There’s little in life more frenzied than booking a hotel online.
You could be planning an off-peak trip to the back end of nowhere and it seems there’d still be an inordinate number of people apparently looking at the same hotel as you that very minute.
Whether you’re hotel searching a day or a year before a trip, you are always just moments away from seeing every good hotel room snapped up right before your very eyes.
I find the almost hysterical exclamation-mark punctuated messages maddening, that warn me that almost all the rooms are gone, that the cheapest deals are being snapped up.
Hysterical or useful? Hotel booking websites have come under the scrutiny of the CMA
Today the Competition and Markets Authority announced it wasn’t too happy with the practice either.
It is launching enforcement action against a number of hotel booking sites it believes may be breaking consumer protection law.
Among its concerns is ‘pressure selling: whether claims about how many people are looking at the same room, how many rooms may be left, or how long a price is available, create a false impression of room availability or rush customers into making a booking decision’.
But while I find it annoying, I wonder whether rushing me into making a decision is exactly what I want out of a hotel booking website.
At a brilliant festival of behavioural science organised by Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland called Nudgestock, two members of the dedicated behavioural insights and psychology team at Booking.com shared some of the secrets behind the website’s strategy.
Incidentally, there is no suggestion or confirmation that Booking.com is one of the websites being investigated by the CMA.
Johann Rozario and Kees Oomen talked through the typical pre-Booking.com consumer journey from deciding to go on holiday to getting round to booking it.
Their description summed up my experiences pretty well and I’m impressed if it doesn’t ring a little bit true for you as well.
It goes something like this. You decide to go away.
You search round for a few options, send them round to the people you’re going with.
Then you get distracted by something, or you’re all messing about trying to build consensus on where you’re going to stay, or waiting for someone to get round to answering.
Then you might search again, get distracted by something else and leave it another few days. Then before you know it, weeks have passed and you think ‘yikes, that trip’s coming up and we haven’t booked’.
So you go back to book the first place you were looking at and it’s gone and everywhere else has gone up in price and you can’t really quite understand why you didn’t just book in the first place. After all, you knew the dates you were going, that you would have to stay somewhere – why didn’t you just get on with it.
The messaging of Booking.com is designed to cut the faff and just get you to get on with it.
All that urgency-created mayhem on booking websites – arguably it’s only nudging you to do something that you want to do.
I know it’s in their interests, but generally it’s in mine too.
Rarely do you book something and then look back remorsefully thinking, ‘damn, I wish I’d procrastinated and left it more to the last minute’.
And if you are worried that could happen to you, there are often free cancellation offers available.
My only fear though is that cumulatively it makes life even harder for last minute people like me.
It would be okay if I was the only one being told to book right now or miss out. The problem is that everyone is seeing these same messages and being encouraged to get in before everyone else does. I worry this means we all have to book earlier and earlier to beat everyone else. I wish we could all just call a truce.
It’s like deer whose antlers grow bigger and bigger as they try to outdo each other, until they all have ridiculous cumbersome antlers that get caught in branches.
The panic-buying model works nicely for individuals, but collectively it’s a right-old nuisance for spontaneity.
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