The 2020 Dude Ranchers’ Association is behind us and most of us left the California sun to head back into the snow. Steve and I of course had a great time catching up with all who made it down there, but we also learned a lot. Here is a summary of the sessions we attended, the social happenings, and the new Ranch Bookings development we presented at our user group meeting. If you missed the convention or want to catch up, read on! And make sure to register to our marketing webinar with special guest Peter Ross from 829 Studios.
Honoring 20 years of service to the industry
Former Executive director Colleen Hodson was inducted into the DRA hall of fame. The induction ceremony was very touching, starting with a slideshow of Colleen and the ranchers she’s helped so much over the year. Current and former board members reminisced about their best anecdotes, and Colleen had a few choice stories to tell about the evolution of the association in the 20 years she helmed it. I was lucky enough to sit right behind her at the front of the room and filmed a good chunk of the induction. It’s a bit long - but a fun watch!
Announcing our roadmap at our User Group Meeting
We are always working on improving our product and we love to hear feedback from our users. We discussed a few immediate updates that will land on the website in the upcoming weeks and announced some major initiatives we will be working on this year:
- Launch of a Travel Agent and Tour Operator interface
- Launch of our own booking portal, exclusive to RanchBookings customer at first
- Launch of partnerships with other marketing portals to let you receive online bookings from those sites
- Launch of a satisfaction survey feature for your customers to let you address their feedback, make it easy to post the useful reviews on Google, and leverage insights from that data at the end of your season.
Marketing, Marketing, Marketing…
No surprise there, the convention always features many marketing speakers and vendors.
There were solutions and talks focusing on all steps of the marketing funnel, so we will go over each stage and share what we learned. You’ve probably seen this diagram and heard the “AIDA” acronym many, many times - but here it is once more.
The Awareness Phase
How do you make your ranch easy to find?
Peter Ross, cofounder of 829 Studios, a full service marketing agency based in Boston, gave a true master class with nuggets of wisdom for each step of the funnel and he will get quoted many more times in this post. Much of the talk was focused on Google though, whether it is buying the awareness through ads, or ranking high on targeted terms for free via SEO. He showed freely all the tricks his agency uses to help businesses achieve stellar growth and I am copying the resources he emailed post-talk with his permission at the bottom of this post. Here are a few of the tricks that stuck to my mind - it’s all common sense, but easy to lose sight of:
- Buying Ads on your own brand/domain name keyword is up to 5 times cheaper than a competitor buying those keywords. Protecting your brand is cheap - don’t let your competitors steal your traffic.
- Ranches are a seasonal business. Your ad budget should ebb and flow with the booking season. Do not let an agency bill you a set amount each month without showing you the receipts! If an agency manages your ads, demand to tie your own credit card to your ad accounts so you can keep track of the spend.
- Excluding keywords is as important as targeting keywords for your ads - you do not want your brand showing on unsavory or irrelevant (ranch dressing, anyone?) search terms!
- Playing the SEO game is certainly an investment in time and resources, but can have long-term benefits without having to pay for every single click you receive.
- The lowest hanging fruit: start by making sure all your listings online are accurate and up to date. Moz Local, Google Business, Trip Advisor, dude ranch portals...
- Read up on some SEO fundamentals
Matthew Focht of Truly 360 dove a lot deeper on SEO, and especially how to rise in the very, very valuable Google Maps and Google Search Cards results. His company partners with Google to populate those results with high quality content. His team travels on location and shoots great footage, including those 360 degree pictures and virtual tours you have probably seen floating around. Google users really engage with that content, so Google shows it more! Your business gets featured more prominently in search rankings, and can receive millions of views on those pictures.
Another area of focus for Truly 360 is populating the cards for the destinations themselves, (“Grand Teton National Park”) and anchoring your business to that location so users find you when searching for those destinations. They work with Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs - your local chamber of commerce, for example) to collect content, and your business is welcome to take part in this process for free (you already pay your DMO through taxes and fees). For example, they can schedule one of those Google Streetview cars to come and shoot footage of your nearest point of interest and have local businesses set up fun interactions and prominently feature their brands. Check out this fun one they did at Boysen State Park, Wyoming.
Marketing Portals and Travel Agents
As travelers do more and more of their research online, they also want to be able to compare what you are offering to your peers. Here is some data TrekkSoft, a software provider for activity and tour has collected:
In 2018, the proportion of direct website bookings fell to 66.7% while marketplace bookings increased to 9.1%. Bookings made through agents, affiliates and local tourist offices also increased from 17.5% to 24.3% in the same time frame. (TrekkSoft 2019)
What this means is that it is all the more important to obtain and update your listings on industry specific portals (DRA website, RanchWeb, Duderanch.com, Duderanches.com), as well as location centric portals (Trip Advisor, Google). It is more and more important to your guests to be able to contextualize your property around what others are offering. For a growing percentage of those travelers, if they can’t find you on those platforms, they will not consider you.
