By Chris Minas, founder of Nimbletank
The internet had a huge impact on the travel industry early on, as consumers swarmed to online travel agencies to find the best prices on flights and hotels, and took to online travel guides to plan their trips in advance.
Now, mobile is the latest sales channel upending travel, not least because travel pairs so well with mobile devices, allowing travellers to continue and amend their trip-planning once they've taken off.
As consumers increasingly research, book, purchase and review everything related to their travel experiences on mobile devices, often on unreliable wireless networks, those in the travel industry must adapt.
In order to keep up with the modern connected traveller, industry professionals must devote the time and resources to creating truly rich and immersive online experiences.
There is no doubt about it; technology is rewiring our brains and augmenting our experiences. People make dinner reservations on OpenTable; check in on Foursquare when they arrive at the restaurant; take a picture of their food to share on Instagram; post on Twitter a joke they hear during the meal; review the restaurant on Yelp; then, finally, coordinate a ride home using Uber.
The mobile is this context; it’s life’s remote control.
However, there are few travel brands that are pushing boundaries in mobile capability. In a recent report by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), more than half of the UK’s top 50 travel brands don’t have a mobile-optimised site.
More worryingly, a third of the businesses have no mobile presence at all. It is clear from these numbers that brands are failing to provide an important research and experience channel for their customers through mobile.
According to the 2013 SITA Air Transport World Passenger IT Trends Survey among global travellers, only 5% said they were using check-in and booking services on their phones, and 78% cited usability concerns and the limitations of the device as a reason they might not use mobile for travel.
Mobile devices are rapidly becoming the travel research tool of choice. And there are clearly other segments of the travel industry where mobile is vastly more successful than others, the most obvious of which is same-day hotel bookings.
For an increasing number of travellers, the booking of hotel stays also occurs while in transit or on the day of arrival. Facts matter to travellers - emotions matter more.
As a greater percentage of visitors come from mobile devices, travel sites have had to rethink the old browse-and-book paradigm and replace it with a more immersive online travel research and booking experience which provides useful tools and recommendations to travellers not only before they leave but also while they are on the ground at the destination.
Likewise, Pinterest, Fab, Airbnb, Gogobot and other visually-driven design sites have set a new and higher bar for emotional, evocative online experiences.
Leveraging data is also behind the rise in more personalised experiences for mobile users. Expedia has been leading the way in harnessing data to create new features in its apps.
With Expedia’s research showing that people search 48 times across travel sites before making a flight booking, ‘Flight Recommendations’ simplifies the process by analysing customer travel and booking patterns to provide searchers with a list of alternative routes that might appeal to them.
‘Scratchpad’ lets users store their searches and easily come back to them at a later time or send the content to their email. ‘Itinerary Sharing’ enables customers to share their itinerary via email, text message or Facebook.
When sharing an itinerary with someone who is also an Expedia mobile user, that person can also receive push notifications about delays and landing time for the traveller.
The next generation of mobile travel-related services will use data to create highly contextual experiences and to begin to anticipate customers’ needs.
Research and hotel bookings is all very well but the question that remains on everyone’s lips is whether people are and will purchase travel through their mobiles.
The usability for most mobile apps and sites is still rudimentary and not accommodating for the complex transactions on small screens is hindering such progress. The industry could learn a thing or two from the retail sector, in particular, Amazon.
Multi platform research and booking is happening across all digital devices and the brands that can make the user’s life easier across all parts of the journey from research, to booking to day of travel to post trip will win big.
Amazon have created a powerful stack and have essentially infiltrated the presence of high street retailers within their price comparison tool powered by red laser. Amazon is the front door to price comparison, in the same way Google is the front door to the web.
Amazon's personalisation technology is at its best on mobile devices, where the screen estate is more limited. Amazon cleverly also acknowledge the different need states of consumers across both mobile and tablet.
The tablet experience is very different to mobile, acknowledging the user context of likely being sofa based and in grazing mode. Whereas mobile is more objective orientated, guiding users to a specific recommended product or deal of the day.
Those who are bucking the trend are Easyjet with 5% of revenue coming through smartphone bookings, and EasyJet apps are downloaded 100,000 times every 10 days.
The airline has also introduced mobile boarding passes to make travel even easier by allowing people to keep all your travel information in one place.
Expedia have referenced their expanded mobile offering in quarterly earning reports to the stock market. They offer a diversified mobile solution across web and apps.
Last-minute bookings make up over a half of sales on mobile, but pre-planned holidays booked via mobile is on the rise. Mobile adaption needs to be relevant. Success is when you hit the sweet spot between place, message, and time - context is everything.
Earlier this year the TripAdvisor flights and hotels app was launched to provide information on Wi-Fi and roaming charges in downtown areas and airports in 21 cities around the world.
Travel can be stressful and expensive - this is a great example of a brand making the traveller’s life easier. When Lufthansa updated their site they chose adaptive web over responsive web.
Adaptive recognises users’ mobile devices and delivers just the relevant content for the screen size at an optimal size therefore it is very fast to load, and can recognise the sensors and capabilities of the device to provide a great experience.
The mobile experience focuses on the actions a mobile user is most likely to take, such as looking up their itinerary, checking in, and getting flight status information.
The travel industry is certainly on the right flight path for putting mobile first, but as evidence suggests, only a handful of progressive brands are making it happen.
If the travel sector is anything like retail, companies certainly cannot ignore the mobile age.