Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The following article by Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Offirce of ThinkInk, originally appeared on eHotelier on 12/14/11.

Shhhhhh. Listen. Can you hear them?

It's the sound of millions of consumers, leisure travelers, hotel guests and on-business patrons alike, across all demographics, adding to the mobile phone bandwidth super highway by jumping on the mobile phone bandwagon.

Roughly a quarter century into mobile phones' mainstream release, the technology - and its uses - has sure come a far piece. Mobile phones and their increasingly "intelligent" smartphone cousins have morphed into the ultimate digital Swiss Army Knife -marrying the best of computer-based processing power with the ease, simplicity and functionality of a 5-ounce pocket-sized device. Not bad, huh?

For hotel managers looking to capitalize on these rapid and profound changes there are only two words: Game on.

Without doubt, the mobile phone has become ubiquitous: 77% of the world's population (5.3 billion people) owns at least a basic mobile phone, capable of receiving SMS messages. Not to be outdone, though, the smartphone is playing some Major League catch-up ball, making up anywhere from 17% to as much as 63% of the global marketplace in some regions. Today the average global smartphone penetration rate hovers at around 27%, but is growing rapidly.

Increasingly mobile phone users see their devices as "always on" extensions of their everyday lives. From so-called "couch commerce," to mobile couponing, to booking airline flights while sitting at a traffic light (hands free of course), the mobile phone and the opportunities presented by the channel are just too great for hoteliers to ignore.

With this background picture in your mind right now, it's surprising, then, that the hospitality industry, specifically hotels, has been relatively slow at embracing the mobile platform. While the challenges to embrace mobile are real, ranging from hiring the necessary tech-savvy staff, to ensuring data security, guarding against errors, and incorporating an ability for users to book their stays on the go, and even choosing which mobile operating system to embrace, none of these obstacles should relegate hotels to the mobile sidelines. Surveys indicating a strong desire for hotels to adopt mobile (92%) don't seem to be enough, however.

In many cases, actions can speak louder than words, so let's see some action in the mobile game please hotels! That said, "action" without a game plan or playbook is equally foolish. For hotels, going mobile isn't simply a catch-all phrase or something that screams, "hey, we have an app too." It's about knowing your customers' wants, desires, and mobile habits: today's hotel booker is no longer tied to the home or office computer - but is mobilized with mobile in hand, capable of searching, comparing and booking from anywhere, at anytime.

So here are my five recommendations for hotel managers to consider when launching their mobile programs:

#5 KNOW THE DIFFERENCE between web surfers and web hunters. Here's the deal: laptop and desktop Internet users tend to "surf" the web, casually scanning data, comparing prices, and toggling between multiple sites. In other words, they take their time. Mobile customers lack this luxury. Instead, due in part to a smaller screen size and limited ability to multitask, (or multitask as effortlessly) mobile users are said to be "hunters," carefully picking and choosing exactly what they want from the website's they've visited or the app they've accessed. For hotel managers that means designing a mobile website that contains less superfluous data. Leave the "About Us" section for the web and instead have engaging, lively pictures and video of your hotel and current guests (with their permission). Consider thumbnails, though, and don't overwhelm a mobile users viewing space. Interactive maps, too, help zero-in on what your hotel is trying to promote in terms of neighborhood and curbside appeal - all of which a mobile user would like to know.

#4 DUE TO MOBILE USERS' hunting nature, they tend to book their trips in an even narrower window than their laptop or desktop counterparts - a tech sector that has also seen a closing of the booking widow. Earlier this fall, for instance, when New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut were hit with an intense power line-collapsing snowstorm, mobile bookings for hotel stays jumped 270%. Although mobile booking on hotel sites directly remains a small part of the marketplace, there's every indication that if hotels build it, customers will come.

#3 APPS ARE NOT ALL THAT. Rely on what works: Here's the caveat to the above. Mobile bookers, regardless of whether they use a meta-search engine or an online travel agency, (OTA) want simplicity. It may not be necessary to have both a mobile-formatted website and an app. Choose which one works best. The time, money, and effort that goes into designing an app could, perhaps, be spent better elsewhere. With more than 500,000 apps in the iTunes App Store alone, it's incredibly easy for a hotel app - even a great one - to become buried in the digital noise.

#2 MOBILE GUESTS WANT TO TALK... about you: Mobile users increasingly expect and demand an ability to post their thoughts and opinions (good or bad) about their travel stay and booking experience. This is already being done through aggregator and OTA sites, as well as through Facebook and Twitter. Why not shift that buzz back to your hotels' mobile site?

#1 USE MOBILE TO WELCOME YOUR GUEST - long before they step foot in your lobby: Mobile patrons are often tech-savvy, out-of-the-box thinkers. Hoteliers can use this to their advantage, as customers are increasingly receptive to purchasing in-hotel amenities like movies and room service, or securing hotel conference space, gym and spa time - all while on the go.

Considering that smartphone penetration rates are likely to increase, it's fair to say -as many already have - that a critical mass of public interest and user engagement is being reached. Whether or not 2012 is the year that crosses that threshold is anyone's guess.

But like the airline and retail industries before them, the hotel industry, armed with the above knowledge, needs to fully embrace the mobile channel and all its capabilities while understanding the unique characteristics of their users, their potential guests. Is your hotel in the mobile game yet, or still sitting out on the sidelines?

The following article by Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Offirce of ThinkInk, originally appeared on eHotelier on 12/14/11.

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