Meeting the expectations of last-minute mobile bookers

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The travel industry has seen the emergence of new platforms tailor-made for selling distressed inventory.

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The travel industry has seen the emergence of new platforms tailor-made for selling distressed inventory. These channels promise to safeguard brands and their price integrity while exposing hotels to an attractive audience of smartphone owners. EyeforTravel spoke to Sam Shank, CEO of mobile hotel bookings specialist HotelTonight, about meeting the expectations of this target audience.

Customer expectations are driving changes in the online travel business.

Some of the decision-making pertaining to hotel bookings is being driven by spontaneity. Accordingly, hotels are increasingly being offered platforms to fill their rooms at the last second. And significantly, all of this, with no impact on their loyal bookers.

As the world’s first mobile-only hotel-booking app, HotelTonight says it all starts with the impulse rate, termed as a special promotional price tailored for impulse bookers. And they shouldn’t be offered to advance bookers.

“Travelers are increasingly demanding the ability to access and do anything, anywhere from any device. Their push of travel purchases towards the moment of necessity, coupled with their growing spontaneity, has created a new segment of mobile consumers that the industry is targeting with what we call Impulse Rates—periodic targeted promotional pricing offered when a hotel has a significant same-day need to fill unsold inventory,” said Sam Shank, CEO, HotelTonight.

HotelTonight’s research shows that these last-minute mobile bookers, if not for Impulse Rates and the convenience of mobile apps, would have stayed with a friend or at home instead of a hotel.

Shank says impulse rates and related pricing strategies will have as significant of an impact on the industry as opaque rates, the last major innovation in hotel pricing.

Shank, who is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming Social Media and Mobile Strategies for Travel USA 2012, to be held in San Francisco (March 5-6) this year, spoke in detail about preparing for variations in mobile operating systems, content consumption, devising marketing strategies as per the strength of the devices, etc.

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to increasing the use and function of mobile sites and mobile apps is to deal with the variations in each of the mobile operating systems. What do you recommend when it comes to optimising budgets in this arena? How can travel companies prepare themselves for variations in mobile operating systems?

Sam Shank: Mobile developers have long been anticipating HTML5, which promises to give app developers the ability to leverage one code base across mobile platforms, instead of building multiple native apps. Unfortunately, HTML5 is still has a long way to go before it will replace native app development. While we have an HTML5 offering at HotelTonight, the performance of our native iOS and Android apps is far superior. That said, building, marketing and maintaining native apps requires significant resources and expertise. Our recommendation is that all but the biggest brands should focus first on building a mobile-optimised website.

Considering the gadgets and the number of options available for travel planning and booking, one needs to understand how consumers are consuming content for their travel requirements. What factors do you think end up influencing on how content is consumed and eventually shape up travel decisions?

Shank: When travelers are connected via their smartphone during their trip, the phrase “travel planning process” becomes an anachronism. Travelers no longer plan the details of their trip in advance, and instead rely on instant advice, filtered from their social graph and geo-targeted to their location. Services like Instagram, Trover and Foursquare, with their social integration and mobile-first orientation, are well-positioned to be these sources of in-trip information.

How do you think travel companies have gone about tailoring or devising their marketing strategies as per the strength of the devices used by consumers. For instance, it is mentioned that tablet users tend to click on paid search ads at a higher rate than desktop or smartphone users. In another way, specialists recommend that with for mobile one should be laser focused on making it easier for users to complete their task, while for the tablet user one should let users explore and connect with the content. How do you assess the maturity level of such strategies?

Shank: Efficient task completion is an important consideration for all ecommerce products. When designing for a small screen, for instance mobile devices, and the user is likely in the midst of doing something else, a focus on task completion is paramount.

At HotelTonight, we want to get the user in and out of the app and back to their life as quickly as possible. We’ve pioneered the world’s fastest hotel bookings: only 8 seconds with 3 taps and a swipe, from app launch to hotel check-in. We obsess over user feedback via user emails and phone calls, app store reviews and social media. The other two founders and I read every piece of feedback submitted by our customers.

eBay says it is using its mobile and tablet innovations to empower people to shop – and find the best deals – anytime, anywhere, any way they want – from the comfort of their couch or on the go. What do you think the travel industry can learn from such companies?

Shank: We spend less time looking at the legacy ecommerce companies’ mobile strategies, and instead learn from mobile-first companies such as Uber, Path and Postagram. These companies, like HotelTonight, have no legacy technology, operations or brand promises to impede the delivery of simple, efficient and entertaining mobile services.

What do you think is being done to personalise the whole experience of mobile shopping?

Shank: We haven’t seen much seamless personalisation in the mobile shopping space to date. Consumers will increasingly expect more relevant, targeted experiences that reduce the friction of task completion, so we expect to see more personalisation in the future. That said, as we’ve seen with web-based ecommerce, getting personalisation right for every user context is an enormous challenge.

The expectations and demands of smartphone customers are significantly higher than website visitors. What sort of benchmark should travel companies set for themselves when it comes to measurement of mobile web and app-related initiatives vis-à-vis any other component of digital strategy?

Shank: Travel companies tend to put far too much emphasis on conversion metrics. We look at broader measures of consumer engagement, including indexes for customer happiness, viral coefficient and social media engagement, to prioritise and drive our initiatives.

The Android OS accounted for 52.5 percent of smartphone sales to end users in the third quarter of 2011, more than doubling its market share from the third quarter of 2010, according to Gartner. What should travel companies note when it comes to the battle between different mobile operating systems?

Shank: We launched our Android app after hearing loudly from our customers that they wanted it. At one point, 20% of our customer service inquires were requests for an Android app. Android is a vital part of our revenue right now. We continue to listen to our users and study the evolution of mobile platforms before deciding where to invest. We don’t make the decision to support a new platform lightly, as our customers expect a high quality, design-rich experience that takes advantage of the unique capabilities of each particular platform.

Sam Shank is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming Social Media and Mobile Strategies for Travel USA 2012, to be held in San Francisco (March 5-6) this year.

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