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Mobile Technology: How to Reach Your Guests Where They Are, Mobile’s Special Relationship to Travel and How Hoteliers Can Leverage its Rewards

Jul 10, 2012

The following article by Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk, originally appeared on Hotel Executive.

If Politics 101 wasn’t your favorite college course, the term “special relationship” in the subtitle of this piece may not inspire a raised eyebrow, or an enlightened nod.

But perform a simple Google search and you’ll find the expression “special relationship” wasn’t chosen at random. “Special relationship” speaks to the deeply felt, if informal, political ties between the United States and the United Kingdom. Coined by Winston Churchill in 1945 and used most famously a year later in his “Iron Curtain” speech concerning the Soviet Union’s nefarious influence on Eastern Europe, it’s a special relationship that for a combination of political, economic and cultural reasons endures today. In modern times the phrase “special relationship” or “special relationship status” has been used by other nations to describe similar relationships with their own close allies as well.

And when it comes to the world of mobile technology and the travel industry, it’s becoming clear that a “special relationship” also exists between these two partners. Not for political reasons, but for economic and even cultural ones too. As a technology built for on-the-go movement and communication, mobile devices can be a unique partner in the travel and hotel experience while the value to hoteliers through guest engagement, loyalty and revenue generation is just being tapped.

In other words, hotel guests are rapidly adopting the mobile platform for a host of uses and they’re demanding hotels go there too, helping cement this rapidly growing special relationship now and in the years to come.

From Novelty to Necessity: Smartphone’s Proving their Reach

Some in the hospitality industry –and some of my clients – have gone so far as to call it a mobile revolution. While the term “revolution” isn’t one of my favorites due to its overuse (nor is “buzzword” for the same reasoning) I find myself hard pressed to challenge it. Less than a decade ago, advanced feature phones like the LG 8000, for instance, boasted a low-megapixel camera as the newfangled extra, could send SMS messages and just maybe, offered Bluetooth® connectivity. A CNET article from September 2004 even refers with excitement to the coming age of “Microsoft’s smart phone invasion.” And, yes, “smartphone” was spelled as two separate words.

How far we’ve come.

Fast forward to 2012 and mobile technology has become ubiquitous – the coming “smartphone invasion” hasn’t just arrived; it’s overwhelmed the feature phone competition completely. Depending on which survey data you accept, Pew research estimates that 46% of US adults owned a smartphone as of February 2012 while Nielsen found that 48% of all US mobile phone users owned a smartphone in January 2012. Suffice it to say, the percentages are pretty close and have clearly reached critical mass. As “always on” gadgets, smartphone and tablet users are increasingly loath to be unplugged from their mobile devices. Whether in-store, on-couch, on-sidewalk or at 35,000ft (and increasingly the hotel room or lobby), the smartphone and tablet have become the crowning union of once-popular personal digital assistants (PDAs) and feature phone telephony – a truly digital Swiss Army Knife

Proving the Necessity’s Worth: Where Mobile Already Has a Relationship

But it’s not just raw smartphone adoption numbers that should matter to hoteliers. It’s what people are doing with their digital toys that matters most and where they’re doing it. M-commerce (mobile commerce), a critical barometer showing just what people can do with their smartphones is expected to soar this year by 73% to $11.6 billion, according to a late 2011 eMarketer study. And as if proving the revenue forecast on track, on March 29, 2012 ZDNet reported that Dominos Pizza UK and Ireland raked in $1.6 million in m-commerce sales in a single week. In another telling retail anecdote, eBay, the online auction and shopping company, announced its predictions that the company was on pace in 2012 to do $8 billion in mobile commerce retail, nearly double what it did in 2011. Many of these transactions were performed on the smartphone industry’s two workhorse platforms: Apple iOS and Android.

Not bad for two phones that are only four and five years old respectively.

Airlines, too, are seeing a growing number of passengers engage and interact with carriers via their mobile devices. Mobile booking, like mobile commerce, is also trending up. In 2011, according to the latest PhoCusWright report, US mobile bookings stood at $2.6 billion with robust estimates that that number would climb to $8 billion by 2013. And as if getting the mobile message Southwest Airlines earlier this year, in February, launched an add campaign to help reach those numbers: driving mobile users to their mobile booking site, following the results of focus group study. Southwest’s mobile page also features flight status updates, check in, car reservations and a link to a rewards program that offered further deals and discounts. American Airlines, too, offers similar mobile booking features by tapping on a mobile ad where viewers are brought to the airlines mobile website landing page. In addition the company offers a free iPhone booking app for download from the iTunes store. Its latest update, released on March 26, now includes international flight check-in with a mobile boarding pass, creating an entire digital experience.

