Hotel Website: Eliminating the Middleman and Selling of Services Online

Introduction

The advancement in information technology has transformed many industries around the globe. The hotel and tourism industry is one such industry. The internet has brought about a new quality of service. The ability of the end users to book and make reservations online has become extensively appreciated among the clients and tourists. Additionally, in the recent past, the rates of growth in online tourism have increased faster than the rates of growth in other economic sectors, and this trend is expected to continue in the coming years (Niemann, Mochol and Tolksdorf 2008). The internet has made it possible for tourists to check out travel destinations in advance and subsequently to select hotels with a greater degree of accuracy. Some specific hotels on the internet offer a wide range of visual and factual information. Additionally, customers are able to gain access into hotels’ reservation system by keying in the dates of their travel and obtaining an instant reply on the availability of hotel rooms. Because the range of information provided causes a longer physical hunt, the era of services has become certain.

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There is a range of services that incorporates the information spread throughout numerous sites, amalgamates compound structured and semi-structured sources of tourism information on the internet (Niemann, Mochol and Tolksdorf 2008), and provides search engines for hotel rooms by offering a catalogue of rooms that are vacant for a particular period of time at a specific location. Usually these search engines make use of databases and reservation systems which are linked to hotels. The use of search engines that offer incorporated information about hotel availability undoubtedly minimizes that amount of time spent and the costs incurred in the search, which in turn translates into a great advantage for the end-users. Simultaneously, the search engines make it possible for end-users to obtain quantifiable hotel data including price, level of stars and nearness to scenic locations, by ordering the search results according to one of these elements. The aim of this paper is to examine in depth the implementation of information technology, specifically the Web-based technology, in the hotel and tourism industry. The utilization of the technology in hotel room booking and reservation, reception and other services will be examined. The paper will also discuss the barriers that hinder successful implementation of information technology in the hotel and tourism industry. The issue of web content accessibility will also be examined given that an organization and its end-users cannot reap great benefits from e-commerce if the web sites are not accessible or visible.

Information technology in the hotel and tourism industry

The travel industry seems remarkably fascinating with regard to the opportunities offered by e-commerce. Due to the industry’s reliance on the provision and trade of information throughout the production and distribution process, the hotel and tourism industry has demonstrated to be principally appropriate for the implementation of information technology (Bennett and Radburn 1991; Sheldon 1997). Hotel and tourism services correspond very well with the modern interactive media, because the products are natural targets for multimedia descriptions. One characteristic of the hotel and tourism industry is that the development of mass tourism has created a large chain of firms in the accommodation sector. Hotels and motels have come to a point of development in which a small number of key companies control the global market on account of a growth mainly realized through franchising (Holloway 1983). Nonetheless, it is obvious that the greatest number of tourism suppliers on the international platform, particularly in the accommodation sector, is still categorized as small and medium-sized tourism enterprises (SMTEs) (Buhalis 1999). Because of the limited resources and poor marketing and management functions that characterize the SMTEs, these enterprises are likely to be over-reliant upon intermediaries for marketing and circulating their goods and services, with the middlemen reducing the enterprises’ bargaining capability within the distribution system (Buhalis 1999).

Consequently, SMTEs encounter huge challenges competing with their more established counterparts. In spite of the enormous development in the worldwide growth of global distribution systems (GDSs), SMTEs are still under-represented in these massive systems, further jeopardizing their competitive edge and share in the global market (Buhalis, 1999). According to Werthner and Klein (1999), “over 85 percent of the European hotel service providers are not listed on the GDSs serving more than 50.000 travel agents worldwide,” (p. 37). this limitation of the GDSs not only render the excluded SMTEs at a great disadvantage but also restricts the ability of prospective tourists from having a wide range of service providers to choose from. The materialization of global electronic markets on the Web has been proposed to offer a comparative advantage for smaller players in the hotel and tourism industry (Sheldon 1997). Buhalis (1999) argues that information technology has become the industry’s important partner, because the internet has strengthened even small tourism organizations, providing them with the opportunity to be represented in the global electronic marketplace.

