Phocuswright: Mobile is key battleground, but it’s not all about apps

By Travolution

By Travolution
Image: Phocuswright’s Marcello Gasdia

Mobile is now firmly established as the key battleground as the world’s biggest online travel firms fight for dominance.

At last week’s Phocuswright conference in Los Angeles, global giants, TripAdvisor, Expedia and Kayak all highlighted mobile as vital to success.

Central to this for online agents and metasearch sites is how they use the mass of data available to personalise the mobile experience to tailor results for customers.

In emerging markets such as China and India the channel is essential as consumers are getting online through mobile first rather than via desktop.

Sam Shank, founder of HotelTonight, the mobile-only last minute hotel booking app, said the OTA role was evolving so that they were becoming more like personal travel assistants.

And Darren Huston, chief executive of, the commercial engine of the world’s most valuable online travel firm Priceline, said: “Mobile is critical as a new platform to drive transaction but, more importantly, it’s offered everyone a computer in their pocket.

“People now book the first thing they need in a destination and then wander around with a phone.

“Mobile’s transforming the ability to create really cool end-to-end experiences for our customers.”

Dara Khosrowshahi, chief executive of Expedia, said the OTA was benefiting from a growing travel industry and, in particular, the fast-expanding mobile sector.

Kayak founder Steve Hafner said the Priceline-owned metasearch site’s focus was on improving its app and a “very different experience” would emerge in the next six months.

Facebook global head of travel strategy, Lee McCabe, said travel was trailing other online sectors in terms of the app experience.

“The most important thing is convenience: do not make me work too hard; if it’s a transaction app, let me transact quickly and easily.”

A major open question for travel firms remains whether to favour apps or the mobile web, and Phocuswright produced research among US users suggesting the jury remains out.

Marcello Gasdia, Phocuswright senior analyst, said high level of use of mobile apps suggests they are dominant, but firms should not be too quick to discount the mobile web.

Gasdia said most app use involved three activities: checking emails, social media and gaming, with the amount of time spent in Facebook accounting for half an hour a day on average.

“Travellers are doing very few things in apps, creating the illusion they are taking over the mobile web,” said Gasdia.

Travel app usage, whether it involves a metasearch site, an OTA or a hotel or accommodation review or airline site, accounted for just 1% of daily app use.

TripAdvisor was found to be used by 30% of smartphone owners. Of these, 30% used the app and 18% the mobile website. Only 38% of visitors were app-only.

For OTAs, the research found there were nearly twice as many mobile web users as app users, the former averaging seven page visits per session while apps saw five sessions a month on average.

“App users were not opening these OTA apps every single day. Reach was not as high as we anticipated,” said Gasdia.

The Phocuswright research found even among people known to be actively planning a trip in June, OTA app engagement was low at just one in 10.

More than four in 10 did use an airline app, suggesting a “sweet spot” that was driving app adoption for airlines, said Gasdia.

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RCCL’s new Cruise Planner replaces outdated module

By Tom Stieghorst

Going on a cruise used to be as simple as booking a ticket and making a few choices about what to do. Guests often waited until they boarded to book shore excursions and spa treatments.

But the menu of cruise activities has expanded, as have the number of things that can be prearranged from shore.

Today, cruise lines are trying to make it as easy as possible to plan and book onboard activities in advance of departure. The proliferation of options has grown hand-in-hand with the technological capabilities that make selecting cruise activities easy.

The latest example comes from Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL), which has retooled its planning function so guests can book everything from specialty dining reservations to beverage packages from the comfort of their couch.

RCCL New Cruise Planner

“We been focused on letting our guests hit the ground running on day one, whereas in the past, sometimes day one was spent figuring out what you were going to do,” said Jeff DeKorte, vice president for Web and digital media at RCCL.

RCCL’s new tool, Cruise Planner, replaces an 8-year-old pre-cruise planning module that was increasingly outdated.

