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Is ‘bait and switch’ ruining your direct business?

First of all let me explain what ‘bait and switch’ actually means…

Lets say that that you are a hotelier that choses not to participate in a specific OTA programme (lets use Hotels.com as this is the example that has come to my attention this week – and lets not forget they are a subsidiary of Expedia and they are equally as guilty at this practice).

The first part is the ‘Bait’

Lets say a customer browses for your property – lets use The Grand Hotel, Edinburgh as this fictitious example. The first site returned on a Google branded search is:


The Grand Hotel is not part of the hotels.com programme so why on earth would they be bidding on that hotels name if a customer can’t book via their site?

Now here comes the ‘Switch’

Hotels.com knowingly bid on The Grand Hotels name so that customers who are interested in that hotel are driven to their site.  They then present a ‘sorry, this hotel has no availability’ message to the customer and suggests, ‘why don’t you try these other hotels instead’.  Of course these ‘other’ hotels are part of their programme, so hotels.com deflects business away from your hotel and on to competitor hotels which is not only wholly unfair but in my view, extremely unethical! Of course what do they gain – wonderful commission earned on a booking at one of your competitor hotels!

The hotel owner who brought this to my attention this week has two very serious and well justified concerns:

  1. Her own hotel is very obviously losing out to competitors.  They have examples of where customers called the hotel directly to check if they were in fact sold out, which they of course weren’t. Unfortunately as we all know, customers often mistakingly believe these aggressive marketing messages used by the OTA’s.
  2. This ‘bait and switch’ campaign is driving up the cost of the hotels Pay Per Click campaign as these OTA’s are bidding heavily on her brand name.  In fact the cost per click has been driven up over 300%!

Due to confidentiality, I will not disclose which hotel this was, but suffice to say they did tackle the OTA.  The response from them was to dispute that they were actually bidding on this hotels name – this is a blatant lie, as I myself checked today and the paid Ad is still appearing on Google. They confirmed weeks ago that the name was removed from their site – again a blatant lie as it was still there today. And more importantly, there seems to be very little that we as an industry can do about it.

Google’s stance on this is that unless your hotel name is Trademarked (and in the UK/Ireland/Canada and US, it seems they can get around this too), there is very little that can be done.

Google’s stance is that they see this only as key word bidding and not infringing on IP (Intellectual Property) rights.

So my advice is this:

  • keep checking search engines to see how your hotel’s name appears in branded search.
  • consider paid search and get a qualified expert to manage your campaign for you
  • always, always, always pay to bid on your own brand name
  • challenge all OTA’s that use your brand name as ‘bait’ if you are not in their programme
  • challenge, challenge and challenge again!

We all know that is the people that shout loudest and most often, that get heard.  However I am not under-estimating how difficult this is to do as a single property or small group. Therefore my question is this… when are we all going to come together as an industry and say this is not acceptable? When are our trade bodies going to get involved and help?

I continue to say that the OTA’s are not the enemy – we are in a relationship after all and the truth is that we need each other.  Book Direct campaigns on their own will never tip the balance back to all customers choosing to book on our own sites. The industry has changed and we need to accept that the OTA’s are here to stay. But what we can not and should never accept is a relationship that is purely one-sided. Bait and switch tactics are under-hand and they simply need to stop!

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