Information technology, particularly the internet, has also been seen to provide firms in marginally geographical areas a chance to enhance their competitive edge proportionate to companies that have more attractive geographical locations located in the urban areas. This supposition is founded on the international feature of the internet and the territories of e-commerce which are not characterized by geographical or national limits. Nevertheless, numerous barriers still remain in spite of the opportunities provided by the new medium, particularly because a vast majority of the SMTEs universally are short of either the IT skills or the economic resources (or both) needed to capitalize on the opportunities provided by the internet. Furthermore, small and medium-sized hospitality organizations (SMHOs) are usually situated in marginal areas, where information technology has not always been adopted as fast and intensely as in the urban areas. Therefore, the apparent hindrances to an efficient commercial utilization of the internet are prone to be even greater for marginal than for urban SMHOs. Buhalis (1999) argues that SMHOs that have not embraced information technology, especially the internet, will be unable to narrow their gap with clients, and will experience competitive disadvantages.

Online booking and reservation of hotel rooms

In the accommodation sector, the good sold is hardly ever seen by the guests as merely a room to sleep in. Instead, it is “a total leisure experience, a bundle of tangible and intangible goods and services (Holloway 1983; Baloglu et al. 1998). Hotel rooms and other hotel services are a component of the complete tourist package that covers the entire travel encounter. Consequently, the Web site created for hotels should be an all-inclusive information and service package that highlights all the business undertakings of the hotel. Nevertheless, in majority of the hotels, the provision of a room to sleep in is the major source of income. Furthermore, it comprises the service activity where both the customers and the hotel employees can receive the maximum benefits from information technology and e-commerce. Therefore, the greatest IT application efforts should be put into the reservation process and other reception activities. The use of an online reservation system is an unusual service delivery system among SMHOs, where the favoured method is normally to provide reservation opportunities via e-mail. The use of this method implies that the bookings cannot be confirmed immediately, but instead they have to be searched and verified manually. The notion of an online reservation system may stir different reactions from the managers and employees of the hotel in question. Concerns such as IT illiteracy of the employees and the high costs involved in the installation and implementation of the Web-based technologies may hinder the implementation and use of Web-based systems by hotels (Anckar and Walden 2001). In majority of SMHOs, the booking, reservation and reception processes are still executed using traditional methods, that is, the processes and events are noted down in books that are stored at the reception desk. Accordingly, all bookings are made via phone, fax or e-mail and are manually recorded and confirmed by the hotel clerk. In order for a hotel to gain complete benefits from an internet-based reservation system, with all the computerization of vital information this can cause, the internet-based system should back the existing systems and should match the existing information systems used for booking, reservation and reception services.

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Internet and customer bookings

A big limitation of the majority of Web travel reservation systems is the obvious lack of user-friendliness that results from complicated and time-consuming search strategies. Characteristically, the functionality of all-inclusive reservation systems has been to some extent imitated although user-friendlier services could have been created. On the internet, where a fast increasing number of companies presently adopt a plan (candid or obscured) to describe their customers, the consumer has to sign up so as to gain access to the services offered. This increases the risk of consumer irritation and dissatisfaction particularly if consumers have to fill in a long form for the purpose of registration or enquiry of services. In the hotel and tourism industry, the availability of the service needed is the major concern for consumers once they have made their decisions on where and what time they want to visit. Research studies carried out by Anckar and Walden (2001) indicate that the self-booking of hotels is a complex and highly involving undertaking even for low-complexity plans. Certainly, if confirming the availability of hotel rooms translates into the need to sign up for the required service and key in (sometimes more than once) numerous data in a search engine, price comparison, which is one of the greatest consumer benefits resulting from with e-commerce; is not likely to be realized. Therefore, it is important for hotels with web sites to post the number of rooms available in every accommodation group (updated information) on the Web. This would enable the customers to rapidly confirm the room availability before embarking on the registration process. Registration should be a necessity only if done with an online reservation.

Some hotels accommodate numerous corporate customers probably due to business-to-business negotiations. Such frequent business guests make up an extremely vital customer segment because they aid the hotel to deal with long off-peak seasons. Therefore, such guests should be provided with significant discounts on accommodation. A web-based system can be designed to enable the hotel workers to give existing major and regular customers discounts by automatically detailing the customer-specific agreed discount (normally computed as a percentage of the normal price) in the customer’s record. When these visitors log on and make their bookings on the Web, the system automatically displays and calculates the discounted price (Anckar and Walden 2001).