The old system had none of the new e-commerce functions, such as shopping carts and wish lists, things that consumers increasingly take for granted when buying things online.

“Every time you bought a new product during the session, you had to enter your credit card again,” DeKorte said. “It was very difficult.”

One of the big improvements in Cruise Planner is the ability to migrate between digital platforms without losing data. So, for example, someone might start researching shore excursions in the morning on their mobile phone, continue at lunch on their desktop PC, and finish after dinner on a tablet while watching TV.

Tablet functionality, which barely existed on the old platform, is now robust, DeKorte said. He hopes that moms that typically do a lot of the cruise planning can now share the load.

“Our vision was to create a product where … the family could lean back on the couch and literally she could hand the tablet to the kids and say, ‘You guys figure out what you want to do, watch the videos, look at the shore excursions, [select] swim with the dolphins and add it to the calendar or the wish list.’

“And then mom can come back later and she can organize,” DeKorte said.

Travel agents can use the tool to the extent that they do pre-cruise planning for clients, either as a service or for a fee.

“It really depends on the agency and the level of service they’re providing to their guests,” DeKorte said. “For those agents who choose not to provide that service to the guests, there’s a much easier tool for them to direct the guest to use.”

As the list of things to prearrange before a cruise grows longer, it threatens to take some of the serendipity out of a cruise vacation. Simply showing up at the ship without a sheet of activities selected in advance seems like a throwback to a simpler time.

But DeKorte said tools like Cruise Planner are meant to provide options, not become a burdensome requirement. “The beautiful thing is for guests who want to take their vacation one day at a time like that, they certainly can,” he said.

At least one other line is also making moves to make pre-cruise planning easier.

Norwegian Cruise Line recently opened its specialty restaurants to reservations 90 days before departure, up from 45 days previously. Guests can also book entertainment options such as Blue Man Group or Cirque Dreams on the Norwegian Epic, Breakaway and Getaway through their MyNCL accounts.

Spa treatments on the Norwegian Epic can now also be booked in advance. Vanessa Picariello, a spokeswoman for Norwegian, said the spa preregistration may be extended to other ships, but that Norwegian still doesn’t have a timetable for when that might happen.

PhoCusWright report on mobile bookings shows rapid growth

PhoCusWright report on mobile bookings shows rapid growth

By Danny King

Plane and phoneIn the U.S. travel industry, where 2% to 3% growth is considered solid and 5% is exceptional, mobile booking continues to surge at exponential rates, according to a recent study by PhoCusWright.

In 2015, Americans will book $39.5 billion worth of reservations on their mobile devices, accounting for 12% of all travel sales, PhoCusWright reported in its annual Online Travel Overview last month.

Those numbers represent more than a fivefold jump from the $6.15 billion in sales and 2% market share that mobile represented in 2012, and they illustrate the growing ubiquity of the smartphone- and tablet-toting traveler.

“The channel is getting a lot of attention from both OTAs [online travel agencies]and suppliers,” PhoCusWright wrote in its 90-page report. “Every serious player in the online travel space is prioritizing mobile technology development and pushing hard for travelers’ attention in the form of traffic, transactions and app downloads.”

PhoCusWright is owned by Northstar Travel Media, the publisher of Travel Weekly.

Within the travel industry, the hotel sector is leading the way with regard to mobile booking, and that trend is shortening the booking window considerably.

At the annual PhoCusWright Conference in Florida last month, RBC Capital Markets’ managing director, Mark Mahaney, said that as more travelers book with smartphones, the idea of booking either a same-day or day-prior reservation is becoming more of a rule than an exception.

And while surging airfares and the ever-shrinking seat capacity will make many travelers gun-shy about rolling the dice with a last-minute airline booking, a number of hoteliers have demonstrated a propensity to offer last-minute discounts in order to unload unused inventory for the night.

