Online Booking, Payment and Calendar Systems

for Holiday Cottages and Bed and Breakfasts.

booking systems 01Do I need this stuff?

These days, customers expect to be able to book online.  They are used to shopping online and this is a natural progression. Those that do not offer an online service and ask people to ring to book could be missing out on bookings.  The general consensus is that providing online booking can help to increase bookings by at least 20%, a not insignificant amount. That being said to anyone who does not know a megabyte from a hard drive finding out about booking and payment systems can be daunting, to say the least.

The standard approach is: identify what you need, seek suppliers, consider the quality and price of suppliers in relation to budgets and proceed.  This logical method is not easy, it is even impossible if you do not know enough about how things work and what is available.  The point of this page is to help you along the way on the ‘basic facts’ front.   As ever, the warning that you should check with knowledgeable qualified people before relying on any of this applies.  This information is here to help you to ask useful questions and to focus on key areas, in order to make informed choices.

We explain some of the nuts and bolts about how the web allows you to bolt on functions and services, linking to other web sites that do the work, which then report back to your site where necessary.  You can decide to host or provide, for example, your own booking system on your web site instead of buying in that function hosted on a remote web site.   Alternatively, you can choose just to have a calendar, a calendar and booking system or a calendar, booking and payment system.  These can be on your own server and web site or have them provided by other linked web sites.  The choices come with different needs and offer different advantages, costs and flexibilities.

Choice and a bit about how things work

Some years ago, when we launched the older, sister web site Country Holiday Lets, the market offered far less choice and the prices were radically higher than they are today.  But with choice comes greater confusion and a greater chance of taking the wrong decisions.  Before buying, it is worth taking a look at what is on offer and how booking systems currently work.

Choices range from bolt-on booking calendars through to bespoke fully owned software system that includes its own payment function.  The former could suit a single cottage operation and the latter might suit a vast legacy booking service.  In between are a myriad of differing alternatives.  Websites can be easily linked to one another so, if your web site does not have the ability and you do not have the budget to provide some function like a booking calendar or a method to take card payments, you can join up by use of a link to a site that can do this for you.  Sites are capable of talking to each other to provide confirmations, pass data and prompt the sending out of receipts, cottage details and other notification e-mails to all involved parties.  I will describe how our site at Country Holiday Lets works as an example of how a moderately integrated system works.

Calendarsbooking systems02

A useful bolt-on could be the simple service of linking calendar updates to several different sites where an owner might be advertising.  It depends, of course, on the sites that are featured, but such a one step update all calendars service can save a huge amount of time and bother.  Booking sync is worth a look.  It works using the same basic principle of websites being able, almost instantaneously, to communicate with each other using coded web links. These carry information to and from different linked sites depending on the function required and the specific information involved.

Booking systems

Essentially this is the process needed to allocate accommodation to guests, to gather the necessary information about guests, and adjust calendars accordingly, as well as provide appropriate notification and links to other people and functions.  Suppliers range from FreetoBook to Supercontrol.

The guest chooses the accommodation and then selects number of guests, arrival and departure dates.  The guest then provides information necessary for the booking such as contact details, names of all to stay and any other required fields.  Once complete, the guest is then directed from the booking engine to the secure card payment system.  If no payment system is provided, the booking details are notified direct to the owners who arrange for payments and booking confirmation later.  If automated with card payments, once the card payment is made a return message with a unique code to identify the transaction is sent back to the owner’s web site triggering the confirmation of booking and the booking details are then entered into the system with calendars and other notifications duly made.  For large companies that host their own payment gateway,s this process is internal but for most middle sized and small companies, it is conducted between owners’ websites and payment gateway services such as Sagepay or Worldpay.

Booking systems also feature reports and back office services.  This area tends to be weaker than the front office functions that guests actively use.  Sometimes, a highly developed front office disguises a relatively weak back office.  Where a booking system can be impressive for guests, it can involve quite a large amount of administrative work for website operators behind the scenes.  Ideally, of course, everything should be automated to produce reports and spew out receipts, invoices and other critical bits of paper as and when required.  Sadly, the holiday business can be highly complex and so this ideal world is far from reality even today.  When buying a system take a long hard look at the back office and be aware of any need to compromise.

Payment Systems

Our sister business is not as fully integrated as some of the very largest agencies because we use a third party payment gateway, in our case, we use Sagepay.

The process:

The guest provides details.  When complete, they are directed to a payment page that is not hosted on our server and is not part of our web site.  They are taken there by a link just as they initially arrived at our web site.  However, the link is a secure https:// link that complies with what is called PCi DSS.  (Payment Card Industry data security standards).  The guest will complete the card payment on Sagepay including, if they choose, their e-mail.  Sage then e-mails them direct a receipt and automatically sends a system notification to our web site.  This, then, automatically changes the availability calendar, triggers transfer of the data provided by the guest into the booking system records and prompts the sending out of notification e-mails to the guest, the owners, the agency, changeover staff and to other nominated individuals.  Information on each e-mail is adjusted to suit the recipients.   Thus the message to the changeover staff has no financial matters on it but does include numbers, names and other relevant information where the owners e-mail, of course, includes financial details.

