Fairhaven Inn battles Online Travel Agency. Is Goliath Allowing a Fair Haven? - By Richard Zwicky

Would you allow a competing hotel to switch on your 'No Vacancy' sign at will? What about the one advertising your status to the entire world on the Internet? No, neither would I. Yet that's exactly what is happening to one hotel in Fairhaven Washington, and to hotels elsewhere throughout the world. I could write about all of them, and maybe if enough approach me, I will write about more of them.

Metamend Two months ago, I met an interesting couple with a David and Goliath size battle on their hands, Gene and Connie Shannon of the Fairhaven Village Inn. Their story is worth repeating. I'm sure their situation is not unique, but the lessons learned from it are applicable to any business with an online presence.

As you many have guessed it, Gene and his wife Connie own and operate the Fairhaven Village Inn. Fairhaven is a historic town in Northwestern Washington State, less than a mile from Bellingham. The Inn is right in the old village, and overlooks the Olympic Mountains and the Straits. I was fortunate enough to spend a night at the Inn. It has 22 beautiful rooms, and really is in a great location right in the center of historic Fairhaven, just outside Bellingham. If you ever are in the Bellingham area, I strongly suggest you check out the quaint town of Fairhaven, and if you have a chance, look up Gene and Connie; they’re really nice people, and they run a lovely establishment.

You may wonder what this last paragraph has to do with marketing, and the vacancy sign on your door. It has everything to do with the problem the Inn faces, and how they, and others in the same situation will meet their challenges head on, compete, and succeed.

The Fairhaven Village Inn, like so many other small hotels, is in a battle with the discounters, and consolidators. In this case they are in a particular battle with one major online travel agency. According to Mr. Shannon, the artwork and text featured on the hotel’s web site is being used to display information on the Inn within this agency, and its affiliate’s web sites, for the purpose of booking rooms. So what’s the problem you say? Don’t you want agencies to sell rooms on your behalf?

In this case, the owners made a good faith business decision not to work with the agency in question; they decided to do so would only make reaching a cash flow positive position that much more difficult. Yet, that the materials they created for their web site have been borrowed without permission by this agency.

The larger problem however, is that the agency in question does not just display information on the Fairhaven Village Inn on their web site, and on all their affiliates web sites, they also show up in the search engine listings ahead of the Inn, and most importantly, they always list the Inn as ‘SOLD OUT.’ Mr. Shannon has attempted to get the agency to remove the listing, but to no avail.

Imagine; your business’s web site shows up in the search engine listings behind a major travel agency, and all their affiliates. They list your property as ‘SOLD OUT’ whenever people visiting your town inquire. So, all these potential clients will stay elsewhere, likely at a nearby property which has agreed to work with the agency in question.

How did Mr. Shannon discover what was going on? He had people showing up at his doorstep, asking to look around the Inn, and mentioning that when they were planning their trip they had been disappointed to learn that the hotel was sold out, because they would have liked to stay there. The first few times he thought it was just a mistake, and that there was some confusion. Then he started investigating.

Although the Fairhaven Village Inn is the most central hotel in historic Fairhaven, it is unable to reach its potential clients, because they are being advised by reputable sources that the property is sold out. Since his web site shows up lower than the agency, and its affiliates for most searches, by the time people find his listing, they don’t bother contacting the Inn to check availability; they have already received that information elsewhere.

So the Fairhaven Village Inn faces two dilemmas. First off, it has a major corporation disseminating disinformation about the availability of their product, and second, the web site was not properly recognized by the search engines for its subject matter, and thus is not being relevantly displayed.

The legal challenges for the Inn are huge. It’s a small operation, and thus its cash flow is low. This is in large measure attributable to the two aforementioned dilemmas. But the owners of the Inn are not shrinking violets when faced with a challenge. They know they are in a David and Goliath battle; they are taking on a Goliath in the travel industry. They have engaged counsel, and will seek the appropriate remedies. They have the fortitude of conviction on their side. They are not asking their opponent to cease doing business, simply to modify an unseemly practice, and remove the damaging information which is being used in an inappropriate and in a misleading manner.

The Fairhaven Village Inn may or may not win its legal battle. Victory will likely not depend on a courtroom and a judge; they likely cannot afford that. It’s more likely that someone well placed at the agency in question will realize the error that has been made, and remove the Inn from all their listings. But that’s only half their battle.

Regardless of the outcome in its legal battle, The Fairhaven Village Inn also must rise above all other competitors in the search engine listings. The owners have recognized that this is how most people look for, and find hotels and businesses in areas they are both familiar, and unfamiliar with. For this reason alone, they need to show up, well placed in the search engine results.

The Fairhaven Village Inn’s second dilemma is how to reach their potential customers before its competitors do. As mentioned earlier, when we met, the Fairhaven Village Inn web site did not show up well, or even at all, in the search engine listings, under highly relevant searches such as “Fairhaven hotel” or “Fairhaven Inn.” In fact, when we met, they were not even near the top 100 for those highly relevant terms. The Shannon’s realized they have to reach customers first, and be found under all relevant terms if they are to succeed. The challenge this historic hotel in upstate Washington faced was not unique.

As in every other industry, most small hotels and Inns are not properly listed in the search engines. Their web sites are not properly designed with the search engines in mind. They face the same issue any other business with an online presence does; they have spent a lot of time building a web site which fairly and properly reflects their business. They have put thought into the proper color scheme and images to reflect the experience a guest enjoys when they visit the property. They have included relevant information on their property, and their environs. But they have not done so in a manner which allows the search engines to properly read and understand the material. For that reason, their web site goes unrecognized.

The Inn is a central resource to the entire Fairhaven community; it’s not just in the center of town, all its visitors will frequent the local shops and restaurants. Guests of the hotel are an economic benefit not just to the Inn itself, but to the entire village. This is the case in every community, regardless of size. However, unlike the local bookstore, the Mexican restaurant, and the coffee shop, the Inn is the only one with a web site. It’s the only one promoting itself and the entire community. Yet the search engines have failed to recognize its relevance.

The challenge the Gene and Connie Shannon faced was the same as that any other business does. They needed to be heard and seen by their potential customers. Regardless of your business, this means you need to be visible; you need for your business to be found quickly and efficiently whenever anyone asks a search engine for information, products, or services your business provides. If you fail to ensure your business is visible, you will fail, and it will be no one’s fault but your own; you will have failed to try.

Now two months in to their search engine optimization campaign, the Inn has jumped from nowhere to be found, to top 10 for their relevant search phrases, and #1 in some engines. If they cannot get goliath to back off, at least they will be able to get to the customers first.

The owners of the Fairhaven Village Inn will not fail. They are on the path to success.

About the Author:
Richard Zwicky is a founder and CEO of Metamend Software. ( Metamend's cutting edge Search Engine Optimization (SEO) technology and software has been recognized globally as the leader in its field. With successful clients on 5 continents, and over 50 countries worldwide, the company has experience in a broad range of markets and marketplaces.

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