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Nickelodeon Family Suites in Orlando, Fla., often saw numerous people come by its Web site and transition from site visitors to hotel visitors.

However, the owners soon realized they may be going after the wrong audience, says Jim Struna, director of marketing revenue management at Nickelodeon Family Suites.

“One thing we did wrong was that even though we’re a kid-friendly hotel, our site was very much geared to children and a little too cartoony,” Struna says. “It was not conducive to the adult who was actually making the purchase.”

Besides cleaning up the site to address adult concerns while conveying its kid-friendly image, Struna’s team also hit upon key elements to Web 2.0 — focusing on search engine optimization, adding social networking tools, and creating a site that was easy to search and lead visitors to the booking engine. In addition, his marketing budget — like many other resorts — continues to allocate more toward online efforts.

While online marketing has become as essential to a waterpark resort as traditional marketing, it must be maintained constantly to convert Web-site visitors into resort visitors.

In today’s market, simply putting up a Web site is not enough anymore. Convincing people to spend their limited dollars at your resort means maximizing search engine optimization, committing to and managing social networking tools, and updating the Web site regularly.

Strategizing the opportunities

Putting more attention on Web-based marketing is crucial, if not obvious, because more visitors rely on the Internet to research trips and make purchasing decisions.

According to a study by Hotels.com, trip planners are spending more time online conducting research to base a booking decision. Adults spent at least eight hours online in 2008 preparing to book trips, 48 minutes longer than in 2007.

For that reason, a well-planned and well-monitored Web site can draw the attention of potential and return visitors. But rather than just implementing various tools and randomly experimenting with what’s popular, online marketing must be managed strategically.

Jacobson Rost, the firm that worked to boost Kalahari Resorts’ Web presence, spent a good amount of time researching the resort’s online users. The Sheboygan, Wis.-based firm found that Kalahari’s core audience is mothers 25 to 54 years old, who surf the Web to research trips for their families while comparing rates.

“They were spending more and more time online visiting sites that had content specific to them,” says Jim Jelak, account supervisor at Jacobson Rost.

He added that these consumers “want stuff quicker,” and that convenience and the ability to get and share information is important to them.

Spending must be carefully planned as well. “If you have only one dollar to spend, it should be spent on search engine marketing,” says Anil Aggarwal, CEO of MileStone Internet Marketing in Santa Clara, Calif., which specializes in hotel marketing. “If you have two, it should be on paid advertising. The third is e-mail marketing. The fourth is social media.”

But don’t forget about your traditional media either, experts warn. Online is a huge part of reaching your audience in an interactive, personal way, but traditional channels are still effective. Many big resorts still have TV, radio and billboard advertising, which can lead to more Web-site searches.

Web site basics

Marketing online provides the guest and the resort with instant gratification: The guest can book immediately, and the resort can measure its Web success.

“Unlike traditional media, you may get ratings months after a program ran or daily estimates of how many cars drive by the billboard,” Jelak says. “We can measure how many people went to our site, [how long they spent] there and where they went, and we can make adjustments.”

It’s easy to set up a Web site, but it’s quite another thing to set up a good Web site. “There are many Web sites out there for hotels that are not functional,” says Neil Salerno, president of Hotel Marketing Coach in Sarasota, Fla. He says many sites can be very aesthetically pleasing, but “lose the function of finding that Web site.”

First and foremost, experts emphasize, keep it simple. It’s easy to become wound up in all the fancy features of a site, but all those bells and whistles can confuse a visitor. “You need to quickly get your message in front of these folks,” Jelak says. “Consumers turn to online and want information organized in a way that’s easy for them to find and to act on.”

Aggarwal suggests listing the top five reasons people come to the destination resort and “clearly enunciate that.” For example, if your resort has a convention center, there should be a section that leads convention-seekers directly to information about that. If it is a family vacation, then family-types should be able to click on a link that leads them to information pertinent to families.

Also make sure your site contains information that visitors want. Look at your current traffic to see which pages are visited the most. Rates, room sizes, packages, amenities, traveling with families, and information about the area likely are some key items, according to experts.

Struna says it was a surprise to find out that the FAQ section was Nickelodeon family suites’ most- visited page, indicating that people were looking for basic, important information, even more than photos.

“The main push of our Web site is giving the customer what they need,” Struna says. “A lot of them want to service themselves and just want the information, and don’t want to talk to us.”

But don’t overlook photos as an important extra to dress up your site. According to Hotels.com’s study, 67 percent of people feel better about a booking online after seeing a photo of the property. Photos can be presented in its own gallery or next to different text on a page.

Aggarwal suggests using high-quality photography or even a virtual tour to guide visitors through the property.

Avoid using Flash, however. Salerno says this animation software sometimes can be a detriment to a site, especially if the user’s computer is not equipped to present it well.

Finally, Salerno stresses the importance of having a booking engine on your site. The site should always lead people to the booking engine, where they can make their purchases. “The mentality of people on the Internet is that they just want to complete their transaction on the Internet,” he says.

Shop around for a booking engine that fits your needs and budget, and note that a third-party engine can still be designed to match the look and feel of the resort. While some believe phone interaction provides personalized customer service, it may actually hinder the completion of a transaction.

