Tim O'Neill

Maintaining Control of the Highly Connected Independent Traveller

With the dramatic uptake of mobile Internet enabled devices such as the iPhone, iPad, Android and Blackberry, travellers are not only looking to research holiday destinations, book flights and accommodation online but are also staying connected on the go directly from these devices while travelling. This not only gives them the ability to do ongoing research about the places they're visiting, allowing them to book their own excursions, but it also enables them to make comments about every aspect of the holiday to friends and followers via social media apps such as FourSquare, Twitter and Facebook.

The challenge for Online Travel Agents (OTA), Travel Management Companies (TMC) and even traditional shop front travel agencies (TA) is how to make the most of these Internet enabled devices to deliver value to their business traveller customer base to build loyalty and ultimately revenue.

It would be fair to say that having an online presence is as important to an OTA, TCM or TA as a telephone. At the most basic level this is a website with contact details and access to an online enquiry system so that customers can book flights, obtain information or request a call back from a consultant. Sites which deliver additional value to customers may also incorporate an online portal for managing bookings and itineraries as well as integrated links to other travel services such as accommodation, car rental, restaurants and conference providers.

Many of these sites display well on a computer screen, but can become very tedious to use on the small screen of a smartphone (such as an iPhone, Android, Blackberry or Nokia).  The growth in access of websites via a mobile phone is exploding and TMCs/OTAs who are not optimising their sites for mobile access will lose sales to competitors who provide a better experience.  One of the first things an agency needs to do is actually view their website from smartphone and tablet devices (such as the iPad or Android tablet) and try to access the functions.  In many cases this will not be pleasant!

As with any online experience, it is vital to make it as easy as possible for your customers to do business with you.  This includes optimising your website so that it works well on smartphone and tablet devices by putting commonly used functions such as search and booking at the top of the screen.  Avoid cluttering the mobile version of the website with graphics and animations as they increase the time it takes for the site to load and may not even work properly. Also think about what travellers really want when on the road and make those features quickly accessible (for example an emergency contact number that works from overseas). 

One of the best ways to add value to your mobile business travellers is by developing (or at least partnering with an organisation) that provides mobile travel apps.  The key difference between an app (software that is downloaded to the smartphone or tablet) and a mobile optimised website is that the app is used for value added services that benefit the customer.  These apps are sometimes known as a branded utility and can make the full use of the smartphone's features such as GPS, camera, memory and the like.  This provides the ability to build complex applications such as the futuristic sounding Augmented Reality, which is already in use by many major brands and the most well-known example is the Google Goggles app for the Android and soon the iPhone.

Imagine the value you will deliver to your business customers if when roaming the streets of Beijing after hours, their smartphone displays the street in front of them overlaid with details (and ratings) of popular bars, restaurants or hotels.  Once your customer chooses a restaurant they take a photo of the menu and have it instantly translated into English (with an audio pronunciation), ensuring they can avoid... well, things they are not used to eating.  Their complete itinerary is available on their smartphone so they know where they are staying and can immediately obtain travel directions so they can know if their taxi driver is taking them for a ride.  Colleagues can be alerted when someone visits their city so they can set up meetings or arrange impromptu catch ups.  If a flight is delayed or cancelled, the traveller is immediately notified and is advised of alternative travel arrangements. If a natural or political disaster occurs (such as an earthquake or volcanic eruption) the traveller is also notified and can communicate with their OTA or TMC to make rescue arrangements.

Already many of these functions are available using a combination of apps such as TripIt, nru from lastminute.com, Dopplr, Lufthansa's MySkyStatus, Twitter, Facebook, Google Apps and FourSquare. Travellers might not be able to photograph and translate their Chinese menu just yet but the technology is certainly evolving and won't be too far off.

Whilst in Australia, the mobile is still used primarily for research rather than actual purchases, mobile sales are on the rise. There are still some barriers to overcome such as customers having to enter their credit card details from their phone as doing so is prone to error and time consuming. Mobile users also have concerns, albeit unfounded ones, about credit card security although these may be able to be overcome by allowing booking on account.

In Europe, 54 per cent of customers accessing travel services in May 2010 did so from a smartphone. As in Australia, the most common usage was to obtain travel directions and maps; however there was significant growth in the use of accommodation and booking sites such as lastminute.com and Expedia.

The best ways for OTAs and TMCs to take advantage of the smartphone and tablet revolution is to offer value added applications and engage with their customers whilst travelling.  Whilst it would be ideal to be able to offer online bookings from any smartphone, the reality is providing access to an existing online booking engine (OBE) is no simple affair and is often outside of the control of the OTA.  This reliance on third party OBEs is one reason why Australian OTAs and TMCs have not been able to embrace mobile bookings fully.

Nevertheless, there are still many opportunities for OTAs and TMCs to add value to their customers through cobranded or integrated travel apps (for example providing a direct link to upload bookings and itineraries to TripIt and social media sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook). Another avenue is to interact with travellers on the road using social media. For example, Air New Zealand offers benefits to the travellers who check in to the lounges the most using Foursquare. As well as being able to monitor comments about the lounges, the use of branded applications and social media sites yields tremendously rich data about customers.  This provides a unique method of advertising to customers based on their location, time of day and even past travel history.

Other travel organisations are using Twitter to notify customers of special deals. For example, United Airlines and JetBlue in the USA use Twitter to advertise specials turning distressed inventory into bums on seats.

It is not hard for OTAs and TMCs to integrate social media into their marketing and public relations strategies. The key to remember, is that social media is about interaction rather than direct marketing. If you go to a barbeque and start telling people about your fantastic deals you will quickly alienate yourself from the other guests. However, if you start a conversation about travel, discuss the best places to stay and eat and engage with others you may well be the life of the party.

Business travellers in particular are now starting to realise the benefits of social media and are taking advantage of TripIt, LinkedIn and Facebook to notify colleagues of their travel plans and also their travel delays and disasters.  In a recent survey by American Express Business Travel, over 44 per cent of respondents said that they use social media to keep informed of the travel market and stay on top of the latest travel information and find preferred vendors and suppliers. .

If the travel industry can provide useful information via social media that helps its customers, they will build brand loyalty and find out more about their customers and their needs which in turn will lead to greater opportunities to cross sell and enables them to provide better service to their clients, which is a win-win for everyone.


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Tim O'Neill Reactive Tim O'Neill
Company: Reactive
Position: Founder, Joint MD
Tim O'Neill is the joint Managing Director of Reactive, a global digital agency that specialises in creating effective online strategy and solutions. Established in 1997 and employing fifty staff, Reactive is solidly profitable independent company Read Tim's full bio

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