Bookings on the hoof: the last-minute traveller in a mobile world

Do you want to target the biggest travel spenders, those on a romantic journey or a group in search of real adventure? Do you know how closely linked a customer’s choice of mobile device is to travel behaviour? Ritesh Gupta reports on the latest trends

Last minute bookings are not a new phenomenon. What is new today is that increasing numbers of travellers have the ability to search and make a booking via a mobile device. In addition location-based services (LBS), which allow marketers to target travellers with relevant offers near their current location, are growing rapidly.

According to recent research by EyeforTravel, LBS expenditure is expected to near $10billion by 2016, while smart phone sales are predicted to reach 982 million units by 2015. What is more, marketers are expecting an ‘onslaught’ of mobile apps and tools within three years.   

So it really is time for firms to understand the preferences of this segment of the travelling community. This means going much further in understanding a customer’s preferences – from the vehicle they choose ro rent to the type of hotel they wish to stay at. After all, every person is different.

What we now know, however, is that bookings made on a smartphone device are more likely to be same-day bookings: either somebody booking spontaneously or someone in a distressed situation. On the other hand those using a tablet are more likely to be a in a relaxed scenario, at home researching a holiday.

Focus and differentiate  

Over the past two years, suppliers and intermediaries have expanded their mobile portfolio considerably. They have created new offerings and then refined these to address this last-minute segment of the travelling community. Today mobile sites and apps are being designed to feature simple and fast search and booking tools, backed up by attractive options such as tonight-only deals and mobile exclusive promotions. 

But this is a very competitive market and there are thousands of apps and tools competing for a slice of the pie. So as the mobile marketplace for travel services and the popularity of devices grows, it is time to focus and differentiate. Looking closely at some recent booking trends is a good first step. 

This week online travel company Priceline released its second set of findings on how Android, iPhone and iPad users are booking rental cars and hotel rooms via its apps. According to the company, 41% of rental car bookings made using Priceline apps were on the same day. Of those, 48% were made within two hours of pickup.

Priceline’s early mobile phone usage data, released over a year ago, suggested that demand for three to four-star hotels came almost exclusively from affluent early adopters of the iPhone. After the company introduced its first Hotel Negotiator app for the iPhone in 2009, customers with mobile devices chose hotels with a three-star rating or more 82% of the time. 

Today, nearly two-thirds of iPhone users want to stay at a luxury hotel while Android users choose three-star and above 54% of the time. Perhaps unsurprisingly the iPad generation is still the pickiest; 69% of the time users prefer three-star hotels or more. Interestingly, however, the company says that over the Christmas season, smartphone bookings for lower price-point hotels accelerated.  

Brand is still king 

The significance of brands in this arena cannot be underestimated, nor can how a manufacturer’s handset or a mobile operating system is shaping up in the travel planning and booking process.  In addition, the type of mobile device provides useful insights into aspects of a user’s personality, habits, likes and dislikes.

In February this year, Cheapflights released the results from a survey of 700 people which aimed to link travel habits to a particular smart phone brand. The first interesting statistic was that workers spend 14 million hours per year searching for flights. But Blackberry users are the biggest culprits; they spend 38% more time searching for flights during working hours than either iPhone or Android users.  Moreover, Blackberry users appeared to be the biggest spenders. iPhone users, on the other hand, chose destinations which implied they were bigger risk takers, more romantic and loved to shop. When it came to general adventure, however, Android users came out on top.

Behaviour of the last-minute brigade  

The mindset of such travellers is also intriguing. When travellers are connecting via smart phone on a trip, the phrase ‘travel planning process’ becomes an anachronism, says Sam Shank, chief executive of San Francisco-based mobile-only hotel-booking app, HotelTonight. Last-minute travellers no longer plan the details of their trip in advance. Instead he says they “rely on instant advice, filtered from their social graph and geo-targeted to their location”.

Even traditional travel companies are slowly getting to grips with changes in behaviour and preferences. “As more clients take their smartphones on holiday, we find that they are researching dining and entertainment options on the go,” Shank adds.

Usually, it is not a problem to accommodate a client who wants to try a new restaurant or visit an obscure museum. However, Steve Filipiak, director of internet marketing for Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) USA, argues thatthe challenge is striking a balance between the interests of the entire tour group and those connected individuals.  

But A&K is also careful about what to offer via mobile phones. “While there is an opportunity for airlines, car rentals and hotels to offer last minute discounts via mobile, especially for distressed inventory, tour operators like A&K have guides that are in daily contact with their clients throughout the itinerary, so it would be off brand for us to push offers via SMS,” says Filipiak.

It is important to understand and accept that people will access many channels and you should be consistent in your branding and experience.

Community-led local search site Yelp, for example, sees spikes in mobile traffic in the evenings and on weekends when people are out and about looking for entertainment or places eat, drink and shop.

Acting on impulse

As indicated by studies some decision-making pertaining to hotel bookings is being driven by spontaneity. As such hotels are increasingly being offered platforms to fill empty rooms, right up to the very last second.

So as mobile device users show signs of pushing their buy to the moment of necessity, hotels unprepared for these last-minute reservations might be missing out.

As a specialist in this segment, HotelTonight says its research shows that last-minute mobile bookers are drawn in by so-called ‘impulse rates’. These are special promotional prices tailored for impulse bookers, which shouldn’t be offered to those booking in advance. Without these offers, and the convenience of mobile apps, impulse bookers would probably have stayed at home.   

Users are now familiar enough with the tradeoffs between the personal computer, tablet, and smart phone to make intelligent decisions. It is essential for businesses to evaluate their current mobile experience for these users and to invest in improvements.

If travel firms want to differentiate in this competitive market, they must dig much deeper into the usage pattern of different mobile brands and operating systems. Then they must closely assess travel-related content consumption as well as booking behaviour. Only then will they be adequately prepared to create more meaningful initiatives.

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