10 Things to ask your Channel Manager
The technology in the STR industry has evolved over the past 10 years at the speed of light. We now have apps for everything and softwares that can make a property manager’s life so much easier. However, there are still some basic reminisces that might surprise you that are not yet at the level of technological exigences as they should be.
We are going to show you what to look for when selecting a software so that you can make well informed decisions and not get taken by surprise. Today, we are going to cover one of the most important tools that property managers use, which is the Channel Manager.
Channel Managers play a fundamental role in the management of a vacation rental property, as the listing gets distributed to dozens of portals and OTAs and opens up the possibility for reaching a wider audience and increasing sales. But what happens when things go wrong or don’t work properly? Who takes the fall for that? Most of the times it’s the Property managers who have to cut down on their profits in order to cover for an overbooking or a booking made at the wrong price.
That is why it is crucial to work with a solid, reliable and transparent channel management tool that you know will do the work. And by “do the work” we don’t mean it’s going to do all the work for you like a magic wand, let’s set expectations straight, as many property managers who are new to the business have this false myth. A channel manager will help you with the distribution of your portfolio and gain visibility on your listings and your brand, but it will require attention and constant check-ups from your side, no matter how automated everything is. The big question is how much work will it really require?
Many property managers who are looking for a channel manager, whether it’s for the first time starting to use one or wanting to switch from their current provider, let themselves guided by the sales rep of that particular software, but don’t know what questions to ask, as the channel manager it’s the least “visible” part of the software, and yet what goes behind the scenes is actually the important part.
10 Questions you should ask your Channel Manager:
1. Is the connection with x or y portal a 2-way sync?
You might be surprised to see that some channel managers advertise an ICAL connection as a real connection. No, ladies and gents, we harshly frown upon that practice as an ICAL is not a connection, but merely a calendar blocker functionality. Make sure to ask which type of connection is available through the channel manager – if not for all the available portals, at least for the top 10 performers you are interested in. There must always be an API-type connection, and within that category, ask if it’s a Basic Rates & Availabilities connection (these are older versions with basic content in the xml) or if it’s a Content API that will sync all or most of the features of the listing.
2. Who develops the APIs?
The big OTAs are the ones that usually have their own API available for the Channel Managers to develop and integrate, while smaller portals are usually the ones doing the work the other way around, being the ones who develop the channel manager’s api to connect. Why is this distinction important? If it’s the OTA’s API that the channel manager has to develop, the big players like Booking.com, Airbnb or VRBO have a variety of APIs for different functions / levels of integration. Even if a channel manager says they have a connection with say Airbnb, that doesn’t necessarily mean that absolutely all features that Airbnb provides within the API are actually developed. We’ll dive a bit more deeper into this in the following points of API versions and Preferred Partnerships.
If, on the contrary, the portal is the one developing the channel manager’s API, well, in that case you will need to ask how deep the integration is and what are the capabilities of that API. Enquire for compatibility of the key features, those should be a minimum requirement.
3. What version of the API are you on?
This is a tricky one and will most likely put the sales rep in a tough position, as it’s quite techy. But it’s an important detail. You can check online which is the most updated version of the api (big OTAs have this information listed publicly) and you can contrast with whatever response you get from your channel manager. This will give you a mere insight of how up-to-date they are and how they manage to keep up with the constant additions that the OTAs make. The OTA is currently on version 3.2 but your channel manager is still on the 1.4? Red flag! Are they maybe on the 2.8? Ok, not that far behind, that’s a good sign. Are they on the 3.2? Amazing! That’s what we are looking for.
4. What are the sync times?
Managing a listing through a channel manager requires a dynamic pace. There are some elements of the synchronization that are more critical than others. So let’s start with these: rates, occupancy rules and availability should be synced almost instantaneously. These 3 elements play a key role in ensuring a booking is done correctly, at the right price, for the right duration and most of all, not overlapping with any other booking. Look for a sync time as close as possible to the word “instantaneous” . Other features like photos, amenities, descriptions, etc, are also important. These should be synced at least twice a day to make sure your listing is accurate and up to date. Any sync time superior to 24h should not be considered as acceptable for these features.
This is an example of the most representative OTA’s that Channel managers connect to
5. How much manual work will it actually require from me?
As we were discussing in the previous point about the development of the API, not all features will be compatible or integrated through the api, so it’s important to know which elements are NOT synced and will require you to add manually. Photos? Unacceptable. Amenities? Ok if some very specific ones are not compatible, but the main ones should be there. Room distribution? Unacceptable. Descriptions? Unacceptable. And the list can go on for a while, but you get the point. The more things are not compatible via the api, the more manual work you will have to put in to ensure a good quality and presentation of your listing, which in turn will convert to more bookings and a better guest experience. Here the channel managers have to step up their game.
6. Are you a Preferred Partner of x or y OTA / portal?
The main OTAs like Booking.com, Airbnb, VRBO and Expedia have a Preferred Partnership program in which they award on a yearly basis a status to the connected channel managers. There are usually 2 or 3 levels and the namings can vary (Preferred, Preferred +, Premium, Elite, etc). What is important is that these partnership programs are, amongst other things, a validation of the adoption of new api features. So if you are looking for a channel manager that has an Elite status, most likely they have quite a big range of APIs developed. There are also other things that you can benefit from like webinars, events or training that the OTAs organize in collaboration with the Channel Managers.
7. Are the bookings synced back with all the info?
May sound like an obvious question, but sometimes the most obvious is the most unnoticed. Ask your channel manager if the bookings are synced back into their system (hence blocking the calendar on the spot) and with what kind of information are they to appear. Imagine you receive the bookings by mail and you manually have to input them into the software. Say what? You’re just supposed to be 24/7 looking at your email? This opens a huge risk for overbookings, so keep an eye on this detail. As well as what info is reflected back. Imagine you only get the final price but without any breakdown of the extras. That means you need to check the booking on the OTA’s interface and insert the extras manually and change the corresponding pricing. These are maybe 10 minutes of your time. Multiply that by however many bookings you receive on average per day, and it’s a huge amount of time!
8. Are you a Preferred Partner of x or y OTA / portal?
Another important aspect about the management of the bookings are modifications and cancellations. Guests many times change their mind or want to extend their stay, so modifying a reservation is something that happens on a daily basis. Does your channel manager support such changes via the api? Or do you have to double the work and input the changes in their software and then in the portal’s or OTA’s interface as well? This can become real time consuming, so make sure to cover this aspect as well.
9. Do you have an integrated way to communicate with the guests?
Needless to say that communication with the guests is a constant task from even the pre-booking moment until the checkout. You need a platform that has the communication tasks centralized in one interface and you don’t have to jump back and forth between all the back ends of the OTA’s and your email to ensure all comms run smoothly.
10. Are reviews integrated and synced?
Your brand and reputation are not something to play around with and building a solid reference requires good reviews and recommendations from your guests as well as your owners. But if you have 100 reviews across 10 different platforms how can you ensure you have revised and most importantly replied to all of them? Ask your channel manager if the reviews are part of their integration. This will simplify your work considerably and the guest experience team will be able to react faster to possible issues and give solutions to unsatisfied guests, as well as thanking those that were happy with their stay and inviting them to come back soon.
Not all the channel managers will be able to tick all the boxes, nor is there a perfect, spotless distribution channel out there. But making an informed decision and knowing which are the key points to look out for will definitely save you time and headaches in the long run. Don’t let the pricing or shiny interfaces be the deciding factors, investigate more, ask and compare options and solutions.