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Finding the right place to stay

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It’s considered risky to book hotels online, but the OTAs do uncover a lot of hidden gems

The biggest dilemma when travelling is to find the right hotel to stay. The horrors of what happened to the Singapore-based actor who booked a hotel in Hyderabad, only to arrive there and be told solo woman guests wouldn’t be accommodated, is a case in point. Fortunately, in her case, as she took to social media to describe her plight, Goibibo — the online travel agent (OTA) through which she had booked — reacted quickly and upgraded her to another accommodation.

But it’s a trauma one can do without.

This is why when booking online, one tends to choose a branded hotel, so that there are no unpleasant shocks. But often, the location is not right, the price too high, or rooms not available. So one ends up settling for an unknown hotel, praying the room lives up to the pictures shown. One expects established OTAs to weed out bad hotels from their lists, but in the furious race to gather scale, especially as competition is heating up in this space, unfortunately quite a few shoddy properties slip in.

There are a few ways to make sure the hotel you book is decent. On MakeMyTrip (MMT), for instance, founder Deep Kalra points out that choosing a hotel with an MMT Assured stamp ensures quality. These are hotels that the OTA has personally vetted. MMT also frequently delists properties when user reviews are consistently poor.

“Photos and videos also help,” says Vikas Bhola, head for Indian subcontinent at Booking.com, the global hotels booking platform that entered India in 2012 and is fast proving to be the preferred choice of many here, thanks to the ease of search and payment on the platform. If user-generated photos spur a booking decision, then so do reviews and ratings, though the reliability of TripAdvisor reviews has been questioned after a number of fake posts were uncovered. On Booking.com, Bhola assures, the reviews are from genuine users, since only verified guests are allowed to post. But to be safe, one should read many reviews and then go with the majority view.

Contrary to perception, a majority of reservations on the Booking.com platform is for non-branded hotels, as location is a big parameter when choosing hotels. “Majorly how we work is to create landmarks and list properties around those,” explains Bhola. While there are risks, where the OTAs help is in discovery of hidden gems. In India, only around a lakh of hotel rooms are part of the branded chains with their own distribution channels. And barely 15% of hotel inventory is online. A majority of hotels are independent, and many a lovely property would not have come on our radar if not for OTAs like Cleartrip, MMT, and Booking.com investing in tech support for them. Booking.com’s Bhola says often it builds websites free for hotels — in return, if the hotel gets bookings on its own website, a small commission on those is given to the OTA.

Bhola points out that there are many different ways in which customers book, and the platform studies these to offer personalised recommendations based on artificial intelligence. “If a customer is more price-sensitive, then we will push more discounted properties in front. If the customer tends to choose hotels based on reviews, then we push higher-rated properties up front.” Also, if the purpose of travel is stated as business, then the algorithm will show up a completely different set of hotels. The more you book, the better your experience, as the OTA can offer better personalisation.

Booking.com has 1.4 million properties listed globally. In India, it has just 28,000 so far, but according to Bhola, is growing its listings at 60% annually. This year, the focus, he says, is to get more properties in the North East on to the platform. MakeMyTrip, together with its new acquisition Goibibo, with which it merged last year, does 60,000 room nights a day, and offers the biggest selection of hotels, though interestingly Oyo is not on the platform. Select Oyo inventory (only the right quality ones says Bhola) is with Booking.com. Cleartrip probably has the cleanest interface and fastest search optimisation on the mobile.

But what’s the advantage of booking through an OTA versus booking direct? In the case of upscale luxury, booking direct with the hotel might be a good idea, as many of them offer discounts to their loyalty programme customers. But in budget, and midscale, the OTA is still a better route, as some quality check is guaranteed. Often, the OTA has a ‘price parity’ understanding with the hotelier, which means the hotel cannot give guests higher discounts than what’s offered on the OTA platform. Also, since OTAs are now bundling discounted tickets to local attractions with your hotel reservations — example Louvre if you booked in Paris — it does seem to make sense to go with them.

Chitra Narayanan is an editorial consultant with Business Line who writes on consumer behaviour but keeps an interested gaze at the travel and hospitality sector

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2020 9:58:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/its-considered-risky-to-book-hotels-online-but-the-otas-do-uncover-a-lot-of-hidden-gems/article19408387.ece

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