Start Your Own Accommodation Website in South Africa

Accommodation websites showcase various types of short-term rentals and holiday accommodation from hotels to self-catering guesthouses and get a commission each time a booking is made through the website. Here is how to get started in this business in South Africa.

The landscape
If you’ve ever done a search for “accommodation in {area}” you might have gotten links to websites such as, SafariNow or SleepingOUT (let’s call them “1st tier websites”), what these websites do is promote guest houses and other short-term accommodation and get a commission every time someone books through their website.

Now it’s important to know that the majority (not everyone, but the majority) of guest houses and hotels in South Africa use the same underlying booking management system called NightsBridge which also provides the real-time functionality to see whether a room is available or not.

Please note I will refer to all accommodation places whether hotels, B&B’s, guesthouses as “venues”.

Business model
There is essentially two business models in this game, (1) one that requires a lot of work to setup and run but has larger commissions and (2) the other, all that is required is a website (or any type of online page, Twitter account, Facebook page etc.) and an affiliate link.

  1. Will basically put you in the same league as a 1st tier website
  2. Will make you an affiliate of a 1st tier website; let’s call it a “2nd tier website”. Making you basically an affiliate of an affiliate (you will be getting a cut of the commission that they will be getting).

How to start a 1st tier website
To start a 1st tier website you will need to sign up for NightsBridge by contacting them and telling them about your (proposed) website. Once they accept you will be used with a “NBID” which is a unique identifier on the system (basically an API – Application Programming Interface – key).

You will now need to contact each and every guesthouse, B&B and hotel you want to promote and ask them if you can add them to your “NB MAP” which is basically if you are allowed to promote their venue. Once accepted NightsBridge will issue you with unique URLs (website links) containing your NBID, which is basically an affiliate link (if you’ve promoted affiliate websites before you will know what it is). When someone clicks on your unique link your logo will show at the top (large rectangle) of like this:

Now if some of the terms above confused you it’s time for a reality check if you want to be in the 1st tier:
* If you not a web developer or cannot afford one then the 1st tier is not for you.
You would need to properly integrate the listings into your website’s search functionality
* If you don’t have good telephone manner, money to hire someone to make calls as well as money to make the calls (airtime) then this path is not for you. You will have to contact each and every venue owner you want to list, explain what it is that you do (I will get to strategy further), they may have a few questions for you and it will either be a “yes” or a “no” from them.

You need permission to link a venue to your NBID (venue owner needs to approve your request). Do not bother taking this route if you cannot make or afford to make phone calls to the owner of the venue. Emails will not be responded to, they will ignore it, the person that usually gets the Email is most times not the owner and they will most likely not even pass it on or the owner won’t follow up. Owners are much more responsive if you call them.

Taking this route is a full time and not a passive business. Besides a web developer and someone to call the venue owners you will also need a receptionist for reservation support, some people will want to call you just to hear a voice on the other end of the line before they make the booking, or they may have other queries and questions.

Business model
If you go this route your commission per booking is 15% of the accommodation fee that is booked through your link.

Getting paid
There is a bit of a caveat with regarding payment. There are two ways for guests to pay: by bank card & EFT. The venue determines what method of payment they accept. If they accept both this means:

* When payment is made via bank card, the money is allocated to you directly before the venue is paid their money.  NightsBridge includes it in their fees and pays you out.
* When payment is made via EFT you will still be credited with the referral but you have to invoice the venue for the commission amount. There is a risk that they may be slow in paying or not pay you at all. So be aware of this. You have to keep proof that venue gave you OK to be added or promoted by you.

There is a way to lessen the risk but it is time consuming (before calling the owner, go to every venue you want to add click on the booking link, click on a date and then click “check availability”, choose amount of rooms and click “Book now”, this will take you to the “payment details” page if it says something like “If you are happy with the details above click “Finalise Booking” to pay by bank transfer.” Then you know they only accept EFT and you should probably avoid as you will be guaranteed to chase after the money.)

Last time I checked there was over 3000 venues on NightsBridge.

How to start a 2nd tier website
A second tier website is much simpler to operate than a 1st tier website, and it shows in the commission, instead of getting 15% per booking you will only be getting around 20% of that 15% (in other words of the booking commission 1/5 will go to you and 4/5 will go to the “1st tier website”, and you know why: the 1st tier website you partner with has or is doing all the work.

Being a 2nd tier website is a passive affiliate website. You put links on your website and when people click through and make a confirmed booking, you get a commission of that.

Things to watch out for
Cookie period
“Cookie period” is how long you will be credited with a commission once someone has clicked through from your link, and made a paid booking (without clearing their browser cookies). Some have 1 hour some have 30 days. What this means is if someone clicks through using your link and does not make a booking within an hour you will not be credited for the referral.

How to get started
Visit 1st tier website you want to partner with and click on the affiliate link. Read their terms and conditions thoroughly regarding cookie period. SafariNow has a comical cookie period of 1 hour. What this means is, you work hard to get your 2nd tier SafariNow affiliate website off the ground, someone finds a listing they like through your website and they want to book, but then they get the shits and have to run to the toilet where they spend 61 minutes, when they come back and book SafariNow will get the full commission and you will get nothing. People that want book after clicking through from your website don’t even have to get the shits they can simply need to consult with a partner which could take more than an hour and then you will lose out. So check out your potential affiliate partners, look for a 30 day cookie period or even better one that doesn’t expire.

SafariNow terms

A second tier website is far easier to start than a 1st tier website but is eventually worth the effort if you are able to put it in. 15% of a R1 million (R150 000) is way better than 20% of 15% of R1 million (R30 000). But even with a 2nd tier website if you are able to drive R1 million in bookings a month you still making decent money considering it is something that can be done as a one man show. You can start at 2nd tier and eventually move onto 1st tier once you have traction or you can start at first tier. But that is your decision to make.

Whether you have a 1st tier or second tier website, you need to make it compelling. You cannot just have an accommodation portal anymore. It’s too competitive, you will have people with better search rankings than you, more money to spend on ads etc. You need a USP (unique selling proposition) or you should not bother as you will just be wasting your time.

Ideas include:
Build a website around a niche, example: listing venues close to sports stadiums
Start a “Things to do in…” and list accommodation in that area
Link attractions with restaurant listings and accommodation listings. Or focus on business travel instead of holiday.
just make it interesting whether you showing image galleries from the venue or surrounding area, just don’t make a boring booking website. Also translated accommodation websites have been done (Lekkeslaap). So do something unique.