Ron Braet has found a way to compete with the big boys.
Braet was surprised Thursday to learn that his modest vacation rental in Steamboat Springs was listed third -- behind only Mountain Resorts and www.steamboat-springs.com -- on the results page of a Google search of "Steamboat condos."
"I have been getting more business than I did last year, but you have snow, don't you?" Braet said. "I could use even more business."
Braet owns a two-bedroom condo -- Cedar No. 22 -- in Whistler Village Townhomes. The unit is on the city bus route and about a mile from the Steamboat Ski Area gondola. Until Feb. 11, it can be rented for the bargain rate of $135 a night or $830 a week.
Braet's ability to out-compete larger property managers illustrates how search engines are behind a seismic shift in the way resort vacation properties are marketed.
Google's search for "Steamboat condos" returned 1.26 million hits in fewer than three seconds.
How was Braet's property listed before those of the big dogs in property management? Essentially, he hired a company that is skilled at optimizing Web pages for search engines.
Braet, who lives in Beaver Creek, Pa., (not to be confused with Beaver Creek, Colo.) paid a flat annual fee of $300 to lodging4vacations.com to manage his Web presence.
His ability to climb nearly to the top of the Google mountain has to do with something Cindy Estis Green describes as the proliferation of "distribution channels." Estis Green, a marketing consultant, spoke in Steamboat last week to an audience of airline and travel professionals gathered for the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.'s annual Airline Summit.She said Internet search engines continue -- at an escalating rate -- to transform the way resort lodging properties fill their rooms. And the growing influence of portable communication devices promises to keep hotels and condominium management companies playing a constant game of adapting on the fly.
"Search engines like Google are driving people to branded sites," Estis Green said. "There is tremendous competition on the travel sites. Consumers have many, many options, and it's a competition to get their attention."
It's no secret that the Internet has changed the way consumers shop for travel. They still are apt to go to brick-and-mortar travel agents for international travel or complex journeys, Estis Green said. And a significant number of consumers use the Internet for research, but they dial a toll-free number to get one or two more questions answered, then close the deal with a live operator. But the trend toward booking lodgings online is overwhelming, and the stakes are high, Estis Green said.
The dollar volume for online hotel booking in 2005 was $20.5 billion, and it is estimated that by 2009 that number will grow to $40.1 billion. Total online travel purchases in 2005 topped $63 billion, and by 2009 they are expected to exceed $110 billion.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Web-based travel agencies such as Orbitz and Travelocity helped pull the travel industry out of the doldrums, Estis Green said. They continue to book large amounts of travel, but all of the growth is in search engines such as Google and Yahoo because of their ability to provide consumers with instant access to many options.
"Search engines changed the whole balance of power," Estis Green said.
Airlines and resorts took a major step toward fending off Internet travel agencies by offering "best rate guarantees" at their branded Web pages, Estis Green said.
"It really made a difference."
Yet, the hotel industry, in particular, still is struggling to connect all of the computer systems that feed them reservations. Hotels lag markedly behind the airline industry in that regard, she added.
Some major hotel chains are just now beginning to manage the revenue lost through commissions paid to other Internet distribution channels that sell their accommodations on their behalf, Estis Green said. Depending on the commission charged by the various Web portals, the net profit to a hotel for a $100 room, for example, could range between $70 and $90.
"That can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a 500-room hotel," she said. "No matter where you are in the food chain, you have to figure out the cost to you" and manage the most expensive distribution channel.
What's next? Estis Green predicts that modern consumers, increasingly conditioned to expect instantaneous access to information about travel products, will demand that Colorado resorts be accessible through portable devices. That means that lodging companies, restaurants and activities in Steamboat will need to hustle to make sure they can be found on GPS-enabled cell phones and podcasts.
At first glance, Ron Braet and his Whistler Village townhome would appear to be grazing at the bottom of the food chain. But in an era of expanding distribution channels, it would be a mistake to overlook the little guy.
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