As a result, about 12% of the online bookings directly with hoteliers will be via a mobile device this year, compared with about 8% of car rental bookings and about 6% of airline ticket reservations, PhoCusWright said. And by 2015, about a third of the bookings U.S. hoteliers process online will be made using mobile devices.

“Mobile is creating a new growth engine,” Mahaney said.

Still, airlines are investing big in mobile-distribution technology to capitalize on more computer-tablet use by travelers. As a result, airlines are expected to overtake car rental companies when it comes to the percentage of supplier-direct online bookings transacted on mobile devices.

Additionally, mobile growth has further pitted suppliers, especially hoteliers, airlines and car rental companies, against OTAs. While suppliers have started investing in expanding their mobile presence as a way to limit bookings through the OTA distribution channel, which remains far more expensive for the them, onine giants Expedia, Priceline and Orbitz have managed to stay a step ahead of the suppliers.

Indeed, while OTAs’ mobile U.S. bookings growth between 2012 and 2015 will be slightly slower than total mobile bookings growth, mobile bookings will account for 29% of the OTA market by 2015, compared with 27% for the total online market.

And those numbers may actually be conservative. At Orbitz Worldwide, which accounts for about a fifth of OTA bookings by Americans, 27% of hotel bookings were via mobile devices, CEO Barney Harford said at the PhoCusWright Conference.

What’s more, the mobile booking numbers for hotels don’t include smartphone owners who use “click-to-call” features that provide direct phone access to a hotelier’s call center. So for every hotel booking via smartphone, there were three or four cases where the user clicked through to a call center or booked via another distribution channel, according to PhoCusWright.

Still, PhoCusWright suggested that carriers and hoteliers have left money on the table by not creating online content quickly enough to meet the growing number of both searches and bookings from smartphone and tablet users.

As a result, newer companies like Hotel Tonight have capitalized by creating smartphone apps geared to streamline last-minute hotel reservations. The 3-year-old company had a $45 million funding round in September.

“Mobile is beginning to take off, but there is still much to be done to drive transactions,” PhoCusWright asserted in its report. “For the most part, entrenched players from airlines to hotels to OTAs have not been on the cutting edge of the devices’ capabilities.”

What effect such a surge will have on supplier pricing remains unclear, as the mobile market appears bifurcated. For example, people who book via smartphones appear to be far more likely to make a spur-of-the-moment travel decision. As a result, Harford said that the percentage of Orbitz’s hotel bookings that were same-night reservations had risen to 20% in the third quarter, with 60% of those being last-minute bookings made on mobile devices.

Meanwhile, the behavior of a prospective traveler using an iPad, Nexus or other tablet is more similar to a desktop or laptop user, as the larger screen allows for better pricing comparisons as well as more facility to coordinate a multi-supplier trip. As a result, airline and cruise line suppliers are emphasizing interface redesigns for their websites to better serve tablet users.

Either way, the buzz at the PhoCusWright Conference among both attendees and suppliers was the sense that the proliferation of mobile searches and bookings will eventually enable suppliers and distributors to get past the booking stage.

Sabre Labs’ director, Sarah Kennedy Ellis, told conference members that hoteliers will be able to use GPS-based location features on customers’ smartphones to better locate incoming guests in order to greet them and prepare their rooms accordingly.

Suppliers have another chance to improve the smartphone users’ travel experience via voice-command features, Hudson Crossing analyst Henry Harteveldt said.

“Travel companies’ abilities to make better use of travelers’ locations, to send ‘right time, right place, right price’ offers, will help, as well, especially for ancillary purchases at hotels and resorts and for in-destination services like shopping, dining and entertainment,” he said.

Additionally, more mobile booking may force suppliers and OTAs to better cooperate and share traveler information.

“One possible opportunity is to offer itinerary management that serves the entire trip experience,” PhoCusWright suggested in the report. “Some of the most convenient and fastest-growing mobile travel tools, such as mobile boarding passes and car rental unlocking, will require suppliers’ cooperation in order for OTAs to provide them.”