Internet and personnel bookings

Whereas the ability of customers to make bookings online is important for any hotel organization, the same is also true for the hotel’s personnel. The system should also take into account the need for hotel staff to carry out reservations using the internet rather than manually. This would increases the efficiency and profits of the hotel by attracting more customers. Online booking and reservation services provided by the hotel staff can be made possible by installing and implementing a reception system which is run on the local hard drive of the hotels’ reception personal computer. The reception system should encompass booking services that are similar to those posted on the hotel’s Web site but with somewhat more sophisticated features such as “activated availability table for speedy bookings, an unlimited number of rooms can be booked in one go, bookings can easily be changed or cancelled,” (Anckar and Walden 2001, p.247). When hotel staffs open the booking application of the reception system, the system should automatically link it to the Internet, and download the complete customer reservations that have made. Such a system enables the staff to view the real-time availability condition of the rooms, and make confirmations to the customer either through the telephone, e-mail or face-to-face. Similarly, the system should automatically update the Web availability table and reservation database once a reservation has been completed, altered or cancelled.

Room allocation and statistical reporting

In majority of the hotels, the allocation of rooms to the visitors is normally done just before their arrival, sometimes it can be done as late as the morning of the guests’ arrival day. The installation and implementation of an online system that does not automatically allocate rooms to guests but instead reserves them is important. Such a system would enhance the flexibility of hotel staff in case last-minute changes, such as cancellation, are made by guests. This is because most guests usually have strong preferences for specific rooms in specific accommodation categories and this may pose problems to the hotel staff if last-minute changes are needed (Anckar and Walden 2001).

Barriers to implementation of IT in small and medium-sized hospitality organisations

Even though the internet has been viewed as a chance for SMTEs to get in touch with customers in a sector that is basically international in nature, numerous hindrances still hamper SMHOs from completely maximizing on IT and the internet. Four of the obstacles stand out as particularly vital: lack of financial resources; lack of IT knowledge and expertise; resistance to change; and marginal location (Anckar and Walden 2001).

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Lack of financial resources

Development of a reasonable internet system and a professional web site necessitates considerable investments. As the characteristic SMHO normally can collect only restricted investment capital from its own revenues and from outside sources, its capacity for investment in internet and other web-based technologies may be restricted. A small number of firms, and definitely not SMEs, have adequate internal expertise to initiate an e-commerce project without the need for external assistance (Schneider and Perry 2000), but the normal small hotel can plainly not manage to hire specialists. Even though it can be claimed that a Web presence does not automatically entail huge costs, reducing the costs by reducing vital types of customer service is an extremely dubious approach. The sluggish development of business-to-consumer e-commerce (relative to initial hopeful anticipations) has amazed and upset many specialists in addition to firms that have made heavy investment in e-commerce applications. A feasible cause of the unwillingness of consumers to carry out their shopping on the internet is based on the fact that earlier Web services have provided slight, if any, additional value for the customers in relation to conventional means of shopping.

Majority of the Web sites can be regarded as simply a marketing presence or an inactive promotion (Sheldon 1997), but today’s e-consumers have greater expectations of obtaining irrefutable merits – e-value – from the marketplace. One of the most essential foundations of the tourism industry is human resource (Mulcahy 1999). This is particularly the case in the accommodation sector, where the quality of the service provided is the major determining element, the objective being to enable the guest take pleasure in his visit and to attain repeat visitation. The internet has however added a new element to the notion of service quality. Technology not only provides the industry players with a chance of enhancing the quality of the services provided (Buhalis 1999), but it also creates new demands on firms in this respect. Schneider and Perry (2000) propose that the double forces of worry for service managers are: the fundamental technology of their business; and the human interactions needed to offer satisfactory services to the customers.

Majority of hotel and tourism services are technically complicated, and therefore many clients are not able to determine the technical quality of the services offered, but rather they evaluate the expertise and attitudes of the employers. nevertheless, as internet-based services – particularly online reservation services – are introduced into the hotel and tourism service providers, the opposite becomes the reality: assessing the variety and technical standards of the internet-based services in the pre-travel stage is made easy, while developing an opinion of the expertise and attitudes of the staff before the visit becomes difficult and almost impossible in some cases. Because internet and other web-based technologies enable some elements of the service quality of a hotel to be evaluated before reservations are made, the significance of providing value-added customer services on the Web needs to be emphasized, particularly because travellers are likely to portray little or no brand loyalty (Baloglu, Weaver and McCleary 1998), but rather need travel goods and services that fetch the lowest prices but are of high quality – compatible with their own opinion and preferences of value.

