Q&A: Bob Diener, getaroom.com
Bob Diener is the co-founder and president of the hotel booking site, getaroom.com. One of the earliest Internet entrepreneurs, he also co-founded the company that became hotels.com in 1990. As a leading travel industry expert, he is a frequent source for news organizations including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times and CNN, and is a regular guest on many television programs including Bloomberg, NBC Morning News and Fox News. He talked with us about how technology is changing travel, and shared his insider tips.
What’s your travel forecast for the coming year?
Technology keeps getting better and better, creating easier ways to book rooms. As everyone gets more mobile, small group and individual bookings are last minute. There’s been a real surge in speed with handheld devices and tablets, and we expect it to grow dramatically as prices go down, especially on tablets, and more people use them.
How is the economy changing booking patterns?
There will be continuous and various types of promotions by hotels to convince visitors to book in advance, which allows hotels to be more efficient and plan rates. You’ll see more incentives to make consumers change their behavior. There will be more rate differentiation between those who book and pay in advance, which will include the ability to make changes, and another for last-minute bookings, which won’t include any refunds on cancellation. Rates will also encourage travelers to stay longer.
Does this hold true for meeting space as well?
There’s no question that it applies to meeting space. Meetings and groups are booking short. There will be a push in terms of the negotiation process; rates will be different depending on length of stay and other factors.
What other changes do you expect?
The check-in process is changing due to technology. The front desk will disappear. The long lines when your group arrives at the same time will be eliminated. Consumers are getting used to doing more check-ins themselves. They are self-printing their airplane bordering passes; rental cars have self-check-in devices. There’s an app for room keys, allowing hotel guests to open their room using their phone; you’ll see this expanding, along with consumers selecting their rooms online. They’ll be able to head straight to their room as soon as they arrive. That’s great for travelers and produces cost savings for hotels. Hotels need to interface with entire systems and that is taking longer than in other areas of travels, but it’s on the way.
Do you see hotel rates going up overall?
The economy has been going sideways for an extended period of time. There will be a slow rise in demand [for hotel space] because not a lot is coming on the market. Rates are going up in bigger cities, but are expected to stay the same in second-tier cities and smaller markets. We’ll see increases in 2013, and we are telling travelers to book as far in advance as possible. Hotels won’t be slashing rates at the last minute. Planners, especially, should make plans earlier rather than later.
What’s in your crystal ball?
I see much more personalization. When someone books through the meeting planner’s software program, more preferences will be remembered and responses will be custom tailored to the individual. They’ll be offered rooms with what they want. This gives travelers more confidence that their travel provider knows them. They’re more comfortable working with them.
What about air travel?
The tremendous amount of consolidation means there’s less competition, which means rates will continue to go up. All rules have been tossed out the window. There are no more round-trip rates. Instead of system-wide rules, now it’s airline-to-airline delivering to capacity. Major airlines are becoming like discount carriers. There will be even more creativity in adding additional charges where they can. There are lots of other ways they haven’t gotten around to yet to maximize income. They’ll charge more for an aisle seat or a window seat. You’ll see more marketing…advertising on the backs of seats, on the airport shuttle buses, everywhere. Luxury-type airline travel in this country is a thing of the past. American Airlines going bankrupt means they can now compete and go head-to-head with Southwest, which has more routes as a result of its merger with AirTran. So fewer services, more fees, pricing skirmishes between online sites and airlines. Also, more packaging, which is more popular outside the U.S., with airfare, hotels and cars included in one price. Providers working with net rates can move a lot of product and hide bottom-line pricing.
What incentives are being offered to lure preferred customers?
What they’re doing with business travelers is splitting them up. They’re getting priority in lines, luggage off quicker, extra freebies. Some airlines may do premium seating, but you’ll no longer see the days of a higher percentage of staff to passengers. It’s a pay-for-what-you-get system, like the latest in the car industry—the toll device. It’s another way to charge you for extras.
What are your favorite travel resources?
Obviously, I use getaroom.com and I think kayak.com is a great site. Our big push now is on the vacation rental side for those who need a lot of accommodations. We’re adding things like condo hotels in New York City, as well as studios to three-bedroom apartments. We’re using more flash sales for lodging to excite consumers to take advantage of short-term offers. It’s a way for vendors to push aspirational products, and these opportunities lift the boat for the entire industry.
How does this apply to meeting planners?
If they have attendees who are arriving earlier or staying later, they need resources for them. We have commission-type programs for planners. We put them on a different URL to track bookings and the planner can earn extra inventory.
What frequent flyer advice do you have?
I rarely travel the same airline both ways. You can find better fares and convenient times by using different carriers. I make sure I am a premier member of all clubs, including car rental companies and all hotel groups. I love credit card programs. You get travel bonuses, double miles, triples miles, etc. It becomes a battle the consumer is winning.
What specific advice can you offer meeting planners?
Two things. One, make sure you have a little card in your wallet with your frequent numbers and credit card call-free numbers, so you can easily take it out and see them all—and always make sure you sign up for notifications by cell phone or text so you get important messages. Two, bring food and extra batteries.
What technology tool do you always travel with?
I always take my laptop and my Blackberry for email. I have a spare charger about the size of a credit card with three to four full charges for all my devices. Also, I have a Kindle, which I love especially when I’m with my wife and kids.
What else do you always pack?
An empty plastic bottle, which I fill up with water when I pass security. Who wants to pay $3 for a bottle of water? Two big bags of trail mix, a swimsuit and goggles, shorts and T-shirts and jogging shoes to exercise. The best way to see a city is to jog around.
What do you do to relax?
I work out always. That’s why I bring my gym clothes.