This article is not about avoiding snake oil salesmen and Internet hucksters ? it?s about asking the tough questions when evaluating Internet marketers who will be in charge of managing your most important revenue channel.

Background

Online advertising set a new record of $4.9 billion for the first quarter of 2007, an increase above the record breaking $4.8 billion for the final quarter of 2006, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC). Travel is repeatedly cited as one of the fastest growing revenue generating categories online. According to PhoCusWright, 60% of all travel in North America will be sold over the Internet in 2008. With such a growth in online revenues, how prepared is your online marketing vendor in managing the online budget and growing your direct online distribution strategy?

Everyone Wants a Slice of the Pie

Old-fashioned advertising agencies, interactive agencies, website designers, booking engine vendors, SEO firms, website hosting and maintenance companies, even PR firms have all proclaimed themselves to be Internet marketing gurus in hospitality. Web design shops that are facing stiff competition have moved toward Internet marketing. Online booking engine vendors have expanded their repertoire into Internet marketing. Web masters, computer programmers, and outsourced firms from overseas are drawn toward the world of online marketing in hospitality.

The mix of new comers and old companies who now do ?all things Internet? has resulted in a lot of over-promising, under-delivering, burnt hotel budgets, and increasingly frustrated hotel owners and operators. This is not an issue of competition. It is about core competencies, quality and credibility which affect the hospitality industry as a whole.

So, the next time your PR agency, booking engine vendor or in-room Internet access provider offers to manage your search marketing, be cautious and do your research.

How Can Hoteliers Make an Intelligent Choice?

Internet marketing in hospitality requires a fundamental understanding of three very distinct areas of expertise:

Hospitality Industry Experience
Hospitality has a number of attributes that are unique to this industry: from its fragmentation and location diversity, to owner-operator-major brand complex relationships, to inventory ?storage? and distribution. Industry experience and an academic background are crucial for successful Internet marketing strategies in hospitality.

Internet Marketing Experience
Experience with all aspects of Internet marketing in hospitality is paramount to the success and meaningful ROI of any hotel marketing campaign. Focusing only on certain aspects of your Internet presence in isolation of the overall Internet marketing and distribution strategy will result in serious underutilization of brand building and revenue generating opportunities.

Website Design and Optimization Experience
The hotel website has become the first, often the only and in many cases ? the last point of contact with hotel customers. Is the hotel website user-friendly, search engine-friendly, travel booker-friendly and interactive relationship-friendly? Skills required include: hotel branding online, award-winning design and experience with best-of-breed applications and web technologies, in-depth knowledge of how the search engines work and what makes a site search-friendly, an understanding of usability and website navigation, expert knowledge of online travel consumer purchasing behavior and what makes a site travel booker friendly, eCRM strategy, knowledge of consumer generated media (CGM) and what CGM strategies and initiatives will work for your hotel.

Here are the Top Ten Challenging Questions to ask your Internet marketing vendor:

1. Hospitality Experience
Hospitality experience is a must. Your potential vendor?s entire practice should be focused in hospitality. Why? The $120 billion US hospitality marketplace is enormous on its own and sufficiently complicated to require unwavering attention and expertise. Staying ahead of the latest trends in hospitality is a job in its own right.

2. Internet Marketing Experience
Internet marketing has been around since the commercial Internet launched. There is a track record one must establish to be declared a competent and trustworthy online marketer in hospitality.

3. Audit the Auditor Experience
What separates student from teacher is experience. Check to determine if the vendor audits the work of others and is capable of making recommendations on existing performance. Trust and credibility is important in this business. Receive counsel to make sure that the vendor is really making the right decisions on your behalf.

4. Industry Recognitions and Awards
There are many professional organizations and industry trade groups that provide stamps of approval. These awards signify not only quality and recognition, but that the company is plugged into the industry structure and knows what is going on in the online space. Awards of merit, and invitations to speak at conferences and serve on panels recognize the expertise of the individual and the credibility of the firm.

5. Client Portfolio
Having a big name client like a major hotel brand, or being associated with a big name helps but the diversity of clients is a true mark of a professional hospitality marketing firm. This diversity will enable you to experience and validate strategies from different perspectives. What may work with one hotel may not be as fruitful with another. Conversely, success stories can be applied to an entire customer base.

6. Best Practices
The first step is to identify best practices in the online hospitality marketplace, and the second is to educate the client base on these practices. In reality, few marketers ever lead, they mostly follow. Second, they don?t value best practices until after too much time has passed and in many cases learn on their ?client?s dime.? A good Internet marketing company has conducted extensive market research and testing capabilities, either in house or through partnerships with other market leaders and major brands.

7. Academic Background
Education and training in hospitality and online marketing is obviously helpful. Teaching the principles of Internet marketing in hospitality is even better, if not the gold standard. Evaluate the vendor?s academic background, level of experience and professional training or certification in this field.

8. Search Engine Marketing
The vendor needs to know the nuances and intricacies of the search engines, and how to incorporate all crucial aspects of search marketing into one cohesive marketing strategy. Addressing all search marketing aspects and incorporating search marketing itself into a comprehensive and well balanced Internet marketing strategy are signs of best practices.

9. Website Design and Website Optimization Experience
The practice of taking a holistic approach to the entire website, not just changing the look-and-feel of the design or search engine optimization, but also including a study of the business model, customer segmentation, diversity of products and services, trust and credibility, website and campaign analytical tools, CGM/Web 2.0 features and applications, and most importantly, taking into account search-engine friendliness, user-friendliness, interactive relationship-friendliness, and travel booker friendliness, all define website design, development and optimization as per industry?s best practices.

10. Accountability and Fee Transparency
The need to measure and quantify results from your Internet marketing campaigns is most likely a large part of why you are searching for, or have hired, an Internet marketing vendor. With the web technologies available today, anything and everything can be measured, making marketers more accountable than ever before. A good Internet marketing vendor will only ask you to spend what?s needed to grow your online revenues, build your direct distribution strategy, and stay competitive.

Related Link: Hospitality eBusiness Strategies, Inc.