The Interest Phase
A prospective guest has learned about you and landed on your website. You may know nothing about them at this stage, and you have a very short window to grab their attention before they bounce off your website, likely to never come back again. How do you do it?
As marketers, we hate the home page. It’s the most inefficient page on a website. Think about it - if someone is clicking through to your home page, that means you know nothing about them. You don’t know who they are (couple, family, solo traveler?) or what they are looking for (adventure, relaxation?), so you have to send them to your default page - it’s very hard to answer their questions and get their interest. Your best bet is to grab their attention with a beautiful video above the fold that quickly shows why you are special and why they would want to stay at your property. Under the fold, have multiple Call To Actions to direct them to a page where you can answer all their questions. Demographic options are a good start - have several buttons to direct your guest to pages where you detail how great a stay at your property is for Couples / Families / Solo Travelers / Multi-generational Reunions, etc. (Peter Ross, 829 Studios)
Red Rock Ranch’s website is a great example of such a strategy - and I’m not just showing them off because I happened to shoot the drone footage they used above the fold. Note also that they are smart about how they show that video. It will only play on a desktop computer; on a phone, they just show a picture so that the site still loads fast on mobile internet. Scroll down and see how they narrate a typical day at the ranch. At the very bottom, they have multiple links to targeted pages. Very effective.
Another lesson to keep in mind: try and direct your prospects to the best page for them before they even get to your website: make sure to set up Sitelinks on Google Search so people can click straight through to the most pertinent pages. Make sure you are leveraging all the options on your other marketing portals so that your listing can direct prospects well, too.
The Decision Phase
Congratulations, your prospect is now daydreaming about spending time at your ranch.
Don’t count your money just yet though - the prospect likely has another 3 or 4 potential destinations in mind, and you are now in a race to close the sale.
51% of US travelers said that once they decided to go on a trip, they would spend less than one week conducting research. (Facebook IQ)
The first thing you should do is audit your website’s speed. You may lose your prospect during this critical step of the buying process if your website is annoying and slow to navigate. Head to Google’s own tool or GTMetrix and test a few of your critical pages. Your goal should not be to obtain a perfect score, but do fix the low hanging fruits if you get a poor score.
Content wise, you need to provide all the information about your seasons, packages and rates in a way that the prospect understands right away. User testing is key here. Get those pages reviewed by friends and family, or even through third party usability testing services, to make sure that someone who is unfamiliar with your ranch (or most likely, with what a Dude Ranch is to begin with) can understand what you offer. Keep track of your engagement metrics (Bounce rate, time on page) on those pages on your Google Analytics dashboard, and make sure they improve as you tweak.
If you use RanchBookings, you have this problem solved. Our availability page shows your seasons, packages, rates and availability, always up to date, 24/7. We make it easy for your prospect to make their decision and move on to the action phase - you get to decide if they can book online, or just make an inquiry for you to contact them and close the sale.
There are many other things you can do as well - Peter Ross highly recommends installing a “Live Chat” widget on your website (Olark is his preferred provider, but there are many others, including Facebook). This works best if you have staff ready to answer those questions at a moment’s notice. If you can’t spare the staff, you can always “Fake it till you make it”. Drift is another vendor he recommends. It lets you prepare answers to commonly asked questions and will show the answers to your guest when they engage with the chat widget. It’s less effective than an actual human being, but still better than nothing.
The Action Phase
Your prospect is ready to take action and book with you - but the race is not over just yet. You can still lose them to the competition if you don’t make it easy to complete this process. Prospects expect to have a finalized booking confirmation in a couple business days once they have decided to try and book!
Contrast this to Colleen Hudson’s war stories from 20 years ago:
How many of those inquiries would you be able to close today, with a three weeks delay? Most likely None.
If you want to be at the forefront of your industry, you need to allow your customer to book their stay online. RanchBookings’ online booking process has been designed specifically for ranch vacations and performs very well. Your new customer can select their package, dates and rooms, pay their deposit online, receive a confirmation, and complete their check-in process (party information, liability waivers, dietary restrictions and horseback riding ability forms…) on their own time, whenever they are ready. It does not mean you never talk to your customers anymore - just that you are not the bottleneck in this process anymore. The results speak for themselves: Rocking Z Guest Ranch, Montana, was able to increase their revenue by 40% over two years since becoming a RanchBookings customer. They have worked very hard on their whole sales funnel - but they credit us for a large part of this success.
If you are not ready to let go of this much control, we can set you up with an inquiry or quote form. The prospect will not be able to complete the whole booking on their own, but they get to see all the information they need to complete their inquiry: rates, rooms, and available dates, in real time. You receive high quality inquiries that are really easy to convert to bookings.
Ready to get your marketing to the next level?
This may seem like a lot of information to take in - and it is! But it is not all that complicated to put into action. Please feel comfortable to ask us any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter has kindly agreed to host a webinar with us to answer any of your questions. Please register on this page, and we will contact you with the date and time.