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 Booking.com, 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 Booking.com, 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.