It is a well recognized fact that speed is important in the hotel and tourism industry in giving a response to a visitor, travel agent or tour operator making enquiries concerning, for example, availability of rooms in a hotel. Customers gain from Web online reservation systems through instant fulfilment of their needs (Buhalis 1999). Therefore, a hotel Web site should, provide future customers with a wide variety of information and services, such as online reservation characteristics. The immediate verification advantage provided by the online system has probably been one of the key causes of the massive growth of business-to-consumer operations in the hotel and tourism industry in relation to majority of the other e-appropriate industry sectors and product classifications. If hotels restrict their Web services to enquiry on the price and availability of products and services via e-mail, the telephone and face-to-face methods still provide the only way to an instant booking verification, giving a competitive advantage to these labour-intensive, and more costly service models.

Lack of IT knowledge/experience

The illiteracy of small and medium-sized tourism enterprises in information technology basically implies that they are not able to capitalize on numerous opportunities for efficiency enhancement and promotion of the enterprises. Owners of SMHOs are likely to be short of expertise needed in choosing, establishing, and implementing computerized systems. Thus they are likely to fear that part of their control will be lost if they hire external IT specialists to execute such jobs for them (Buhalis 1999). Nevertheless, this is definitely not always the scenario. The proprietors may develop a sympathetic opinion about technology, and may seek IT enabled adjustments, but due because of their personnel’s inadequate knowledge of IT they may not be able to install or utilize the technological systems they believe would be needed in the organization. The IT revolt has intense repercussions for the management of the hotel and tourism industry (Buhalis 1999), which implies that the hotel proprietor should be knowledgeable and at ease with technology, able to perceive and maximize its potential. With a growing number of computer-literate tourists, the expectations of consumers could compel the induction of information technology in small and medium-sized hotel organisations and their contentment would more and more be dependent on this condition. SMHOs can only attract more customers if they manage to fulfil their needs. In the accommodation sector, the introduction of information technology and appropriate Web-based services almost certainly leads to the alteration of numerous business processes. This not only translates into organisational problems, but also huge costs incurred by the SMHO. One challenge of making successful utilization of technology in the hotel and tourism industry is the shortage of suitable training. There is a general agreement that proper training in the sector does not meet the new pre-requisites for skilled workers in the technology field. Characteristically in SMHOs, the owners are likely to regard training more as a cost than as an asset (Mulcahy 1999).

Resistance to change

Closely connected to the lack of information technology knowledge is the hindrance that arises from a resistance to change either at management or employee level, or both. According to Collier (1991), there are several kinds of explanations as to why managers (and employees) may be resistant to technological change. First and foremost, managers and employees may resist change particularly if no consultation is done with them. Second, they may be apprehensive about their job, and they may also be concerned about appearing inept at the Web-based systems. The employees are, nevertheless, more likely to embrace new working systems when they are actively involved in consultation, initiation and implementation of the technology-based systems (Evans and Wurster 2000).

Peripheral location

The hindrances to the introduction of information technology are probably to be even greater in marginally geographical areas, where new technologies do not usually have a grip as fast and as intensely as in the urban areas. The hindrances might also stem from technological services; for example, broad bandwidth internet connections, being more costly due to the restricted demand, or unavailable technological infrastructure in the marginal regions due to the huge expenses involved. Therefore, for many marginal SMHOs speedy internet connections are not an issue, which should be taken into account when organizing their internet strategies. Furthermore, in marginal areas, IT-skilled employees and professional specialists may be inadequate or lacking altogether. As a result, the marginal firms may not be in a position to find system developers or employees who can manage the systems. Due to these prospective hindrances to the introduction of IT, majority of SMHOs have been unable to completely maximize on the Internet. This is contrary to the situation in bigger hotel chains which started installing and implementing their own computerized reservations systems in the last two decades so as to deal with the international demand for instant verification of room availability and reservations (Holloway 1983). Autonomous SMHOs continue today to gain access into the foreign markets through registration with marketing associations or representation by a hotel representative or agent.

