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The HeBS Perspective: Hotel Mobile Apps vs. Hotel Mobile Websites

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The HeBS Perspective: Hotel Mobile Apps vs. Hotel Mobile WebsitesThe mobile Web has already become an important travel planning and transaction channel in the U.S. and worldwide. Hotel guests and travel consumers in general are already mobile-ready, and hoteliers and travel suppliers have to respond adequately to this growing demand for mobile travel services. Goggle reported back in October of 2010 that year-over-year mobile searches for hotels had increased by a staggering 7,000%. Industry experts project that the mobile Web will surpass the traditional web in size by 2013.

HeBS' own research and other industry sources show that between 1% – 1.5% of visitors to hotel websites already come from travel consumers accessing the hotel site via mobile devices. Sixty-seven percent of travelers and 77% of frequent business travelers have already used their devices to find local services (e.g. lodging) and attractions (PhoCusWright).

Here at HeBS, we are frequently asked by our hotel clients whether it makes sense for a hotel to develop its own mobile app or if the hotel should focus on developing and enhancing their mobile website.

Here is the HeBS Perspective on the subject:

Hotels do not need a mobile app if they are a single-property, independent hotel. Nor do franchised hotels and resorts or smaller and mid-size hotel chains and multi-property companies. These hotel companies are better off focusing on building and enhancing their mobile websites and promoting the mobile site via mobile marketing initiatives.

Here is why:

Mobile User Preferences:
The most recent eMarketer survey (October 2010) clearly shows that users prefer a mobile app only in the following three categories: social networking, music and games. For everything else they prefer to browse (i.e. search for mobile websites).

Mobile Apps vs. Mobile Browsing:
Social Networks (FB, Twitter)54%46%
Research Product/Services and Price19%81%
Comparing Products and Price29%71%
Reading Customer Reviews32%68%
Purchasing Product via Mobile Device37%63%

(Source: Adobe + eMarketer, October 2010)

In every other category that pertains to travel research, planning and purchasing, mobile users prefer to browse or search relevant mobile website content.

Strong Brand Recognition Needed for Success:
In hospitality, the success of a hotel mobile app is directly correlated to the strength of the hotel brand. Mobile apps make sense for a) well established hotel brands (e.g. Marriott, Hilton, