Sometimes the best things in life come when you take a leap into the unknown. That’s certainly the case for Hayley Van der Walt, whose Hermanus Backpackers hostel business is a direct result of that bold, enterprising spirit.
Hayley and her husband Braam came to Hermanus over 20 years ago as backpackers, keen to try out this South African town’s famed shark diving and whale watching. With a lack of budget accommodation in the area back then, they were forced to overspend on a few nights in a higher-end hotel – which got them thinking. Having spent four years backpacking around the world, Hayley says that they “were clued up on what was expected at a backpackers. Although neither of us had ever worked in hospitality, we’d spent enough time travelling to know what we’d have to do to pull it together.”
And so in 1999 they took the leap and set up Hermanus Backpackers, a 14-room hostel.
“In those days, it was all telephone calls, the internet wasn’t a big deal. People would just turn up. You’d have a quiet week and that was the way it went,” Hayley recalls.
As the internet age gathered pace, they decided to set up a website for Hermanus Backpackers as a way of getting their name out there. But without a way to book rooms on the site, the booking process was slow – and they ended up losing a lot of bookings as a result.
“You only had the option to fill in an enquiry form, which would come through to the reception’s computer. Then we’d send them a confirmation letter and a booking form to fill in with their credit card details, which of course people are very reluctant to hand over these days,” Hayley says.
“So it was all just done manually. Then I’d have to go to Booking.com and release the availability so somebody else didn’t book the same room.”
“Then one day I got an email from Booking.com that said something about a BookingButton, that you can install this button on your website for R159 (around 10 euros) a month. I thought ‘that looks difficult, but it also looks too good to be true’.”
“So I clicked the link because I wanted to see the small print, and it kept saying that for R159 a month, you can have your own button that lets guests book directly with you – and I still didn’t believe it.”
To her surprise, Hayley was able to embed the button herself. “Boom. It worked straight away,” she says.
Now Hayley has been able to move on from the long, drawn-out process of enquiry forms, waiting for replies and manual availability updates. “It’s a great opportunity for me and my staff to say: ‘No problem, you don’t have to give us your credit card details, just click the button on the site,’” she says.
“It’s cut down the whole process now. There’s no need for our customers to fill in booking forms and give me their credit card details because I will now direct them to our website and say: ‘Book it there’."
With a simplified direct booking process, Hermanus Backpackers got 25 commission-free bookings through their website within two weeks of installing the button – and that was in low season.
“Now we’re obsessed, because every time a booking comes in, we look at the commission amount. We’ve got little high fives going in reception.”
“If it looks too good to be true, nine times out of ten it will be. So on this rare occasion, you’re like: ‘Really? You’re only going to charge me R159 and I can do all this?’ It seems too good to be true. But it is, it’s true!”
Looking back, Hayley has no regrets about taking the leap. “I was reluctant to add a BookingButton to my website, because I thought I’d have to learn things that don’t come naturally,” she says. “But it’s just so fabulous, why was I so worried?”
*Pricing of the BookingButton starts from R159 (10 euro per month).
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