Hoteliers’ views differ on whether travelers will become more confident entering information on smartphones or will prefer speaking with an agent.
GLOBAL REPORT—While the use of smartphones to book rooms is exploding, there seems to be some disparity in how many of those consumers are booking online and how many are calling to complete their reservations.
“For every booking that comes in via the mobile website, three are completed with a call,” said Keith Swiderski, director of mobile and emerging channels strategy and development for Wyndham Hotel Group.
Swiderski said Wyndham has tried to change the design to encourage people to book online and has had some success, but “we have also made it easier to find the tap to call option.”
Marriott International appears to be experiencing something different. In 2012, according to George Corbin, senior VP of digital strategy for Marriott, “Only a very small and diminishing number of users now call to complete the transaction on the phone.”
Regardless of how guests eventually complete bookings, there’s no question that bookings are rising on phones. Adam Anderson, director of industry relations for Expedia, said customers “are researching and thinking about travel while on the go—in a Starbucks, at the grocery story, or over dinner with friends.”
According to recent PhoCusWright research, more than half (51%) of mobile web users purchased travel products such as hotel rooms, flights or car rentals on a smartphone in 2012. A smaller share completed a mobile travel booking (28%). By 2014, PhoCusWright reports that mobile bookings will grow to $25.8 billion, representing 8% of the total travel market.
And, while mobile apps might make it easier to book, the fact that there are so many different apps makes it difficult for hoteliers to stand out, said Frank Vertolli, co-founder of Net Conversion, an Internet analytics company that specializes in the hospitality space.
“Whatever you gain in functionality you lose in obscurity,” he said. “While smartphone usage has exploded, the booking technology is still not as easy as calling. It’s still easier to hit a button to call.”
The emergence of mobile has created the need for a balancing act in allocation of resources. As the use of mobiles to search for and book hotels explodes, hotel companies are monitoring the trends closely to insure that they are not missing any bookings, either to online travel agencies or competitors. But they’re also working to keep costs down and serve the mobile market as efficiently as possible.
There’s no question that frequent travelers who are loyalty program members are most likely to book via a smartphone. The bigger brands have done a better job of “taking the friction out of booking on a phone,” said Ryan Fitzgerald, co-founder of Net Conversion.
“They have dedicated apps and store credit card information so mobile transactions for repeat customers tend to be a lot easier,” he said. “If I’m not a loyal customer, then friction comes into play.”
There are three categories of mobile users, according to Max Starkov, CEO of HeBS Digital:
- Frequent guests who are members of major brand loyalty programs. Major brands with large loyalty program members will see more click-to-book mobile use because credit card and other personal information is already stored and there is only need to enter a loyalty number.
- Loyalty members who are not frequent travelers and do not have their credit card numbers stored. Or leisure travelers who are brand agnostic. Operators should provide these customers with easy to use booking engines that might employ the emerging “mobile wallets” offered by banks, Google and others. Wireless carriers are also experimenting with wallets. Other countries are ahead of the U.S. on mobile micro-payments.
- Non-loyal guests. There will always be a large category of people who will not bother with loyalty programs and will not enter their credit card information or use a mobile wallet. As a result, they want easy access to an 800 number and somebody to pick up the phone at the other end.
Hoteliers do see a large percentage of mobile bookers calling their call centers, according to Starkov, but they hope to slowly wean them away from that pattern. He said six or seven out of every 10 smartphone reservations to independent hotels are made by calling as opposed to clicking. That drops substantially for brands with large loyalty programs, he said.
“We definitely see a higher conversion rate for the Wyndham Rewards site,” Swiderski said. “We want to decision our interface more around same-day availability and are watching the last-minute deal situation. However, we do not want to train consumers to wait until the last minute. But we will watch and learn.”
Corbin said Marriott booked $750 million of revenue on mobile devices in 2012, including smartphones and tablets. “When they book, customers use credit cards or pull up their saved credit card information stored in their Marriott Rewards profile,” he said.
Making it easier
No matter their experience of call versus click, hoteliers are aiming to make it easier for customers to book on their phones.
Wyndham offers Express Book, where customers only need to enter a first and last name and email address to make a reservation. As long as the booking is for the same night or the next night, the booking will be reserved, usually until 6 p.m.
And Choice Hotels International also has recently moved toward an easier-to-book platform.
“Driving a customer through the entire booking funnel on a smartphone is not an easy task,” said Robert McDowell, senior VP of global distribution services for Choice. “We noticed customers would start their booking path on a smartphone and then they would either leave the mobile site or call Choice or the specific property directly to complete the transaction.
“Complicated booking paths, along with a need for extensive data entry, are nonstarters for mobile,” McDowell continued. “We knew we had to make the reservation process quick and easy for travelers on the go. As a result we just launched RapidBook, which eliminates the need to fill in information and credit card numbers on a tiny phone screen.”
Consumers are becoming more comfortable booking via mobile devices everyday, McDowell said. “What we try to focus on is making the checkout process as simple and seamless as possible. We try to reduce the number of fields to an absolute minimum. And we recently added Google Wallet to our Android app to make checkout easier for Google account holders.”
Different patterns on the phone
While consumers might do research on PCs and tablets, they use the phone to find and book rooms close to their travel time, sources said.
Mobile devices account for 40% of all traffic to Marriott’s website and 15% of revenue, Corbin said. Less than 7% of total bookings on PCs occur the same day, compared to 12% on tablets and 35% on smartphones.
“We see some differences with mobile booking behaviors, like more bookings on weekends as well as more bookings within a short radius of the user’s locations,” Expedia’s Anderson said. “This fits the idea that users are booking on the go or at the last minute.”
Anderson said Expedia’s data shows 25% of people who make mobile hotel bookings make reservations within 10 miles of their current location. Sixty percent of people who book a hotel on mobile devices begin their hotel stay within 24 hours and it’s most likely for a Friday or a Saturday.
“We also see frequent travelers booking their regular travel on mobile because it’s the device they have with them all the time,” Anderson said. “They can book whenever they want now, and they don’t have to wait until they get home to their PC.”