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nightsbridge is a system that provides realtime availability & online bookings.  But that's only part of it - it also gets accommodation establishments more visible than they could ever be on their own.

I love a success story, especially when it’s a success story about a husband and wife team.  Looking back on some I’ve written about, there’s the late Charles & Ray Eames in the USA, world-famous designers.  And Andre & Ilze Appelgryn in Bredasdorp, who’s Kapula Candles started in a garage and is today the world’s largest manufacturer of hand-crafted candles; the biggest employer in the Overberg.

And now there’s Neil & Theresa Emerick who started Nightsbridge, probably CapeInfo’s most important partner.  Theresa explains how it started:

Theresa & Neil EmerickNot 'Gorillas in the Mist': Theresa & Neil Emerick after their gorilla trek in Rwanda“Travelling in the USA some months before our wedding, we found it incredibly easy to do bookings on the web, making use of special internet rates. Back in South Africa, Neil remembered a bit close to the big day that he forgot to book a short break in Dullstroom for our honeymoon. He frantically emailed, only to discover that no-one was in a great hurry to email back. Some responses only arrived three days later. This triggered the idea for nightsbridge.

On investigation, we found that the only solutions available for online booking in South Africa were written for large hotels and were way outside the budget of smaller establishments. We developed the nightsbridge service in close consultation with B&B and guest house owners.”

Like most “good ideas” that become a success story, Nightsbridge required expertise and hard work. Neil is a seriously-capable software programmer.  He started at the age of ten, modifying the code for those old green-screen games.  Career-wise, his last business prior to Nightsbridge developed accounting applications.

After a university education in international relations and political science, Theresa landed a job with one of SA’s first professional speakers, where the whole emphasis was on customer service.   That set her focus for the years to come.   Her next job took her all over Africa, and addressed entrepreneurship, small business development and training.  She met Neil while she was in Nigeria and he came to work on a job with her.  He had sold his business shortly before and was working for the Free Market Foundation’s consulting unit.

Neil is not your typical IT techhie – I enjoy his lateral thinking and the passion he tackles things with.  His main interest is economics, something he can be quite outspoken about.  Not just hot air though – for example, he wrote a monograph on the failings of SA’s ECT Act when it was still a draft.  If Neil is kept locked in the cupboard to concentrate on code (his joking complaint), Theresa is always out there as nightsbridge’s indefatigable driver and champion.  If there is, or might be, a problem, she picks up the phone to sort it out immediately.  And the nightsbridge team has grown to a staff of 13.

“People mistakenly view other property management systems as nightsbridge’s competition,” says Theresa.  “The front-desk reservation system is not our core business.  We focus on online distribution to marketing channels (web sites and agents) and provide the realtime booking facilities for customers’ web sites.”    CapeInfo is one of those websites.

Today, nightsbridge has 2,300 customers in 13 countries. They focus on South Africa, Namibia and East Africa to develop marketing channels.  Properties in other countries use nightsbridge independently to provide the realtime booking facilities on their own sites.

“We set out to build a bridge between guest houses and the web sites marketing them to guests.  The aim was to enable the B&B to only keep one system up-to-date, but to have the ability to distribute that same information to many different marketing channels for realtime bookings.

"This enables 6,000 travel agents to book directly with nightsbridge customers."

“We’re still adding marketing channels on a regular basis. The one we’re currently most excited about, is the link with Travelport Leisure which went live on 1 December. This enables 6,000 travel agents to book directly with nightsbridge customers.

“So although 75% of our customers use nightsbridge as their main reservation and administration system, we also connect to 18 other reservation packages. If you’re already using Semper, Innkeeper or Guest House Manager for instance, you only need to connect nightsbridge to that package to add on a full realtime booking system and channel manager.”

The software package and its integrated services have grown tremendously over the 6 years they have been in operation. They work on the basis of a “wish list”: “If more than 5 clients ask for the same feature, we evaluate the impact and try our best to include it in the next version. So the system has grown with the B&B industry and remained closely aligned to the needs of an owner or manager,” says Theresa.

The biggest challenges for smaller properties in the e-marketing arena are information & know-how. A guesthouse or B&B owner needs to be an incredibly adept jack-of-all-trades. “Not only do they need to cook a mean “bacon & eggs” and ensure spotless rooms, they also have to be marketing gurus and now, social media experts,” says Theresa.  That is where a service like nightsbridge can assist in providing advice and links to the web.

Success factors
What is the most important success factor?  Theresa should know better than most:  “On the internet, it’s visibility. Guests often search on travel dates to find available accommodation. They may not book on that site directly, but use it as a guide to find properties they want to research further, so they don’t feel that they are wasting time by researching a place that is fully booked on their date of travel.

“Offering live availability means you appear in those searches. The success of nightsbridge is not just measurable in actual online bookings: we also make sure that your phone rings, since more people see and find you on the web.”

Theresa says that the properties that have had the most success on nightsbridge are those that put the most effort into linking up to as many of its partner web & agent channels as possible. “In addition, those links need to have good descriptions and content, with the added effort of trying to make it a bit unique on each site. Photographs need to be clear and professional.  Often, when a B&B is concerned about their performance online, those are simple and easy changes they can make.

“It’s the whole package that counts. And unfortunately, that does require some work to set up.
The nightsbridge marketing partner sites often act as billboard advertising. That is, a guest searches online, views availability on Expedia or Booking.com for instance, but don’t necessarily book there. The next step is usually to look for the B&B’s own web site on Google.”

This echoes CapeInfo’s experience.  Since the Nightsbridge link on marketing partner sites like CapeInfo only provides access to realtime availability and online bookings, CapeInfo encourages establishments to take our option which shows guests their full details (phones, email & website) so guests can make enquiries and visit their websites where they will usually book directly.  CapeInfo finds that businesses that do best are those that are most easily accessible, without the need for further searches.

Another very big problem CapeInfo encounters is establishments who just don’t make an effort when providing content.  Does a full description like “self-catering cottage” really do the establishment justice and sell it to the reader?  Or one that fails to add any photographs, which is surely what most readers are looking for?

Theresa says Nightsbridge is addressing these challenges because, “unfortunately, that is how people are now searching on the web and if you don’t represent yourself well on many different platforms, you won’t have the results you hope for.

“We are starting on an e-marketing education campaign to advise our clients even better on which channels they need to focus on, and how. As an example of our new initiatives, we are launching a Facebook application which allows you to add your nightsbridge booking form as one of your Facebook page tabs.”

But the hospitality industry and travellers can expect to see much, much more coming from Nightsbridge in the coming years.  Neil has been productively locked in his cupboard for far too long!