Smart Phones and Travel Planning

Interesting story this week in the Chicago Tribune on use of smart phones for travel. An excerpt:

Some early data suggest that mobile consumers are developing distinctive travel habits. Priceline.com, which has an iPhone app that allows users to book hotels and rental cars, studied a two-week sampling of its app activity and saw that 82 percent of customers with mobile devices booked their hotel rooms within one day of arrival. The figure dropped to 45 percent among people using Priceline’s nonmobile “Name Your Own Price” feature. “As technology enables us to provide tools like this, we’re both filling a need for last-minute rooms and also enabling a behavior change that lets people look for these last-minute rooms,” said John Caine, Priceline’s senior vice president of marketing who also heads the company’s mobile development. In some cases, Priceline observed that customers may be waiting until they arrive at a destination before choosing a hotel. The company said 58 percent of customers with mobile devices were within 20 miles of their hotel when they made the booking — and 35 percent were within just a mile.

Some companies in the travel and hospitality industries also are experimenting with social media platforms as a new way to connect with tech-savvy clientele and enhance customer service. JetBlue Airways and United Airlines offer limited-time deals on Twitter in which users have to act quickly because the promotions can expire within hours. Hyatt Hotels has a Twitter concierge account, staffed around the clock, that answers questions, resolves problems, and even makes spa and restaurant bookings for guests. At Expedia, which launched a mobile booking site and iPhone app this year, the marriage of mobile phones and travel seemed inevitable. Joe Megibow, the company’s vice president of global analytics and optimization, said a small but noticeable number of Expedia customers were booking travel through their smart phones even before the company had a Web site optimized for mobile devices. Mobile and travel “are just made for each other,” Megibow said. “The mobile device is always with us; it’s always on. When you’re traveling, you’re out and about and often in uncertain scenarios. … They’re built for each other, and it’s something we take very seriously.” Travel companies with mobile offerings say ease of use and good design are crucial for attracting customers, especially as smart phones become more mainstream.

The expected proliferation of tablets presents another opportunity. “This is a customer that may well be running like mad down the jetway, trying to grab that hotel before they have to turn off their device on the plane,” Caine said. “We’re shooting to be the simplest, the fastest, the best-priced and really try to keep our customer in mind.”

Although advances in mobile Web browsing have made e-commerce easier, not all travel services seamlessly translate to a hand-held device. Megibow noted that the popular grid layout used by travel sites to display flight options, for example, can be tricky to replicate on a small screen. Most booking is still done via computers rather than Web-connected phones.

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