While the biggest companies in the hotel industry are successfully using mobile apps to drive direct bookings and guest engagement, smaller players are struggling to keep up with the demands inherent with apps.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Smartphone and tablet apps have hit a point of divergence among hotel companies, according to industry experts. As large brand companies seek to expand their presence and drive more direct bookings, mid-size to small companies are struggling to keep up with the development and upkeep required for their success.
Douglas Quinby, VP of research at Phocuswright, said companies like Hilton Worldwide Holdings, Marriott International and Hyatt Hotels Corporation have thriving apps because they have the “marketing muscle” to support them. Meanwhile, smaller companies should look at the cost-benefit equation for supporting apps and if there are easier ways to accomplish the same goals, he said.
“The question for small- and medium-size hotel companies is how do you leverage mobile to create the best possible guest interactions but with the minimal degree of friction,” he said. “There are a lot of services that allow for pretty rich and technologically sophisticated guest engagement without having to build an app that you then have to market and get your guests to download.”
Mark Hoare, managing partner at the Prism Partnership, said it can be a monumental task for hotel companies to compete on the same level as the big brands, or to match the technological expertise of online travel agencies, as more guests look for things like mobile room keys and check-in.
The challenge, he said, often comes back to costs associated with ongoing maintenance of the apps to make sure they are functioning as designed. Sometimes the solution might be to buy third-party products that are tweaked for an individual company, but the risk of doing so is faulty apps.
“Those middle-level hotels are very confused right now,” he said. “Some have implemented full-blown apps but have removed their budgets and said, ‘Let’s phase it out,’ or are even actively pulling them in favor of responsive (websites). But that doesn’t solve the need for the seamless interaction and cohesive experience.”
Companies must find the right way to have an effective mobile presence, Hoare said, but they have to be careful not to bite off more than they can reasonably chew because “the one thing worse than not having (an app) is having one that doesn’t work.”
How some companies are thriving in the space
Hyatt, which is in the midst of transitioning from its Gold Passport loyalty program to the new World of Hyatt program, has continually drawn outside praise for the quality of its recently redesigned app. The revamped app adds mobile check-in and check-out, and allows guests to interact with the company via Facebook Messenger and Twitter and to request items like towels and toothpaste.
Ellen Lee, SVP of global digital for Hyatt, said the redesign was based on guest usage.
“Four of every 10 people who visit us digitally are using a mobile device, so it’s imperative that our mobile products—our new app and mobile website—create a seamless experience,” she said via email.
Lee said the company handles the development and maintenance of their app and website separately but don’t prioritize one over the other.
“We put equal weight in the experience of both because, ultimately, we want to connect with guests through the channels they choose,” she said. “If that’s not our mobile app, we need to make sure the other channels are seamless and available as well. That’s why we’ve also invested heavily in 24/7 social care, ensuring we’re here for you whether you want to connect by phone, email, text message, Messenger, Twitter or anything else.”
Hilton, meanwhile, was recently ranked as the most popular hotel company smartphone app among U.S. travelers in recent Phocuswright research. The company has unveiled a new “Fun Finder” feature that helps guests find things to do using a combination of Wi-Fi, GPS and beacon technology.
Joshua Sloser, VP of digital product innovation at Hilton, said the app has been key for the company’s direct booking efforts.
“The Hilton HHonors app is now downloaded once every six seconds and has received the highest average Apple Store customer rating of all hospitality apps,” he said via email. “Since the launch of ‘Stop Clicking Around,’ Hilton HHonors app downloads have spiked over 150 percent. We’ve made it simple and easy to become a Hilton HHonors member and book direct right within the app.”
The addition of the Fun Finder followed several other app-based rollouts in recent history, including the company’s digital key initiative. Sloser said there is a considerable amount of thought put into each feature.
“At Hilton, we do not innovate for innovation’s sake,” he said. “We add new features with careful consideration and research to ensure they will add value and remove some of the friction from travel. Our guests rave about the personalization and convenience that our app offers and how simple and easy it is to use. By continuously striving to provide guests with the complete ‘remote control’ in the palm of their hand, we hope to maintain and grow customer loyalty and keep them coming back for more.”
Why mobile apps matter
Lee said one of the key advantages of mobile apps is they provide guests added value during their stay and help provide “a seamless experience before, during and after your stay with us.”
“For example, we heard that travelers, particularly women, would rather not ask for things,” she said. “So we’ve made it especially easy to request things like a toothbrush, extra hangers, more towels and more with a few taps of our mobile app. It also directly integrates with communication through your channel of choice, such as phone, text or social messages.”
Lee said luring more guests to book direct via the app, as opposed to using third-party apps primarily from the OTAs, leads to a better guest experience.
“We get your information directly from you when you book with us,” she said. “And when we know more about you, we can provide a better digital and physical experience. Many of the features of our app depend on knowing your email address or reservation details, so many features are not available to those who book through an OTA.”
Sloser said the success of mobile apps will only become more important based on consumer behavior trends.
“Analyzing smartphone-usage trends in the industry over the past few years, we know that guests rely on their smartphones to navigate and manage their lives,” he said.
He said the company is looking to expand the app in the near future.
“We are looking forward to introducing more features like enabling multiple digital keys per room and bringing to life a ‘Pin my Room’ feature which allows guests to bookmark the specific rooms they like at a hotel,” he said. “We will continue to expand the reach of all of these features to deliver guests an exclusive, personalized and enhanced experience they can’t get anywhere else.”
Quinby said companies should keep mobile strategy at the top of their priorities even if they aren’t seeing huge numbers in mobile bookings.
“There’s actually quite a bit of daydreaming and window shopping on mobile,” he said. “That’s a reason why mobile conversion rates are so much lower. You could be in a meeting or watching TV and you’re a little bored or like to do more than one thing at a time. Then you think, ‘What does it cost to fly to Rome next week?’”