What do hoteliers need? A secure, convenient and easy to use mobile channel.

By James Bland

Online travel agencies (OTAs) initially provided huge opportunities to hotels to widen their distribution, sell distressed inventory and maintain occupancy levels. However, in the dash to exploit this opportunity, the erosion of profit margins (as a result of increasing commissions and dependency upon the channel) initially went somewhat unnoticed.

‘Mobile’ provides a huge opportunity for brands to fight back. A paradigm-shifter if ever there was one, it has the effect of resetting the online channel and, to a certain extent, levelling the playing field.

BDRC’s most recent data shows that although usage of the mobile channel for booking purposes is low (4%) for the time being, those that do so are primarily using hotel brand websites – over 55% compared with just 18% for the OTAs. Maintaining that advantage will require marketing effort, for sure, but perhaps more crucial is the need to develop and nurture an ease-of-use advantage.

To gain a snapshot of hotel performance in mobile bookings, BDRC’s fieldwork team used an iPhone on a 3G connection to book three rooms at each of 50 hotel properties (across 32 brands) as part of a mystery booking exercise. Each experience was assessed for speed of connection, clarity of information, ease/convenience of use and speed/content of confirmation email.

BDRC set a marking scheme with customer experience in mind. Researchers assumed the persona of a time-poor, impatient consumer; perhaps concerned that if they didn’t complete the booking quickly, they’d lose their 3G connection. There were more marks for speed and convenience than there were for elegance or extravagance, and some pretty harsh penalties were set for failure.
When the scope of this project was defined a few months ago, opinion was divided about what the results might be. Researchers did, however, rather suspect that there’d be one or two more ‘horror stories’ than there actually were, and that they’d see a more diverse range of customer experiences than they actually did.

The results from the study revealed the overall stars of the online mobile bookings process. The InterContinental, Marriott and Holiday Inn Express brands offered the most complete overall booking experiences to mystery shoppers, but superb consistency within its brands saw Hilton Worldwide claim the top ‘group’ spot.

There were of course one or two low performers, primarily because they needed to have a quicker end-to-end process.
Less than a third of the webpages visited allowed customers to set dates without tapping through elsewhere. Perhaps greater acknowledgement of the entry-point variation might be in order here. Setting up a mobile site to your expected flow is all well and good, but ‘out in the wild’ customers behave in a variety of weird and wonderful ways and hotels need to ensure that no (potential) guest is left behind.

The study also revealed that the average hotel site took 7.1 seconds to loads and that 3/50 brans added a fee for paying by credit card. Only 16% of confirmation emails provided a facility to save details directly into your calendar. This is a great example of a relatively little addition that can make customers’ lives just that little bit easier.

So, to sum up, the hotel sector in the UK is fairly well developed in terms of the mobile booking experience. We’d say that cosmetic, rather than reconstructive, surgery is the order of the day, with a focus – as always – on customer convenience.

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