personal experiences and connections, and they’re becoming the new Goliaths that will dominate the travel industry and own customer loyalty. If hotels ignore the trend and the consumer demand, they will continue to lose more and more business,” he said. “Regrettably, many hotels can be slow to embrace new technology and often attempt to tie everything to traditional ROI metrics. Though it’s smart to pursue ROI, technology and consumer behaviors are more complex and deeper analysis is needed to effectively determine ROI. Gone are the days when you could say: ‘I spent X on marketing and got Y on bookings.’ The new metrics require a more detailed formula that includes providing compelling experiences and building a positive following on social media. It’s not easy, but the upside is that once you do win customers using experiences and connections—and not just cheap prices—they are much more loyal. You can then use lifetime value of the customer and not just simple booking revenue to achieve a much stronger ROI.”