Hotel Website FAQ #1: Should our hotel website be built on a proprietary CMS or an open source CMS?

Before building a website, you will have two options to discuss with your web developer: creating the site with or without a Content Management System (CMS). If you are not familiar with HTML coding, then I recommend you build your hotel’s website with a CMS because it will provide a user-friendly interface that allows you to add or revise content and graphics much more easily than a site built without a CMS. A CMS typically integrates a formatting toolbar (similar to Microsoft Word’s editing toolbar) into each page, allowing you to bold or italicize text, add hyperlinks or images, and arrange the page’s layout without knowing HTML.

Custom CMS vs Open Source CMS

Once you understand the benefits of building your hotel’s website on a CMS, you will need to determine whether you are going to use a custom CMS or an open source CMS. What’s the difference? A custom CMS is a unique management system created and programmed in-house by a web development company, usually to simplify content updates for companies with very complex sites. An open source CMS, such as WordPress, Joomla!, and Drupal, is a free content management system that has been developed and somewhat homogenized by web developers all over the world and is continuously supported and improved by the entire community that uses it. Many website development companies create a custom CMS, add branding to make it their proprietary CMS, and then build all of their clients’ sites on it. A proprietary CMS is usually an over-simplified management system that is expected to make the daunting behind-the-scenes labyrinth of the interwebs seem extremely user-friendly, even moreso than an open source CMS. When you hear that a company can quickly deliver a website on their proprietary CMS, providing a foolproof solution for maintaining your site’s content without knowing any HTML jargon, it’s hard not to pull out your pen and sign on the dotted line. However, while working at Blue Magnet Interactive, I have learned the hard way that a website built on a propriety CMS will usually result in more trouble and accrue more costs in the long term than a website built on an open source CMS.

Controlling the fate of your hotel’s website

It is important to understand that building your hotel’s website on an open source CMS allows the hotel to maintain full ownership of its site. Using a proprietary CMS gives the web development company full ownership and control over your hotel’s site.
An open source CMS is continuously improved by the community of users, who all have a vested interest in enhancing the CMS framework, fixing bugs, correcting security flaws, and adding new usability or functionality features. A proprietary CMS relies on a single company for updates and improvements, so the fate of your website ultimately lies in the hands of that company.  If the company goes out of business, you will likely lose your website. If the company decides to discontinue their proprietary CMS product because it’s no longer profitable, you will likely lose your website. If the company decides they no long want to work with you as a client, you will likely lose your website.
Of course, the client-vendor relationship works both ways. The website development company might build you a beautiful new website on a proprietary CMS, but what if your hotel decides to switch marketing vendors or take its marketing in-house? How will a change in vendors impact your website? Unfortunately, you will most likely be tied to the original agency that created your website on its proprietary CMS.  In some instances, you may be able to simply lease the use of the CMS while your hotel team manages and markets the site. You will essentially just be paying for the vendor to host your site and use their CMS. This scenario, however, comes with its own set of challenges.
For instance, while you will have some access to make basic content updates in the proprietary CMS, your capabilities will be extremely limited. Many proprietary CMSs will allow you to modify body text and some photography, but you are limited to those minimal changes. Considering many vendors design their CMS for simplified website editing, some of the most important features of your website may be hidden from the user’s view, requiring you to call the original CMS company and pay a considerable hourly fee to make technical updates on your behalf. If your hotel or marketing team decides to target a new keyword, how can you update the meta-content to tackle this new SEO strategy? Chances are you can’t — at least not without the help of your previous vendor. How can you add tracking code to integrate Google Analytics? What if you want to add event tracking on all call-to-actions (check availability buttons or banner ads) so that your hotel can determine which special offers are performing exceptionally well and which packages may need some additional strategizing? More likely than not, you will have to jump through the same hoops and pay the same fee as I mentioned above. The point is: when your hotel’s website is built on a proprietary CMS, you don’t have control of your own website, so when you need to make changes, well, more often than not, you can’t. At least not without paying the development company with whom you thought you had severed all ties.

Controlling the fate of your hotel’s hosting

When building a website, you also need to consider how your site will be hosted. While this may not always be the case, it is likely that if a web company builds a site on a proprietary CMS, the company will also own the hosting for the site. It’s possible, and perhaps likely, that you don’t know or care where your site is being hosted; as long as your hotel’s website is up and running smoothly so that guests can book a hotel room, you are content. However, these same “what if” scenarios that I brought to your attention previously will also apply to hosting. If you leave your current web development company for a new vendor, will the new vendor be able to access the hosting platform to troubleshoot if your website goes down? If you build a new ‘things to do” page to replace an old events page, will your new vendor be able to access the correct file on the hosting cpanel to set up the proper redirect so that Google doesn’t penalize you for duplicate content or index an outdated paged, both of which will negatively impact your SEO?
If not, your hotel and your new web team will still have to rely on your previous vendor to ensure that the technical SEO is up to Google’s strict standards and that your website is properly functioning.

Why Blue Magnet Interactive designs websites on open source CMS platforms

Just last month a former client, who had recently relocated to a new hotel as the General Manager, called me up and said, “I’m firing my current online marketing company. I want Blue Magnet to take over our hotel’s website. I need to impress the big guys fast! Can you make our crappy site look really hip and cool?” While I am ecstatic to hear that a former client wants to take his Blue Magnet team to his new hotel and Blue Magnet is excited to welcome new business, I was immediately hesitant to begin making promises until I could figure out the logistics of the previous vendor’s proprietary CMS.
Fortunately for us, most marketing vendors that have transitioned hotel clients to Blue Magnet have been fairly cordial in the process, but why should they feel obligated to help transfer their client to a new web developer? In the case of my returning client, both the hotel and I were limited to using the parts of the proprietary CMS that only allowed for very basic changes to the body text and photos on the pages.  Unfortunately, this only gets you so far, particularly when you are responsible for improving the SEO of a site from a technical standpoint. After using my client’s login information to peruse the proprietary CMS, I was dismayed to learn that there was very little I could do to improve their site without having access to the full code of the site. I could not make many aesthetic changes. I could not add new plug-ins or modules that might make the site load faster or might add a useful new feature. I could not access the meta-content to implement a fresh SEO strategy. I could not access the cpanel to fix any technical SEO issues or set up redirects.
Needless to say, the best solution I could offer my client was a brand new website built on an open source CMS and hosted on third-party hosting platform. Redesigning the site from scratch was more cost-effective and efficient than stripping out the old proprietary CMS to add an open source one (which would have created a Frankenstein of a site, patched together with duct tape). While the client was unhappy to learn that they would have to scrap their old site and start over, the benefits of having Blue Magnet design and manage a website built on an open source platform outweighed the negatives of remaining with their current marketing vendor.  If the hotel’s website had been built on an open source CMS from the get-go, the transition between vendors would have been much more seamless and much less expensive, as it would likely not have required a completely new site build.
Designing and building websites on an open source design platform allows Blue Magnet to maintain transparency when working with our hotel clients. We do not own your hotel’s website. Your hotel owns it. You can walk away with your website, and any web geek who knows how to use an open source CMS like Joomla, Drupal, or WordPress can make content and technical changes to your website. All web designers are familiar, and many are experts, in these popular open source platforms that are regularly improved by the development community. Blue Magnet also does not lock you into hosting or mask hosting fees that leave you wondering what you are really paying for. Rather, we host your site on a third-party hosting company so that you can log-in at your convenience and take it with you, should you choose to. The bottom line? In my experience, a beautifully designed website built on an open source CMS and hosted on a third-party vendor will provide a transferrable website solution at a lower cost and will prove to be a valuable long term investment.
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