Accessibility of web content in the hotel industry

Web-based technologies provide advantages that make them a beneficial investment for almost all industries. First and foremost, web-based technologies enable individuals and organizations to circulate huge quantities of information swiftly and effectively. Certainly, the technologies allow organisations to get rid of the “richness-reach information trade-off” in which one of these elements was frequently attained at the expense of the other, or some compromise had to be made (Evans and Wurster 2000). For instance, a travel company that sends out fliers through a mailing database may reach a large number of viewers but the quality of the circulated information would be relatively low. Indeed, the method used to distribute the information would only be limited to motionless pictures and text and would lack the interactive element. In addition, once the fliers are printed (usually at substantial cost) they are prone to become dated which denies the publisher the opportunity to update them when the need arises. On the other hand, a travel company can use a retail outlet to market and sell its goods and services. In this case, the reach would be limited to customers who pass by the retail outlet. However, the richness of information would be high due to the ability of the buyers and sellers to interact with each other. The information exchanged in this manner would have the aspect of currency because the seller can update the customers on the updates of the goods and services.

The problem of the richness-reach information trade-off is solved by web-based technology. Williams and Rattray (2005) argue that, “rich information can, potentially, be shared with a global audience. It allows richness and reach,” (p.82). Pages posted on the internet may for instance have text, pictures, video-clips, sound, and interaction through database request. Web pages also provide currency because they can easily be updated on a daily basis. Concerning the reach, web pages can easily be accessed by a large viewer base across the globe at the same time, as long as the pages are designed accurately, registered properly in search engines and listings, and are co-marketed to the intended audiences with more conventional complementary advertising and marketing. Whereas internet-based technologies enable the proficient and convenient provision of information by persons and organisations, they also offer advantages to individuals and organisations that need the information. Basically, they enable individuals and organisations to quickly access a large volume of information about goods and services. Specifically, they tackle the end-users’ search challenges by providing expediency in the search for much-needed information. Even though internet-based technologies provide these advantages to virtually sectors of the economy, they are possibly mainly helpful to the travel/tourism industry due to the industry specific features.

First and foremost, the industry encompasses numerous autonomous, physically distributed players, providing a multifaceted product to end-users who need some substantial pre-purchase information (Williams and Rattray 2005). However, the complete advantage of information distribution and, equally, navigation provided by internet-based technologies may not be completely grasped unless a number of important concerns are addressed. Certainly, the ability to have a hotel’s website on the internet is not enough. Any autonomous hotelier needs to make his or her web site noticeable. The hotelier should acquire web traffic. This can partly be achieved through registration with efficient and popular search engine and directories, which in turn necessitates the comprehension of important elements of design and how pages are ranked by the search engines and directories. For instance, the hotelier needs to be attentive to the significance of key terms and an understanding of the density of key words. In addition, he or she needs to know that the popularity of a web site relies on the number of links that are connected to and from the web pages (Dholakia and Rego 1998). The visibility and popularity of hotel’s web site may be negatively affected by several factors. First, users of the site may be unable to notice, hear, move or manage certain kinds of information. Second, users of the site may have problems reading or understanding text. Third, users of the site may be unable to speak or fully understand the language in which the web pages have been written. Lastly, the users may have a different browser or operating system from the one used by the hotel.

Mandates for web content accessibility

The different needs of end-users and accessibility concerns are an important issue that need to be dealt with by hoteliers due to a number of reasons. First, accessible web pages capitalize on reach. This is vital for a number of reasons. In absolute advertising language persons with some sort of disability (and hence different requirements) comprise of a considerable section of the market. Williams and Rattray (2005) state that, “Indeed, 54 million US citizens live with some form of disability; a figure matched in proportion by the 8.5 million UK citizens thought to be covered by disability legislation,” (p. 87). Although not all of these disabled persons are making use of web-based technologies so far, 8 percent of internet users have described themselves as being disabled to some extent. Given the increasing aging population, and the degree of disability growing with age, the importance of the disabled as a segment of the online market with specific abilities and needs is bound to grow, as it also will merely due to late implementers of the technology.

Closely linked to an apparent economic/competitive need for accessibility is a growing legal need for accessibility (in some countries). Put simply, “access to information has increasingly become a necessary tool for success and the source of opportunity in education and employment,” (Williams and Rattray 2005, p. 92). Using this description, the access to information encompasses the civil rights of not only people without disabilities but also people with disabilities (Yu 2002, p. 406). Whereas a precise understanding of the law dealing with web content accessibility has not yet been created, the extent of injustice legislation into cyberspace has already been observed in some countries such as Australia, in Maguire v. Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) case. In this case, the plaintiff, Maguire, sued the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games for having a web site that was inaccessible and discriminatory in nature and therefore violated the Commonwealth Discrimination Act, 1992. After proving that indeed the SOCOG’s website was discriminatory, the complainant was handsomely compensated by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (Williams and Rattray 2005).