Checked In For Mobile Success: Booking is Here to Stay

So if travelers are using their mobile devices to buy clothes, order pizza and book airline tickets all from the palm of their hands, you can bet they’re just as eager to use them while on business or leisure trips. What’s more, mobile’s “special relationship” with hotels is partly rooted in the fact that the greater hotel environment, (on-site and off-site) incorporates purchasing and use aspects already seen in the retail, airline booking and dining industries. In others words, the fact that the hotel industry may have been a slow joiner in the mobile revolution may ironically work to its benefit. As mobile users are already accustomed to using their smartphones for an array of activities, doing so within the hotel environment will already be familiar – and expected.

In order to leverage mobile’s benefits, hoteliers have two arenas to address: off-site and on-site and of course, how to better integrate these two once-separate domains. And considering that 75% of travelers are carrying smartphones, well above even the upper echelons of the demographic and income brackets noted above, and that the amount of gross travel bookings on mobile devices is expected to triple by 2013 to $8.1 billion, it’s more important than ever that hotels deep-six both their lingering fears related to going mobile (centering on implementation costs, IT staffing and data security risks) as well as their competitively fierce brand pride that at times hinders app or mobile performance in the name of simply “beating the competition” in the game of who can market a mobile or app presence first and the fastest.

To be sure, the encouraging $8.1 billion estimate still only represents about 3% percent of travel bookings. But a more important takeaway, at least according to a recent PhoCusWright report, indicates that more than half of mobile bookings (52%) will be done directly through suppliers, i.e. branded hotels, and not through online travel agencies, or OTAs.

Mobilizing the Lobby, Hotel Room and Everywhere Else

When it comes to out-of-room benefits, travelers, as elsewhere, seek to book their stays on the go, especially as the booking window continues to shrink and a still-sluggish economy makes luxury purchases of any kind a more laborious and more heavily considered decision. Once the decision is made, however, travelers are more likely to book their trip via a mobile device as they’re already using it for so many other transactions.

But beyond booking, mobile technology is infiltrating other aspects of the hotel experience too. Thanks to the advance of near-field communications, (low-frequency radio communication) contactless payment methods and keyless electronic doors, all three conveniences do away with, or at least lessen the once-cumbersome aspects of physically checking in to a hotel and seeking front desk assistance. Rather than using the lobby as a place for a pre-destination meeting point or to again engage front desk staff whose resources are already spread thin, a mobile lobby, increasingly designed with the “Starbucks” mentality as a place to engage and interact with friends, features multiple flat screen TVs, digital signs that can send relevant and timely information to guests’ mobile devices and of course, offers comfy seating with convenient access to plug in and juice up your phone’s batteries.

Returning to in-room benefits, hoteliers can and should leverage the mobile universe to enhance guests’ in-room experience. Paired with a hotel’s Wi-Fi network, mobile devices can effectively be turned into remotes on steroids, able to access in-room entertainment, movies and music. Getting the most out of that leverage means making the user interface as user-friendly as possible, simple and fun. Too often in today’s hyper competitive hotel rat race (that could be a poor choice of words for hotels) hotels fail to deliver on this critical component and as hoteliers gear up for the peak summer travel season, it’s something that should be corrected.

Mobile, effectively mobilized, can also offer mobile check out, wireless dining reservations and advance ticketing for day trip excursions. And not to be ignored is the growing interest in augmented reality apps. Capable of merging superimposed digital information over real-world images, augmented reality apps, downloaded for a small price, could be another excellent way for hotels to combine utility, enjoyment and revenue generation. Say, for instance, your guest needs directions to that coveted icemaker, the gym, steam room or spa. Just think how much more engaging a virtual map of those directions would be if instead of only directing a guest to a location, the app includes real-time information about daily deal at the hotel bar? Even if a hotel increased the number of guests who were “creatively diverted” from their intended destination to someplace else that inspires an open wallet by a small percentage, the return on investment could be substantial.

More Mobile Mean More Money: And Happier Guests Too

“Special relationships,” as their name implies, don’t come around too often. As with the US-UK special relationship, its continued health and existence isn’t a guarantee. Politics change, economies shift, and without the proper human relationship guiding the two nations’ ships of state, critics on both sides of the pond have argued that this 67-year-old relationship is in jeopardy of changing.

For hotels looking to adopt mobile as their greatest guest engagement and revenue-generating partner, the same promises and pitfalls apply. Hoteliers need to remain current with the latest mobile technologies and offerings as well as being carefully attuned via traditional and social media outlets to what their guests are saying about their current and future mobile needs.

Done correctly, it is very that likely mobile’s special relationship to the hotel and travel industry will endure at least as long as Churchill’s. And then some.

The following article by Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk, originally appeared on Hotel Executive.

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