These die-hard Swiss hoteliers who resist Booking

Talking with Richard Kuonen, owner of the Hôtel Alpes et Rhône, in Martigny, is like opening a tourist history book. Remember that before the arrival of the internet and mobile phones, tourists traveled quite differently. That he would find information in tourist guides and catalogs and visit fairs to choose the destination of his next vacation and the establishment in which he was going to stay.

“Today, everything has changed, notes the hotelier who took over the establishment from his parents in 1989. The clicks on the computer have replaced all these contacts.” And there is a good chance that this digital walk will lead the Internet user to the same crossroads, namely Booking.com, which has become the world leader in online reservations. A giant as criticized as it is essential for the players in tourist accommodation.

A disputed customer

So far, Richard Kuonen has managed to do without. Because of the commissions so often singled out? “Not even. Rather, it is on principle, he replies. It breaks the bond with the customer. He is no longer your client, he is a Booking client. ” So for now, the hotelier is holding on, laughing when you tell him that there are probably only a handful in Valais, these hotels which still manage to do without the platform of Dutch origin that has become American: ” It is true that we are a bit like the irreducible Gauls in Asterix. ”

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Man does not hide the fact that it is always becoming more “complicated”, that he is currently living on his “acquired” basis. A clientele of groups brought to him by the coach operators who made the heyday of his establishment. “At the time, in winter, the ski clubs sent us clients for the week and we organized their days, each day in different resorts. Today, it is all over. Everything goes through the sites. ”

Offer a special experience

And to live without the biggest digital travel agency, you have to hang in there. Specialize above all, in very specific segments, take care of your database and pamper your client. For example, you will not find any trace on Booking of the Maya Boutique Hotel, located in Nax, at the entrance to the Val d’Hérens. Asked last year by The weather, her director was very good at doing it. With around ten rooms, his establishment offers “fasting and detox” stays, a promising vein in a society obsessed with its form and health.

This development has also benefited another Valais establishment which also stands out for its absence on the Booking website: the Hotel Balance, in Salvan. Specialized since its creation, thirty-seven years ago, in organic and vegetarian products, the establishment has around fifty beds. “I did a free trial for two months, a long time ago, but that did not convince me”, loose Roland Eberlé. The hotelier is not ready to change his position because his business is booming. “At the beginning it was very, very hard. But now things are going very well because vegetarian cuisine and yoga (the hotel organizes courses) are very fashionable. ”

An intermediary that has become essential

Again the Boutique Hotel Coeur des Alpes in Zermatt, and that’s it. Professional associations and other tourism experts do not know of other resistance fighters. Even if, according to an annual study by the HES-SO-Valais Tourisme published in April, direct bookings have been on the rise since the start of the pandemic. They generated 62.5% of overnight stays in Switzerland last year. This is 5% more than in 2019. “There are certainly two factors that explain the phenomenon, notes Roland Schegg, one of the authors of the study. On the one hand, international tourists were no longer able to come and it is first of all they who very readily use such platforms. And then, the health situation has also reinforced the need for information. As a result, people probably called the hotels directly to inquire and book. ”

To read: With the pandemic, more direct bookings for the Swiss hotel industry

Published in 2019, another study carried out at European level by the company D-Edge For its part, the share of establishments working with an online booking agency was 71%. Created in 1996 in Amsterdam, the Booking.com site reigns supreme over these digital lands. Its market share was estimated at 68%.

Controversial parity clause

Criticized for the commissions it charges – from 10 to 25% depending on the location – but also for the exclusive relationship it creates with the tourist, the digital travel agency does not only have bad sides. By spreading far and wide, it broadens the base of potential hotel customers. As a corollary of this advantage, it makes establishments captive: “If you are not on Booking, you do not exist. You are no longer in the market ”, image Claude Buchs, owner of the Hotel Bella Tola and the Grand Chalet Favre, in Saint-Luc.

Beyond the commissions, the famous parity clause arouses the wrath of hoteliers. It prevents them from directly offering the tourist a more advantageous rate than that of the cheapest room offered on the site. Deemed illegal in May by the German Supreme Court, this provision is challenged in Switzerland by a motion. Tabled in 2017 by national councilor Pirmin Bischof, the text was accepted by parliament. A bill was put for consultation last winter.

But the process takes time. A lot of time, in the eyes of the main stakeholders. In the meantime, Claude Buchs has decided to take the lead: “We are already differentiating in terms of price. That is to say that the customer who books by Booking will pay more. ” Since introducing this distinction, the hotelier has seen reservations made on the platform dwindle. “Me, I have no problem with this 12% commission if the tourist prefers to go through this. But all service has a price. ”

In search of new opportunities

To date, the digital intermediary has not reacted. He also knows his time is counted on this point. In May, the German Supreme Court ruled this practice untenable. The country’s hoteliers can now offer more attractive prices on their own site, which Booking persisted in banning.

Hit hard by the pandemic, the group has had other fish to fry in recent months. The site announced in August 2020 the elimination of around a quarter of its posts. It was also working on expanding its activities, for example in the reservation of transport or tourist attractions.

In addition to the mistrust of hotel circles, it must also prepare for competition from a certain Google. “Today, the customer can already see on the search engine the price that a direct reservation costs him. We pay a commission, but it is much lower, ”notes Claude Buchs.

In Martigny, Richard Kuonen is preparing to hand over his establishment. His daughters will take over, “if they wish.” What if they decide to work with Booking? “No problem, cut the old man of the hotel industry.” Each generation must work with its toolbox. ”

Finally read: Google weaves its web in tourism

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These die-hard Swiss hoteliers who resist Booking

Hank Gilbert