Besides the economic competitive and legal mandates to cater to the needs of persons with disabilities, social responsibility is another good reason why organizations need to address the accessibility concern. Social responsibilities usually fall beyond organizations’ economic and/or legal responsibilities and involve morality and fairness. Corporate citizenship necessitates organizations not to engage in profit-making activities without paying regard to morality. A corporate social contract exists in which society puts expectations on businesses and the government, just as businesses and the government expects certain things from the society. The increasing role played by internet-based technologies in the society means that the responsibilities of organisations are also on the increase, particularly in lessening the actual and potential harms that can be caused by internet-based technologies as well as increasing the benefits that can arise from the same. There is therefore the need to balance the costs and benefits of using the web-based technologies. Organizations are obliged to create a balance between its economic interests and its ethical/social responsibilities, including its numerous stakeholders. Nevertheless, if they fail to take into consideration its ethical/social responsibilities they face a prospective criticism. Certainly, the ability of the internet-based technologies to make it tremendously easy to communicate any opinion (even an alleged “injustice”) to a very big audience only aids in reinforcing the requirement for organizations to embrace and put into practice their social responsibilities. Thus there is a corporate social responsibility in the form of making certain that the utilization of internet-based technologies lessens danger and increases benefits, a responsibility that encompasses accessibility of web content (Williams and Rattray 2005).

The need for web content accessibility does not just apply to persons with disabilities but also to other persons who may not be disabled but nonetheless have special needs, for instance dyslexic individuals. The British Dyslexic Association (2004) argues that, “while dyslexia is a cognitive impairment not covered by legislation, individuals with dyslexia may have particular needs if they are to access information effectively,” (par. 3). Presently, a significant percentage of the world’s population suffers from dyslexia. In Britain, for instance, 4 percent of its population suffers from severe dyslexia and an additional 6 percent suffer from mild to moderate dyslexic problems (British Dyslexic Association, 2004). However, web content accessibility does not just involve addressing the needs of persons with disabilities and special needs. In the past decade, new software and hardware systems have been developed implying that people browse the internet using numerous different browsers. As a result, there is a need for web publishers and designers to take into consideration interoperability. For instance, at a fundamental level, web users may lack a similar screen size to look at web content. On the other hand, the users may be having earlier or diverse kind of internet browsers and may also lack all the plug-ins, for instance, FLASH. All these situations imply that what the users view on the web may differ significantly from what the publisher or designer intended his/her audience to see. This therefore necessitates a technology mandate for taking into account the accessibility of the web content (Williams and Rattray 2005).

Accessibility of hotel web content in the UK and US

The issue of web content accessibility is important in all industries including the hotel and tourism industry. Williams and Rattray (2005) conducted a study to examine the state of web content accessibility in the US and UK hotels. The study made use of a sample of 100 US and 100 UK hotel sites. The samples were selected based on search strings that were made up of a city name and the word ‘hotel’. The city names were selected based on a weighted mean created from the two countries’ seven largest cities. These two search key words were keyed into “Google” which is one of the most popular search engines. The results produced from the search engine in each of the countries were sorted out to eliminate duplicates; particularly index sites for hotels where the search utilized a standard design template. The study by Williams and Rattray (2005) replicated other previous studies carried out to examine the same phenomenon (such as Kelly 2002). Like these studies, Williams and Rattray (2005) ran the sample hotel sites through the Bobby Web Accessibility Checker software. The software recorded the home pages of the sites that either failed or passed at the Priority 1 corresponding checkpoints that it could measure.

The software also recorded the variety of failures so as to determine the most common causes of failure (barriers). It is important to note that the study (and studies done previously) made use of only the home pages of the web sites rather than all the pages of the sites. This is because the home pages are believed to symbolize the accessibility of the entire web site. Being aware that the Bobby Web Accessibility Checker software is only able to carry out quantitative checks, the researchers utilized an additional manual to perform a qualitative check of the sample sites. An assessment of effectiveness was made for the hotel sites that had included an optional text for their images. In this case, the evaluation was carried out to determine whether or not the optional text conveyed the same information as its related image. This assessment was executed separately by two different examiners. A third individual was then utilized to check for any inconsistencies between the two examiners. The study using the Bobby software and the alternative qualitative manual was carried out in January 2004 (Williams and Rattray 2005).

