Hilton ads tout direct booking, but perks also apply to agents


In a new advertising campaign that Hilton Worldwide describes as the largest in its 97-year history, the hotelier is pushing for guests to book directly on its website.

The first TV ad for the campaign, "Stop Clicking Around," aired during the Feb. 15 Grammy Awards broadcast. The ad, which uses the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" as its theme song, includes a voice-over encouraging potential guests to "book direct at Hilton.com for the lowest price online."

In addition to TV, the campaign includes billboards, print, Internet and social media.

Hilton, which trails only Marriott International for annual revenue among U.S. hotel companies, said that HHonors loyalty program members can get an "exclusive discount on room rates" and other benefits such as free room nights and free WiFi if they book direct.

Hilton is the latest hotel company to launch a campaign pushing guests toward direct bookings and, ostensibly, reversing the trend of more bookings being processed through OTAs, which can cost hotel companies 15% to 25% of room revenue in the form of discounted wholesale rates. While annual revenue through hotel websites will have risen 39%, to $30.2 billion, between 2013 and 2017, OTA-generated hotel-room revenue will have surged 52% during the same time period, to $31.3 billion, according to Phocuswright.

Last summer, Marriott launched a YouTube marketing campaign with the tagline, "It pays to book direct." And Hilton last year started granting free WiFi to HHonors members who book direct or through traditional travel agents who use a Hilton-owned distribution channel or a GDS.

"Our new marketing campaign introduces a new benefit for HHonors members, the guaranteed discount," Hilton spokeswoman Blake Routani said. "It continues to drive home our point that our most loyal customers receive the best benefits and a more personalized experience when they book directly with us."

Less clear is how traditional travel agents will be affected by such campaigns. While Hilton said the perks also are available to customers who book through approved travel agents and corporate travel partners, Hilton's TV ad makes no mention of that option.

While travel agents account for about 10% of all U.S. hotel-room revenue, compared with about 18% each for hotel websites and OTAs, Routani said Hilton did not disclose what percentage of its revenue was generated through travel agents.

Meanwhile, ASTA, which last summer called Marriott's ads "disparaging" to travel agents and pressured the company to remove one of its YouTube videos, late last week praised Hilton for including travel agents in the campaign.

"Hilton's recognition of the contribution the agency channel makes to Hilton's success has not gone unnoticed," ASTA CEO Zane Kerby said in a Feb. 25 statement. "ASTA applauds Hilton for this action."

"We are 100% committed to the travel agent community," Andrew Flack, Hilton Worldwide's vice president of global marketing, said in the statement.

Rob Clabbers, president of Chicago-based Q Cruise + Travel, said he understood why hotels would want to take greater control of their sales channels, noting that OTA bookings do not generate the loyalty points and other perks available to guests who book either directly with the hotel company or through travel agents.

Still, he said he thought travel agents should have "equal footing" when it comes to securing discounts and other guest perks. That is not always the case now, he said, especially when smaller or home-based agents don't use a GDS to book rooms with some of the larger hotel companies.

"Out of [Marriott, Hilton and Starwood Hotels & Resorts], Starwood has done the best job of making sure travel advisers are treated as partners," Clabbers said. "Marriott's different. Hilton falls in the middle."

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