Whether it’s short-film screenings in Bilbao or the upcoming Eurovision competition in Dusseldorf, Laterooms.com is using events around the world as hooks to create interesting and relevant content through which it can entice travellers and stand out from its increasingly crowded market.
By uncovering these events, Laterooms hopes to give would-be travellers an excuse to make a booking – and book through its site rather than those of its better known competitors Expedia or Lastminute.com.
The brand’s managing director and former marketing director Andrew Pumphrey, who joined in 2005 from hotel chain Corus, recognises the importance of engaging content, and says this will become a priority for Laterooms.
“We have just hired a social media manager, and we want to make the stories we put out relevant to the people we are selling to. Some of the PR activity we’ve put out in the past hasn’t always hit the mark, and we want to be absolutely proud of everything we do,” says Pumphrey.
Perhaps he is referring to stories such as a press release titled ’Has your hotel got the eggs-factor?’ in April 2007, which discussed the importance of a good hotel breakfast. At any rate, during Pumphrey’s six years with the business he has helped steer the brand towards £20m profit and 60% brand awareness in the UK.
Pumphrey’s appointment in 2005 to a new role as head of consumer marketing signalled a shift in strategy at Laterooms that recognised it needed to invest in brand identity. Pumphrey began that process by finding out who the brand’s customers were and what they thought about the service.
“My first task was to carry out a consumer research project because we didn’t know anything about our customers at that time, or what they actually wanted from an online hotel booking site,” he recalls.
“We put together a test to trial marketing in Manchester, Edinburgh and Birmingham. We also looked into further hotel possibilities, because our research showed that choice is critical to people, especially of interesting places. People want to be able to choose between, say, a beach hut and a B&B.”
The research exposed the fact the brand was not distinctive enough, and as a result its purple branding was developed. Its clear brand definition must have had a part to play in its sale in December 2006 to First Choice Holidays for £108m, now part of the TUI Travel Group.
Pumphrey’s investment in research is ongoing, and he took the step last year to initiate an online consumer community of 1,000 people, to understand what prompts people to make the purchasing choices they do when online.
“The online community has been phenomenally successful in determining what our customers think about travel. It has informed our roadmap for this year in terms of our positioning and site development,” he says.
“We may well do it again but we wanted to give it a break; develop everything they have given us, then do it again. I’d totally recommend this strategy to other brands. It’s a good way to access a lot of research and find out what people think.”
The community activity was supplemented by a qualitative piece of research to gauge differences across consumer groups in the brand’s key markets outside the UK – Italy, Spain, France and Germany.
“We wanted to find out what the brand means in those markets and how we can take it forward. For example, the Germans ultimately want value, while the French want more inspiration,” says Pumphrey.
International expansion falls within Pumphrey’s remit. The focus is on markets such as Asia, the US, Scandinavia, Portugal and Holland, as well as growing business in Australia and New Zealand. But the US is a conundrum, he says, because the hotel market is ruled by chain brands, and offering the variety that Laterooms has become famous for is a challenge.
“We’d like more hotel stock in the US, as we don’t have a huge amount there and we do have a lot of demand for it,” he says. “But hotel stock in the US is predominantly branded so there isn’t as much differential in terms of range and type that is on offer in markets such as the UK, Asia and Australia.”
Being a hotel specialist and offering an unrivalled room range is what, Pumphrey claims, makes Laterooms stand out from competitors such as Lastminute and Expedia. Both are well-known brands, and while it might seem that Laterooms still has a job to do convincing consumers it offers something better than its rivals, it is certainly holding its own when it comes to online search results (see chart).
Perhaps this is a combination of its PR and content strategy pushing it up Google search listings, and its brand strategy of becoming synonymous with offering purely hotel rooms.
“Lastminute and Expedia have huge brand awareness and are big players in the market, but they aren’t specialists,” Pumphrey argues. “We are one of the few hotel booking specialists, offering a greater range and variety than those sites.”
He goes as far as to claim that Laterooms surpasses its rivals by having more UK hotels on its books, and taking more hotel bookings. But aren’t consumers more easily attracted to the ease of booking a hotel and a flight together, as Expedia offers, or booking a hotel and a restaurant or theatre ticket, as Lastminute offers?
Pumphrey concedes this point but insists that for some, the variety that Laterooms offers is what keeps them coming back. “We certainly find people like the freedom we offer, and features such as paying at the hotel on departure and not online in advance.”
Laterooms could do more to tailor for more customer categories, such as differentiating between business and leisure, Pumphrey acknowledges, and this forms part of his strategy this year.
“We want to make sure that the site is more tailored to individual booking segments,” he says. “We can already do this to some extent because someone booking on Monday lunchtime is more likely to be a business customer than someone booking on a Wednesday evening. But we want to make the website much more responsive.”
Booking a hotel online is now second nature for most of us, but when Laterooms launched in 1999 it was a niche concept. Pumphrey sums up the state of the market at that time: “If you were an area manager and out on the road, the only way to get a good deal would be to bargain with the hotel itself.”
Ten years on from its launch, Laterooms went on TV to advertise for the first time, using the slogan ’Dizzy with choice’. It bolstered this strategy by sponsoring the Sky1 travel series An Idiot Abroad last year, and a second TV campaign. Reflecting the brand’s increasing spend in traditional media, its third campaign, using the tagline ’Thinking of rooms, think Laterooms.com’, breaks at the end of this month.
Will Laterooms follow the trend of online brands using humour and catchphrases to increase brand awareness, as Compare The Market and Go Compare have done? “Never say never,” says Pumphrey, but not for now.
“I’m not sure shouting loud is always the best thing,” he explains. “Some of the ads out there now are a bit too shouty and I think there are more amusing and softer ways you can target people. For example, I think Specsavers has a much nicer approach.”
Pumphrey is also looking at making sure the brand works on all platforms. There has been a dramatic increase in bookings coming from mobile devices, so the brand must stay on top of this.
“Our biggest challenge is the changing consumer landscape,” Pumphrey reflects. “Businesses have been talking for a long time about mobile changing things and now it is really vital that we adapt to this because of the iPhone and other Android platforms. We need to have a product that meets all those needs.”
Pumphrey then must juggle his budget across meeting technology demands and increasing brand awareness, which at 60% in the UK and lower elsewhere, leaves a lot of room for growth.