This is part one in a two-part series about the impact of mobile technology on selling leisure travel.
The explosion in popularity of smartphones, iPads and other tablets is changing customer expectations and behavior so rapidly, and so significantly, that travel agents who ignore mobile do so at their own peril.
That’s the consensus of travel technology experts who see mobile poised to transform the way travel agents engage with their clients – conceivably as dramatically as did the Internet.
Mobile isn’t a threat to agents, they say. It actually holds tremendous positive potential for agent-client relations.
But agents will need to make the mobile phenomenon their own, just as surely they needed to learn to use the Internet to their advantage, rather than being supplanted by it, said David Goodis, founder and chief executive officer of Revelex Corp.
‘Customers will demand it’
“Agents have got to be able to serve up what they have on any device. Customers will demand it,” said Goodis.
Goodis urged agents to adopt a multichannel approach. “We’re on the cusp” of that change occurring in the marketplace, said Goodis, whose firm is currently developing technology for agents that will enable them to adopt the mobile channel.
The key for agent success in the mobile arena is understanding how consumers are using their smartphones and tablets, suggested Norm Rose, president of Travel Technology Consulting.
“Mobile is untethering the consumer from the desktop to really allow for location-based bookings and information,” he said. “Now the consumer can get what they want, where they want it and when they want it.”
In fact, consumers want the ability to shop, plan and book no matter what technology device they are using, Goodis said. “They want to find what they’re looking for in a quick and cool way, see it in detail, book it really quickly and integrate it into Outlook or other organizer.”
Initial forays into mobile adaptations for travel focused on day-of-travel needs, such as flight delays or gate changes. Business travelers were the early adopters.
Now a fast-growing number of leisure travelers are using their smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices to find the answers for questions ranging from where’s a good restaurant for a romantic dinner to where can they rent a bicycle.
“The mobile device has become the primary platform for the traveler to search from when they are at the destination,” Rose said.
Harnessing the potential
It is the fact that mobile devices have a Geo-tagging capability that knows where the user is located that holds great possibilities for travel agents, said Scott Ahlsmith, president of 23 TouchPoints and former executive vice president of technology for Virtuoso.
This capability gives agents the means to reinforce relationships with clients while they’re traveling.
“You could literally take an itinerary and push it through a mobile device and do a walking tour for someone in a foreign city,” he said. “It’s kind of like having your travel advisor in your pocket or purse.
“The real benefit of all this is going to be instant feedback.”
This is a valuable breakthrough, because it enables agents to stay engaged with clients beyond the planning process.
“Historically, travel agents have never had great success with communicating with clients while they’re on the trip. It’s been, ‘Here are the documents; see you later,’” Rose said.
“The concept now is to have continuous engagement with the customer. Mobile technology provides the platform.”
Good place to start
Rose suggested that agents start by making sure the trip itineraries are available on clients’ mobile devices through programs such as Tripit or TripChill.
A next step is to start thinking about strategies to communicate.
“For example, if you send a family to Hawaii, why not send them a message about an available discount on a luau?” said Rose. “Think of ways you can enhance their trip while they are on it. It ends up reinforcing your value and completes the mission.”
He acknowledged that this can mean more work for the agent. But, he said, there can be real ROI in terms of added commissions, as well as making the agent look good.
Useful for delays, cancellations
Mobile communications have already proved invaluable in assisting clients with delayed or cancelled flights, particularly in the case of weather problems or natural disasters, Rose noted.
“Sending messages to traveler’s mobile devices is crucial during situations such as recent volcanic eruptions in Europe,” Rose said. “Many agents were very helpful in providing alternative train reservations and the like.”
Consumers open to it
According to Rose, the advent of marketing through mobile technology has made consumers open to this kind of communication.
“Now when you go into Best Buy, Macy’s or other stores, there are phone applications that give you coupons and discounts as ways to encourage loyalty,” he said. “The more people have this kind of interactive relationship with their phones, the more they expect it from agents.”
Mandatory first step
Ahlsmith said he sees traditional travel agents overcoming their resistance to mobile. “I think agencies are on the cusp.”
More and more are taking what he called a “mandatory” first step into the mobile arena, optimizing their websites for mobile.
“I can assure you that any agency today that is refreshing or building a new site is doing so with mobility in mind – so that their site will sense what the device is that’s approaching the site,” he said.
Apps are fragmented
Another option for agencies that want to offer their own content for mobile communications is to develop their own apps. But there are challenges.
Chief among them is the fragmented nature of mobile, Rose said. “Apps are problematic for the industry in that there are so many platforms for them.”
Rose, who relies heavily on apps provided by airlines and hotels, said it could be worthwhile for an agency to develop an app targeted toward its top customers.
“If you can present what the client needs, it’s better than going through a whole web page,” he said.
Michele McDonald contributed to this report.
Next time: A look at new developments in mobile technology for agents