Making the most of m-commerce as a hotel marketer
IN-DEPTH: Melia Hotels International is focusing on letting its customers control their stay through their mobile phones. Besides being able to check all the activities that are happening on site and create their own schedule, guests can book spa treatments, restaurants, opt for golf-related bookings, tours and receive updates.
Guests can do almost anything they want to, says Antonio Batanero, Senior Director Distribution & Ecommerce, The Americas, Melia Hotels International.
By Ritesh Gupta
Mobile provides unique opportunities to improve the traveller experience, which can lead to customer loyalty. It can also be a great mechanism to capture incremental revenues through upsell of ancillary revenues and reduce operating costs through self-service.
A section of the industry believes that m-commerce is challenging because in many cases the platform to transact over are still immature. But still there are entities like Melia Hotels International that have been quite proactive in coming up with new initiatives in this arena.
Melia Hotels considers its on-site app as one additional service it intends to provide to its guests so they can have the best experience possible while staying with the group.
“We think that in cases such as lifestyle or luxury resorts– like our ME or Paradisus brands - is no longer about having or not an App but what the app can do extra for you to enrich your experience before, during and after your stay,” shared Antonio Batanero, Senior Director Distribution & Ecommerce, The Americas, Melia Hotels International.
The group firmly believes in empowering customers and enhancing their overall experience during the entire planning and booking stage.
“(With our app), we are able to offer our guests a complete experience of the resort not just before they check in but even before they pack for the trip. From making restaurant reservations, to signing up for all kind of activities or even meet and greet with other guests, we want you to be able to control your whole stay right from your phone. And now all of this is possible,” said Batanero, who is scheduled to speak at the EyeforTravel’s Online Marketing Strategies for Travel 2012 conference, to be held in Miami (June 5 – 6) this year.
Batanero spoke about monetisation, the debate between hybrid, native or web apps, overall satisfaction with mobile sites/ apps, and other relevant issues. Excerpts:
Would it be right to say that mobile strategy currently has an indirect impact on monetisation as it significantly helps in building branding and awareness? Or are things changing now?
If you remember before the explosion of the Apps we have experienced lately, hoteliers were pushing hard on building their mobile websites as a way of capturing bookings from their business travellers. This is back in 2005 when the largest hotel chains in the world started building their mobile friendly directories as a way of facilitate the access to their website from the phones just for information purposes only and then redirecting them to their phone reservation centre in case they wanted to make a reservation. Then 3-4 years later in 2008 and 2009 these directories were improved by the addition of the online/mobile reservation capability as a result of the increase of traffic seen through the years and the revenue that was track through the calls originated on mobile platforms.
Now just seven years later and thanks to the smartphones we are looking already at some of the 3.0 versions of mobile apps.
When we look at revenues that some of the largest hotel chains claim they are seeing from their mobile platforms (based on a recent study around $2.6 billion in mobile bookings were transacted in 2011 by leisure/unmanaged business travellers in the US), it is clear that mobile is already a major source of business for hoteliers and other industry players and is not just about branding anymore.
Now with your information on file and through a mobile app we can provide our guest with the one-click-reservation button we always dreamed about. That being said we consider our on-site app as one additional service we want to provide to our guests so they can have the best experience possible while staying at our property. In fact we think that in cases such as lifestyle or luxury resorts– like our ME or Paradisus brands - is no longer about having or not an App but what the app can do extra for you to enrich your experience before, during and after your stay.
Do you think still the opportunity that exists via mobile is to still deliver tools, and focus on content and branding? What’s your organisation’s mobile strategy?
We have recently signed a partnership with Mobail, one of the leading mobile app development companies in Spain that created a product called Smart-Resorts. With that app we are able to offer our guests a complete experience of the resort not just before they check in but even before they pack for the trip. From making restaurant reservations, to signing up for all kind of activities or even meet and greet with other guests, we want you to be able to control your whole stay right from your phone. And now all of this is possible! Thanks to Mobail, we have learned how different the time to market and cost factors are when developing an App compare to a website, for example. Right now whatever idea I may have, whatever new functionality I want to add may be ready in just a few days thanks to their technology. And that is great because I may become more dynamic with my mobile actions than I am capable of with my online strategy. This adds an extra challenge to us in terms of usability because it forces us to place ourselves in different scenarios (different mobile platforms) where we have different customers visiting different versions of the new App (in case they are not constantly updating their phones to the latest version). Besides this our main challenge now is how we can reach more customers, for example having our partners offering the app as an added value to their customers.
What do you make of consumer expectations from mobile commerce perspective? Do you think the overall satisfaction with mobile sites/ apps is good enough to result in mobile revenue?
The iPhone App store reached one billion downloads in April 2009. Not even three years later the same store has just reached 25 billion downloads so the behaviour now is completely different. Few years ago you would grab your smartphone and say “Hey, let me search for their phone number on their website” and then you would get surprise if finding a mobile friendly site; nowadays most people say: “Let’s check if they have an app” and if they can’t find it then they at least expect you have a mobile adapted website. By the end of this year that same traveller behavior will be: “Let’s see how their app looks like”. And you better have something easy to use. Bottom line apps are now becoming a commodity. More and more people expect you not just to have an app but to facilitate access to the things they want to do at your property and in the destination, and through any type of device.
