Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Staking a Claim in Mobile Travel: Not Just Popular, Pragmatic and Profitable

The following article by Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer of TravelInkd', originally appeared on Hotel Executive on 1/18/12.

Mobile a Must: Pragmatic trumps popular

If 2011 for hotel owners was all about learning from and joining the mobile masses simply because it was the “in” thing to do for our tech-savvy patrons, 2012 is rapidly shaping up to be the year where mobile becomes a must. In other words, the mobile marketing landscape has rapidly matured and the training wheels are coming off. This coming of age can mean only one thing: The time for hotels to launch their mobile presence is now. Not after the post-holidays’ travel slow down, and not in the run-up to Valentines Day or the season’s first spring breakers.

Right now.

From Training Wheels to Two-Wheeler: Mobile Matures

As with other trends in the hotel industry, it is customers who are driving mobile’s niche-to-need changes. Today’s on-the-go traveler expects to be connected wherever they are throughout their trip experience and that connectivity is expanding at a staggering rate. Earlier this year, more than half of all mobile phone sales (56%) were smartphones, and the total number of US smartphone owners jumped to 82.2 million people this summer – that is 35% percent of the 234 million Americans who use mobile devices 13 and up. Think about that statistic for a few moments…

Even a lighthearted (but with serious implications) October 2010 survey by Mashable highlights just how connected consumers have become. When asked what they would give up to keep their mobile phones for a week:
  • 70% said they would give up alcohol;
  • 63% said goodbye to chocolate;
  • And a combined 63% said they would consider doing without their toothbrush, shoes, or computers.
Considering those (rather shocking) expectations, it’s critical that hotels deliver. Hotels, as with other businesses, must go where their customers are going. Why? For one thing, the booking window, once a lengthy time frame where travelers corresponded with travel agents, business travel managers, and the like, has now shrunk considerably. Smartphones can literally book travel itineraries, price hunt, and check-in to a given hotel – assuming it has a sophisticated mobile platform.

But it’s more than just smartphone adoption rates. A recent survey by Greystripe, a mobile marketing company, found that 47% of iPad users who were considered frequent travelers (defined as a person who traveled at least twice a year) booked hotels via their mobile device, and were the most common mobile platform to do so, beating out both iPhone users and Android phones, the study found. So when I talk about the mobile channel, I am talking about tablets too.

And not to be outdone, TripAdvisor, a travel website and now travel app provider, announced in November a collection of 20 free Mobile City Guide apps (for 20 cities) that, in addition to point-by-point directions and general tourist information, includes hotel reviews. Some of the most downloaded cities include: Beijing, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and New York. If potential customers are relying on the these mobile apps to determine their booking choice, (even if they’re not booking through the app directly) it’s important hoteliers and their staffs get on board too, monitoring reviewer activity and having a system in place that incentivizes its customers to use said apps and write positive reviews, assuming they’ve had a superior experience.

Facebook, too, both in its mobile and desktop iterations, is becoming a vital space for digital commentary on travelers’ hotel experiences, which ultimately drive bookings and revenue. Some 30% of travelers who booked their hotel online said they would use the social networking site (as well as Twitter and LinkedIn) to comment on their hotel and trip. The study, by Milestone, a hotel marketing company, also showed that each social message posted by a guest drove five to six unique visitors to a hotel website.

Whether it’s apps, mobile websites, social media, or even the implementation of mobile phone-based digital room keys, (Open Ways, a mobile-based access management and security company, announced its launching of “Mobile Key 4 All,” a software and hardware solution) where hotel guests simply point or swipe their phone through a type of digital reader, all three outlets fall into the mobile sphere.

Driving home the point, Ian Carrington, Google’s mobile advertising and sales director, made his opinions on the mobile revolution clear: “Mobile isn’t ‘the next big thing’ – it is already very much upon us,” he said. Or, staying closer to the hotel industry, consider what Tom O’Rourke, founder and CEO of O’Rourke Hospitality Marketing, had to say: “[Apps are] an opportunity through a mobile channel to connect with a guest before, during, and after his stay.” Enough said.

Airborne Perspective: What we can learn

Considering the close ties that the hotel and airline industries share, (one relies on a large share of their customers from the other for business) it’s incumbent on hoteliers to take a page from the recent past and consider their future.

It’s hard to over state the impact mobile communications has had on airlines, especially as it relates to ancillary revenues. Ancillary revenues, or ways in which airlines unbundle specific services and monetize and customize the traveler experience, has largely emerged in concert with the mobile platform. Today more than 2,000 aircraft crossing the world’s oceans and continents are Wi-Fi enabled. Innovations like this have helped airlines offset rising fuel costs and generally prosper in a still-challenging economic climate. Unlike the hotel industry, which has been slow to adopt mobile, most airlines have already established the basics: allowing for mobile check-in, 2D bar code boarding passes, and many have mobile booking capability. Going forward, industry analysts predict additional mobile services like being able to select premium seating, club access, or the pre-purchasing of meals. Further down the road, (or runway), airlines will consider adding location based services, which provide travelers with location sensitive advertisements and promotions, as well as monitoring social media for commentary on the entire travel experience. Finally, the burgeoning field of NFC, or Near Field Communications, is also seen as a significant game changer going forward, allowing travelers to simply swipe their NFC-enabled mobile devices and perform a host of activities like check-in, pay for goods, (mobile wallet), and even exchange vital travel information, like last-minute itinerary changes, with other travelers, family or friends. Imagine having that type of capability at the check-in desk?

The Mobile Concierge: Booking (and banking on) future success

Boarding passes aside, nearly every mobile avenue airlines are pursuing has relevancy for the hotel industry too. In a competitive marketplace where OTAs (online travel agencies) are vying for an increasing piece of the booking revenue pie, mobile can be a way for hoteliers to once again directly connect with their loyal, returning customers, and attract new ones as well. For all the industry’s booking efforts, (OTAs included) global occupancy rates remain at roughly 60 percent. In other words, there’s plenty more the industry can and should do to attract more guests. Mobile booking, mobile check-in and check-out, cardless key systems, even mobile hotel restaurant reservations, gift shop rewards points, and in-room food and media selections, are exactly the types of services travelers are beginning to expect. If many similar services are already being offered by airlines for travelers in transit, why should these mobile amenities end when they get off the plane?

They shouldn’t.

From work, to travel, to recreation, mobile and smart mobile devices are remaking every facet of our collective lives. And in so doing, the technology is reshaping the way in which hoteliers must interact with and connect with their customers. Before long, hotels that fail to adopt these changes will look like antiques and will be losing revenue and guests. There’s no need to discard the leather-bound guest book just yet. Just remember the rapidly maturing mobile landscape is where the majority of today’s travelers are looking to sign in next.

In every touch point of travel lifecycle, from booking to check-in and home again, mobile has become a must.

The following article by Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer of TravelInkd', originally appeared on Hotel Executive on 1/18/12.

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