“A well-designed booking engine is just as important as the actual Web site,” Salerno says. Look for one that is easy to maintain because you will have to update your own inventory and pricing, and be sure that whatever you choose does not charge additional fees.

Search

Having a great Web site is only as effective as its ability to actually be found online, experts say. The most important part of your site is making sure it comes up in organic searches on Google, Yahoo, AOL and other search engines.

Before developing a Web site, Aggarwal strongly advises thorough keyword research. This, he says, can be accomplished by following Google.com guidelines, which provide a list of related keywords and its click-success rate.

When choosing words, think about what drives your resort’s business. Perhaps it’s a connected convention center, local attractions or a banquet area for weddings and parties.

Remember to label multimedia properly, as well with keyword captions and descriptions. “People are searching by images and videos now,” Struna says.

To help the organic search, experts advise spending money on paid search as well. Purchasing keywords helps guarantee more visitors to the site for a fee per click, which can help build the initial traffic. Paid search can either bump your Web site to the top of search engines, or offer advertising that people click on to get to your site.

Paid keywords can be adjusted according to your site’s needs. Struna likes to tweak the time of day and other factors that allow better traction on certain keywords. For example, some of his stronger keywords might have better search results in mid-morning after the kids have gone off to school and mom has a little downtime to do some research for an upcoming vacation.

However, hotels should not rely on paid search alone, says Salerno, mostly because it can be very expensive. He recommends using it as a launch tool, but not for long-term solutions. Focus should be placed on the organic search instead.

Social networking

A great way to build organic search is through social networking. Social networking has become the hot new buzzword around the watering hole, and everyone’s trying to hop online to make friends, post updates and tweet their customers. But it’s not just about casual connections. Delving into the social marketing realm requires full-scale attention, experts say.

“Social networking is only as good as the person behind it,” says Jeff Siebert, director of communications at Schlitterbahn Waterparks, based in New Braunfels, Texas. While services such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs are free of charge, he says it can be a time commitment to keep the designs fresh and to constantly update each one.

Siebert likes to send Twitter messages, or “Schlittertweets,” as he walks about the park, offering updates about the going-ons of the day.

Struna says Nickelodeon Family Suites launched a big initiative and hired its first social media intern who set up Twitter and Facebook accounts, and keeps them updated. Struna finds Twitter very useful and adds that it provides a personalized customer service touch by answering questions sent directly from the followers.

Nickelodeon began by sending Twitter messages once a week, and increasing up to a daily message as demand rose. Within two months, it rose to 800 followers, with another 500 two weeks after that.

Similarly, on Facebook and other social networking sites, hotels can create a “fan page,” which allows people to join as “fans” and post comments and photos. In addition, the hotel can add resort specials and packages exclusive to Facebook fans and provide updates around the property. Within three months, Kalahari saw its Facebook followers jump to 7,000 people, many of whom like to converse amongst each other.

“Kalahari doesn’t even have to respond [to questions],” he says. “Other fans will respond.”

Aggarwal says blogs are a very effective way to market a hotel property as well. Similar to Facebook and Twitter, blogs can offer a more sophisticated approach to advertising updates and promoting specials. This tool provides more room for description and should touch on attractions surrounding the resort, as well as the happenings at the hotel itself.

Siebert is the main driver of “Schlitterblog,” a combined blog for all the Schlitterbahn parks in the country. To spread his workload, he sends out requests for photos and news from the other parks to add into the Schlitterblog. Some of his recent posts include a behind-the-scenes look at a recent Travel Channel visit and a glimpse at the installation of a new ride.

Videos are another popular driver of social interaction on a site that also promotes the resort. The easiest, and best, part about videos, experts agree, is the amount of user-generated content posted online already.

“We found our customers are out there talking about us quite a bit,” Struna says. So much, that of the 900 videos on its YouTube channel page, only three were created by Nickelodeon Family Suites.

The others were created by its visitors. Struna’s team also encourages user videos by hosting video awards and giving prizes to the best videos.

Similarly, Kalahari has seen strong numbers with its YouTube video channel as well. Jelak’s team uploaded some content and encouraged guests to do the same. So far, they’ve had 50,000 channel views and subscribers to the videos.

Jelak likes using videos because of its fun interactivity and ability to add newsy content to the site for free. At a recent grand opening of Safari adventure the newest attraction at Kalahari, Sandusky, Ohio, they took videos of kids feeding giraffes and later found that fans had done the same thing and posted it on their behalf.

Lastly, there’s always “traditional” online marketing: e-mail. Aggarwal advises sending out e-newsletters to subscribers and hotel guests with similar updates of upcoming events, specials, deals, discounts and other news.

This not only reaches people who prefer a quieter version of online marketing, but helps maintain a good mailing list. E-newsletter templates should be designed by a professional who can optimize them to fit every Web browser and email type. Subject headers should be written with catchy phrases that won’t be caught in a SPAM filter.

Of course, the e-mail also should link readers to the booking engine because after all, it’s the revenue that really determines the online marketing’s success.

“The marketing dollars — we’re watching every one of them, and that’s one of the things that makes online attractive to us,” Jalek says.