Survey results and analysis

For technical reasons the Bobby software was run through only 85 of the 100 UK and 88 of the 100 US hotel sites. Out of these hotel sites, only 13 percent of the UK sites and 6 percent of the US sites managed to pass the Priority 1 checkpoints that the software is able to evaluate. The most commonly reported barriers (failures) included: a failure to offer optional text for all images (81 percent for UK sites and 88 percent for US sites); a failure to offer optional text for the image map hot-spots (16% for UK sites and 14% for US sites); a failure to offer optional text for images-type buttons (12% for UK sites and 19% for US sites); inability to provide a frame for each title (9% for UK sites and 11% for US sites). Whereas 13 percent of the UK sites passed Bobby Priority 1 checkpoints none of them passed the Priority Levels 2 or 3. On the other hand, of the 6 US sites that passed Priority 1 checkpoint, only 1 passed at Priority Level 2 and none passed at Priority Level 3 (Williams and Rattray 2005).

Implications of the study

The results from the Williams and Rattray’s (2005) study are unsatisfactory. They show that a vast majority of hotel sites do not achieve fundamental accessibility standards. Additionally, they indicate that the performance of the hotel industry as far as web content accessibility is deteriorating. This is despite the increase in the number of software and hardware developments as well as the increase in the number of internet users globally. One astonishing element of the survey findings is the higher number of UK sites than US sites that passed the Bobby Priority 1. This was contrary to the initial expectation that more US sites than UK sites would pass the Bobby Priority 1 level because the US is a more litigious society which embraced technology earlier than the UK and therefore should offer greater accessibility to its internet users. This lower accessibility on the part of the US may be explained by the fact that the US uses more advanced technology than the UK and therefore the advanced technology may limit many users from accessing the sites. This however does not ease the fact that a greater number of these sites are unable to achieve the competitive, legal, ethical/moral and technological mandates for accessibility. The qualitative evaluation of the UK sites’ alternative texts for images and their usefulness ranked the sites as either “poor”, ‘moderate,” or “good”(Williams and Rattray 2005).

Sites were ranked to be “poor” if the alternative text used for images was not helpful to the users in the navigational process. Sites were also poor if they made it impossible for the disabled persons to use the images in cases where the images are a vital component of the web page. Sites were ranked to be “moderate” if the alternative text was helpful to most of the users but was insufficient for some images of marginal significance to the function of the site. Lastly, sites were ranked to be “good” if the alternative text was useful and improved the accessibility and usability of the web site. Based on this ranking mechanism, only nine of the 85 UK sites that were assessed offer alternatives described as “Good” whereas one site was graded as “Moderate” and another one as “Poor”. On the whole then, the majority of the sites that provide alternative text provide that enhanced navigability which in turn assists users who utilize a text-based browser or screen reading software. Unfortunately, only a small number of the surveyed sites provide alternative text for images (Williams and Rattray (2005).

Hotel websites in Greece

An evaluation of the state of hotel websites in Greece was done by Zafiropoulos and Vrana (2006). The study made a comparison between the top 25 hotel brand websites with Greek hotel websites. The major aims of the study included: recording the characteristics of the information provided on the hotels’ websites with the use of an comprehensive web search and content assessment; categorizing the information services in groups based on their similarity of themes; computing the number of information services that are provided in the hotels’ websites; making use of opinions from managers and clients to develop weights to include the importance of the information services; and measuring the index of the dimensions’ performance and the overall performance. The key elements that were analyzed in the study include: “facilities information, guest contact information, reservation/price information, surrounding area information, management of the website, and company profile” (Zafiropoulos and Vrana 2006). The selection of the Greek hotels to be analysed was done by using Greek Travel Pages (GTP) to recognize the Greek hotels that have websites. Zafiropoulos and Vrana (2006) argue that, “GTP is considered to be the most comprehensive directory of Greek Tourism,” (p.247). A total of 798 Greek hotel websites was found and used in the study. An analysis was then made of the types of information services that are provided by both the top 25 hotel websites and the Greek hotel websites.

Results of the study

A number of observations were made from Zafiropoulos and Vrana’s (2006) study. First, the websites of the top 25 hotel brands had very high scores of the different information services offered. The scores ranged from 52.3% to 81.6%. Information services dimensions that scored the highest include: “guest contact information, reservation/prices information, surrounding area information, and facilities information” (Zafiropoulos and Vrana 2006, p.250). These were followed by company profile and management of website which scored low points because the two dimensions are regarded as the least important and hence information services pertaining to them are provided to a lesser degree. The score of the general performance of the top 25 hotel brand websites stood at 73%.

