Travel agents who are baffled by how to respond to consumers’ growing use of mobile tools are not alone. Even suppliers’ high-level marketing executives grapple with the question.
Panelists at the Association of Travel Marketing Executives’ Think Tank event in New York last week explored mobile’s huge impact on how Americans research and book travel. They also voiced caution about the bottom line value of investing in mobile booking tools.
“People want to find information about our hotels, but they don’t necessarily want to book their reservation through their mobile device,” said Rosanne Zusman, senior vice president of brand marketing for Wyndham Hotel Group.
“Our total number of online bookings [via mobile] is very small, and two-thirds are coming from click-to-call,” Zusman said.
“Realistically you're not capturing people in the decision-making process,” Zusman said of the mobile channel.
Mobile for customer service
Libby Rice, co-president of Ensemble Travel Group, told the audience that her agency group isn’t likely to invest in a mobile app for booking travel any time soon. Instead, the group will explore mobile’s usefulness for interacting with customers.
“We feel that at Ensemble it’s a great tool to offer, but we probably won’t go out and brand it,” Rice said of mobile applications.
“Our focus may be on the piece around the itinerary and engagement with the customer on the customer service side.”
Depends on your niche
However for a niche player like Smithsonian Journeys, mobile offers a unique opportunity to interact more directly with family decision makers.
That’s especially important because multigenerational is a big part of the Smithsonian’s travel business, said Stephen Giannetti, vice president of advertising sales and marketing for Smithsonian Media.
“We’ve seen a huge influx of bookings with mobile.” More than 50% of Smithsonian Journey’s trips are now booked on a mobile device, according to Giannetti. The company has seen a huge year-over-year increase in the number of people booking travel on mobile devices.
But investing in mobile may be a waste of resources if your target client doesn’t use the format.
“Some consumers don’t experience every platform,” said Giannetti. “You have to see where the target is, and how the target is consuming.”
One thing panelists agreed on was mobile’s huge impact on how consumers behave. They pointed to seismic shifts in how Americans research and book travel.
Travel sellers who ignore changes in consumers’ online and mobile habits do so at their own peril, they suggested.
“The consumer has left the station. You can’t afford to wait. You’ve got to take the risk in the mobile space. But it's not as risky as people think,” said Rob Torres, managing director of travel for Google.
The line is blurred
As more consumers adopt tablet devices, how travel sellers reach consumers is shifting as well. Traditional computers, mobile devices such as smartphones, and tablets are all competing for the attention of the consumer, who often use them interchangeably and at the same time.
“We’re entering the non-line world, where online and offline have totally blurred,” said Torres.
Consumer use of digital tools for travel spans initial research, pre-trip planning and booking to planning and decisions while on-the-road. “Every part of the stages of travel has some digital component,” Torres said.
You’ve got to adapt
“Travel marketers should embrace these very distinct device categories,” said Max Starkov, president and CEO of HeBS Digital, a hotel marketing and consulting firm.
At the very least, this requires adapting supplier and travel agency websites to the different types of devices that consumers use to access the web.
“Tablets are not mobile devices by any means. Tablets are a portable, but not mobile, device,” Starkov said. For instance, he noted, people use tablets in much the same way they use laptops, so websites and booking tools created for mobile won’t necessarily be effective when viewed on a tablet.
Travel search is different
Regardless of how they end up booking their trips, today’s consumers almost always search online before they book.
“Search is still core to the travel decision – 85% who begin travel research conduct a search,” Torres said.
Yet how consumers search is changing, Torres said.
In the travel space, consumer search is far more focused on brand and brand messaging than on shopping transactions, Torres continued, particularly compared to search behavior in other product and service categories.
“Our travel consumers don’t look at ads any differently, but they certainly act differently,” Torres said.