The system will detect if full payment has been made and will send out the complete owner and accommodation details when this is done.  If a deposit is made, the system sends out balance reminders with payment links a set period before the start of the holiday.  Further reminders and notifications to the agency are sent in the case of late balance payments.

All this is achieved by the freedom to link from one web site to another and back again so creating a virtual system spread across providers.

booking systems03The beauty of the internet is that as messages travel at virtually the speed of light, it is possible to construct such virtual systems, and buy in functions provided by others, as and when they are required, assuming web sites and functions are compatible.  Understanding information flow is as important as appreciating money flow.

Sagepay, in this case, provides the payment gateway.  The card company, in our case TSB Lloyds’ CardNet, provides the credit cards, the necessary financial channels and the security and guarantees that are required or provided by card providers by legislation or from commercial choice. For instance, it assures certain payment guarantees associated with Visa credit and debit cards offering greater security for card users.

The physical payment system is from Sagepay but Cardnet holds the funds and transfers them at agreed intervals straight to our homeowners account.  The homeowners’ account is very much like a client account that is used by a solicitor to keep large sums of money transferring in house conveyancing.  In our case, our homeowners’ account is fully indemnified against property as any professional operation should arrange.  Thus, owners and it follows, guests, are protected.  In some ways, this resembles ATOL protection.

Not all booking services provide this indemnification.  In some countries, such as France, it is obligatory but in many, it is not.

Before choosing

Before buying any service, be it a bolt-on calendar, automatic calendars updating system, card payment service, or own bespoke software such as ours, (Logichound), it is important to  understand the way virtual services systems can be created by linking web sites together.  The process can be as simple as embedding a small bit of code into a web page so directing guests to another site for that extra service, but you then need to arrange your site to receive incoming advice from that third party service that will enable it to recognise that, for example, payment has been made and what that payment relates to.  The different webservices have to be arranged to ‘talk to each other’ and provide each other with the necessary information.

If you have just one holiday let with your own web site, you can use a simple link to another site that will provide a calendar.  A booking function can be provided that will automatically inform you of the need to chase payment and accept the booking.  This is a simple booking system that can provide a useful functionality your site does not offer.

Systems vary in complexity and what they can do all the way up to full booking services, notification e-mails, card payments and generated e-mails, payment links etc: to all and sundry. When considering buying either software or buying in the software services from someone else by linking to other sites to provide functions, you do not have on your site it is important to have some knowledge of the type of services on offer and a grounding of how they work and talk to each other.

Then you need to consider what you need for your own operation, contact providers, get quotes and take the leap.  The good news is that costs over the last five years have tumbled and the choice of different types of service has risen.  Do your best not to buy and then, later, learn the basics of how things work.

Bits and pieces.

Card paymentsbooking systems04

There are two types of payment system commonly in use:  E-Commerce (Internet) Payments and Virtual Terminal (Hand Held Terminal) Payments.  Each of these is given a nominated ‘Merchant Number’ which is so long it seems to go on for ever.  Annually, a nominated person has to answer questions and attest that basic security provisions and practices are implemented and in use.  This ensures security of card payment information.

Different levels of card service exist.  Some will store the card number and other details so that any agreed additional charges can be set against payment cards without the need to repeat the initial card payment process for the first payment.  Others will not store these details so any additional payments must be done from scratch. Security and other factors determines which system might be the best one to choose however, in terms of security, for many smaller operations it is a very good idea to avoid, if at all possible, to ever need to store or record card details beyond momentary requirements for payment purposes. Storing card information is a potential liability in any form and, unless appropriate systems, security and guarantees are in place, it is not permitted.

Data Protection (The UK term) is a key aspect and any business using a booking system should be registered. This is inexpensive but it is a useful extra reminder of the need to be very careful and systematic when handling any data and especially so with any card transactions.

Charges for card payments vary usually with a low set fee for debit cards between 20p and 60p a transaction to a percentage varying between 1% and 3% for credit card transactions.  Card payment companies in the UK tend not to charge VAT but if you recover the charges from customers VAT, illogically, has to be levied.

Booking systems

These vary in complexity and flexibility.  Country Holiday Lets has benefited from a bespoke in-house system. Our developers have managed to create the flexibility to allow arrivals any day in the week and departures any day in the week, subject to the homeowners requirements) and to generate rates for any stay in a logical manner. Using our own designed rates tool based on an excel spreadsheet.  The system also provides for automated supplements and discounts based on occupancy or dates.  All rates and discounts are individually determined by the homeowners.

This sort of booking flexibilty is the future.  Depending on how much owners need or wish to flex, it offers excellent choice to owners and guests alike.  Such developments are much easier if you control your own booking software and host your own booking system.  (It is on your own web site and not linked to another website providing the service).  On the other hand this can get expensive where third party providers can spread development costs across many customers.

For smaller cottage operators it can make good sense to buy in services and link their sites to booking and card payment services hosted on other sites.  For mid range booking agents such as us it is worth hosting more on your own server and, as in our case, subcontracting out the payment gateway to a third party.  (Sage provides this service for Country Holiday Lets).

It comes down to the need for flexibility, budgets and what is practical depending on the size of operation and its specific needs.

Many thanks to contributions from Twitter people @LesTroisChenes, @RumblieBandB, @dealcottages and @FenteroonHols.