What’s the Right Online Booking System for Your Business

what's the right online booking system for my business?

Choosing the right online booking system for your business is difficult.  It is really confusing to work out who is the right company to work with.  Is there a specific type of online booking software for my business or will any type of online booking system work?This is a difficult question, as it really depends on what you want to use it for.

This is problematic, as most businesses are unsure of exactly what they require in booking software, and they will naturally type in general search queries such as ‘online booking system’.  This leads to a jumbled list of applications across the spectrum of booking and reservation software.  So what should you look out for and what are the different features that are more important for one type of business over the other?

Asking yourself the following 4 questions will help strip out the noise and allow you to identify what is the right solution for your business.

1. How do I schedule?

Do you run scheduled events that happen regularly such as a tour or gym classes, or are you renting space or equipment such as bike rentals or hotel rooms?  These might sound like small points of difference but they could have a big impact on how your business works with the product you choose.

For example: if you are renting bikes you might want to allow customers to take the bikes for 1, 2 or 3 days.  If the inventory is not tracked however, then how do you know how many bikes you have left to rent to other customers?  It’s a bit like in a hotel, where different rooms have different lengths of stay, the booking system needs to know which rooms are available and when.

We work primarily with tour or activity providers that have scheduled events that are pre-defined. For example, a tour might run twice a day at 11am and 3pm for 2 hours.  Each tour has 10 places, so when a booking is made this is taken from the 10 available places.

2. Where are my customers located?

If your customers are located primarily in your local area then your booking software needs to consider features such as membership management, self check in, member profiles etc.  Tracking member activity will be a key measure for your business and having reporting and marketing for this will give you great insight on how you’re performing.  You will also need ways to charge memberships on an ongoing basis, rather than as a once off payment. You will also want the flexibility to charge these on an annual or monthly basis and be able to apply discounts and trial periods as and when required.

If your customers are mainly tourists, then you will want to make sure that you can attract customers through search engines and efficiently convert them on your website (Check out our previous blog post on Making Your Tourism Business Website Effective). You also need to be able to allow resellers or travel agents to book your tours or activities without needing to contact you.  You might sell from different locations, such as your website; over the phone; and even a mobile sales unit, which means you need to coordinate activity so that you can manage availability and not end up double booked.  Therefore it is vital that your online booking system is focused on managing all these channels together so that you can increase your number of tours without the risk of double bookings or the need to hire additional staff.

3. Do I want to combine staff scheduling?

Using software to automate staff scheduling can be an excellent way to streamline your business and escape from painful spreadsheets.  Combining it all in one system would be ideal but not all systems will provide the same level of functionality.  For example, a booking system designed to schedule a doctor’s calendar is focused on ensuring each doctor in the practice is available to take the appointment.  It should be heavy on features that allow the doctor to accept or reject the booking query.

For businesses that supply higher volume activities this is not as important.  Therefore, planning staff resources to meet your bookings are generally not their focus or there will be limited ways to do this.  These applications are however increasing in complexity over time, and will increasingly offer more than just booking management.

4. How many bookings do I actually get?

We would advocate that businesses should always use online booking software but sometimes lower volume businesses with high pricing can get away with many of the free tools that are available such as Google Apps; file sharing services like Dropbox and WordPress to manage their website.  There is a limit to what these services can do for you and it will be clear when you have reached your limit with them.  A word of warning: don’t assume that because you operated this way in the past and it worked fine, that this is the best way to run your business.  When booking volumes pick up it will lead to hours of emailing and paperwork.  When you hit this point you really need to start considering using online booking software.

Once you have answered these questions you’re in a great position to start your search.  Armed with the right knowledge of what you need, you should now be thinking about the booking systems that are a fit for your business. At a minimum they should include the following:

A Free Trial

Having a free trial is extremely important.  You need to be happy with the booking software you choose for your business.  It has the potential to transform your business but if you choose the wrong booking system it can lead to many frustrating hours.  Getting the opportunity to trial it out is a risk free way to decide if it works for you.  It still takes commitment, as you’ll only get what you put into it, but at least if it doesn’t work out you’re not locked into a contract with something you don’t want.  Setup charges for online booking software should also be avoided, the whole point of Software as a Service (SaaS) is that everyone gets the same product all the time.

Support

Having access to “Human” support is extremely important.  Your bookings are your livelihood, particularly if your customers have no other way of interfacing with you. Small issues can become big issues if not addressed quickly, therefore having responsive support is great for peace of mind and for incorporating your feedback into future product releases.  Make sure your booking software grows and adapts with you.

An Understandable Interface

Even if you are new to using software tools, if you can’t understand how to navigate your way around your online booking system: then it’s the product and not you that’s at fault.  Good software should be usable by anyone no matter how complex the task.  Don’t be afraid to highlight the areas you find confusing – chances are if you can’t understand it, neither can anyone else.

Pricing

Pricing options are always a key consideration.  The two most common models you will see are commission based, where you pay a percentage of each booking you put through and subscription based, where you pay a fixed monthly fee determined by the number of bookings you take on an annual or monthly basis.

Except for the smallest of businesses, commission pricing is usually not good value. Yes, you are not paying when you don’t have any business (particularly relevant if business is seasonal) but on annual basis your costs will fluctuate and if you increase your business significantly, you’ll also increase your booking system costs in parallel. Acteavo’s earlier pricing options offered both subscription and commission based pricing.  We charged 5% on online transactions and 1% on offline transactions.  We found that most of our customers breached the levels of our subscription model and when we showed them the savings with switching, they appreciated the value they were getting.

Of course, you could pass the cost of the booking system on to your customer in the form of a booking fee, but we don’t advise this.  It may be acceptable for once off events like music concerts or sports events, but where the customer has choice the saving can easily be overcome by unhappy potential customers who don’t end up booking!

Data

Most systems are cloud based these days, which means the data you enter and receive from your customers is saved on your booking system providers server.  There are great advantages to this, such as being able to access your data anywhere with an internet connection. Make sure however, that you are able to download this data in the event you want to cancel or change booking software or if you want to do custom reports.

Conclusion

Make sure to understand what you need your online booking system to achieve for your business.  The different offerings make it confusing but focusing on your own business challenges will help you identify which booking system will work best for you.

If you are a tour or activity business with scheduled activities then be sure to check out what we offer.  We understand the challenges you face and work closely with you to ensure you get to achieve your business goals. We offer a 30 day free trial, competitive pricing for small business and first class support.

Olan O'Sullivan
Olan O'Sullivan
CEO at Acteavo
Olan is the CEO and Co-founder of Acteavo. You can follow Olan on Twitter or Linkedin.