The second observation made pertained to the Greek hotel websites. The results of the Greek hotel websites differed significantly from those of the top 25 hotel brands. In the first place, the scores of the Greek hotel websites were significantly higher for the facilities information dimension and the guest contact dimension than for the other information services dimensions. However, the richness of the information provided for these two dimensions was much lower than that of the 25 top hotel brand websites. The scores for the Greek hotel websites were lower for the surrounding area dimension (29.46%) and the reservation/prices information dimension (17.92%) and the lowest for the management of the websites and company information dimensions. The overall score for the performance of Greek hotel websites stood at only 33% as compared to the 73% of the top 25 hotel brand websites. These results – especially for the reservation/price information dimension – are disappointing. Majority of the managers and clients regard this dimension as the most important and one for which more information needs to be provided by hotels (Zafiropoulos and Vrana 2006).

Implications of the study

The provision of information services by the top 25 hotel brand websites is satisfactory because the adequate information is provided for the information dimensions that are considered as significant by managers and end-users. In Greece however, the situation is different. The poor provision of information services by Greek hotel websites reflects the attitudes of hoteliers towards the use, presence and promotion of hotel websites. Zafiropoulos and Vrana (2006) state that, “the overall information provision by Greek hotel websites is placed at about one half of the information provision of the top 25 hotel brands,” (p.251). In Greece, hotels use their websites more for advertisement purposes than for conducting businesses and/or carrying out transactions online. This means that Greek hotels are unable to benefit from the great advantages that other hotels gain from using the internet to carry out transactions with their clients.

Greek hotels need to become accustomed to the present economic and technological transformations that are going on across the globe. Greek hoteliers should not only implement advanced technologies and tendencies for e-commerce but they also need to change their attitudes towards web-based technologies such as the internet. The delay in the implementation of advanced technology in the Greek hotel industry stems from reluctance to carry out critical investments as well as from negative attitudes that result from their culture. In particular, Greeks are suspicious of the need to provide personal details on the internet and the lack of personal contact that is involved in carrying out transactions online. The Greek hotel industry can therefore only benefit from the web-based technologies if it deals with its limitations and implements more advanced technologies that will help the hoteliers to provide important services such as booking and reservations (Deimezi and Buhalis 2003).

Tackling the web content accessibility challenge in the hotel industry

The comparatively unsatisfactory results for web content accessibility revealed in the Williams and Rattray’s (2005) study show that hotel and tourism organisations are either oblivious to the importance of the matter, or that they are ignorant about it, maybe due to misinformation about either or both of the advantages and disadvantages of tackling the issue. It is therefore important for hotels and other players in the tourism sector to address this widely ignored yet important issue. The first step in dealing with the web content accessibility challenge entails advocating for and selling its merits to the major organisational stakeholders. The major influencers and decision-makers should be supportive of the initiative. Williams and Rattray (2005) argue that, “making a business case for accessibility utilising the four mandates, illustrating both the benefits from addressing the issue as well as the potential costs (direct business, litigation, negative publicity, etc) from ignoring it, adds weight to the argument,” (p. 87). Advocating for web content accessibility is however hardly sufficient to guarantee change however obtaining dedication to the likelihood for change makes the implementation much easier.

Conclusion

E-commerce has enormously transformed the way in which goods and services are sold and bought. In the hotel and tourism industry, the introduction and implementation of web-based technologies make it possible for end-users to confirm the types and quality of services offered by the preferred destination as well as their availability. E-commerce has not only reduced the length of time taken by guests and tourists in booking and making reservations but it has also increased the efficiency of hotels by increasing the pace at which the services are provided as well as their quality. Despite these great benefits provided to end-users and organisations, the players in the industry cannot benefit greatly from web-based technologies if the organizations’ websites are not visible and accessible to the audience. Web content accessibility is important not only to people with disabilities and special needs but also to people using different browser versions and operating systems. Without addressing the web content accessibility issue, hotels would fail to benefit from the great gains that can be reaped from the implementation of web-based technologies even in cases where they have great and attractive websites. In sum, hotel and tourism organizations that have not yet embraced the internet-based technologies should do so by overcoming their actual and perceived barriers. Only then will such organizations be able to benefit from increased customer volume and higher revenues that are only possible with the implementation of e-commerce.

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