Now what we are seeing is our guests checking for the hotel app either right after they have booked or on their way from the airport to the hotel or during check in. Even though the most important thing is the user experience we tend to think on what we want the App to do instead of thinking how the App should help our customers. We have seen statistics that show that almost a quarter of app users used a downloaded app just once. And then you have another quarter users that used the same app more than 10 times. That’s the challenge; how can we promote the use of the App? How can build loyalty around the mobile experience whether is a mobile site, a mobile app or a tablet app? I am sure some of the tactics we used in the past to switch business from offline to online may still work. But most important we are looking at what are the most downloaded categories within the different apps stores (games, social networking, weather and destination info and music) and see how we can combine that within our App. That will eventually be the key to success.
Your organisation recently launched property mobile apps where users are able to book restaurants, spa treatments, activities etc. What do you make of the m-commerce related behaviour and preference at this juncture?
After seeing how well the mobile booking sites are performing we are now putting our efforts towards on-property services which is the natural step for us. With the Smart-Resorts App build by Mobail, we can now give customers control of their stay in the comfort of their phone. Besides being able to check all the activities that are happening on site and create your own schedule, guests can book spa treatments, restaurants, golf, tours, receive updates… They can do almost anything they want to. This allows us to offer personalised offers based on your preferences and profile, as well as a platform to connect our guests with our partners so that we can in fact act as intermediaries between demand and supply.
One of the main new features is what we have called Meet ME! a platform within the app that allows customers to contact each other while they are the spot; Let’s say that you are at the resort and you want to play tennis or golf but your partner does not play. Now you can go to our App and see who else is in your same situation so you can play together. This was almost impossible before the Apps era. Finally it is also important to mention that the fact of providing all the hotel information now to your mobile reinforces our green strategy and our commitment to reduce the consumption of paper at our hotels.
What should one consider before going for a native application development or cross platform application development methodology? What should one take into consideration from mobile commerce perspective?
Regardless of the debate between hybrid, native or web apps what we have seen is that our customers are seeking for the best user experience possible. And that is something we really want to keep in mind. Native apps for us have a great advantage since they do not need to be connected to the Internet to be used which in some remote locations or even in a plane is definitely something we think travellers appreciate. Plus with a native App you can take advantage of all the smartphone capabilities such as the camera, the GPS location, etc. So in our case and even though we started with a Hybrid model our entire in site apps are native apps now and they will connect to the Internet just when is extremely necessary. That does not mean one size fits all since they may be other sectors or other resources (like finance or our hotel booking engine) were Internet connection is a must.
Having said that in the end we want our guests to have the best possible experience without considering what device they are using. We as marketers should always let the user choose what experience they prefer since it may vary depending on the situation. Behaviours are very different when using mobile platforms such as smartphones or tablets. I think many times we insist too much in one way instead of giving the customers the chance to choose their way. It is not about what you want but what your clients want and understanding you definitely have very different clients -thus behaviours- within your portfolio. If people use their smartphone when they wake up, then the PC while at work and finally the tablet at night when they rest on the couch the experience during those different touchpoints should be as smooth as possible regardless of the device.
What do you think are the major challenges as far as m-commerce is concerned?
Besides focusing on user experience, the biggest concern seems to be related to privacy; which by the way it is funny if you consider that we have not found yet the perfect scenario on the web browsing. Now we have another platform called mobile where the vast majority of us have no idea what is happening with our personal info.
Similar to our Meet ME! functionality, now KLM's Meet & Seat and Malaysia Airlines' MHbuddy “social-seating” programmes allow passengers share their social-network profiles and pick seatmates before the flight. Right now you can just sign up for some Apps through your Facebook profile if you are willing to share your basic information, your profile information, your photos, the info people share with you, your data at any time… this “all or nothing” approach may act as a barrier for some of these ideas since a lot of people may do not understand how one thing is related to the other and what is that makes the experience so awesome that is worth it to share all that private info.
Another industry related concern to me is if everyone will be able to access this technology and take advantage of it at the same time. Our first website launched in 1997, one of the pioneers in Europe when the Internet penetration in the continent was not even 15 percent. Today, the Internet penetration in Europe is around 70 percent and we cannot imagine a hotel without a website. This evolution has been radically different on mobile and smartphones thanks to a fastest adoption rate. That combined with how some companies overpriced some of the first apps in the beginning –like with the first websites no one really knew what the real cost of an App was three years ago-has increased the mobile gap between hotels. Now we have hotels deploying their 3.0 version, while a large majority still does not even have their website adapted to these platforms. Fortunately we are seeing more and more app builder websites where for almost nothing everyone can create its own mobile basic app which should help reduce that gap.
What initiatives should travel marketers focus on in order to aid or drive m-commerce, be it for mobile search, mobile advertising/ promotion etc? For instance, it is recommended that one can capitalise on smartphones’ natural calling ability of phones and click-to-call phone numbers on websites and in ads to connect users to retailers to see if the store has the product in stock, get directions or find store hours.
We have seen a great response on our click-to-call mobile ads during the last two years. Also great response as well to some of the push notifications through the App. Definitely there is a major opportunity there since that is the one-to-one marketing we have been waiting for ages! Consider this: if I can send you personal communications with upgrade opportunities, exclusive rates, etc. right to your pocket and you have the opportunity to redeem them just with one click. Also that I learn from the things you accept and from the ones you reject so every time my offers are more close to your expectations. That is today easy to do with a mobile app.
One of the other great opportunities I see relates to the email marketing arena. We are all receiving and reading emails on our smartphones but still 99 percent of those emails are created to be read on desktops thus the experience of reading or interacting is so bad. I believe you should not send an email these days without checking first how it is going to be seeing on the different smartphones.
Then some of the other trends we are seeing include exclusive discounts on mobile sites.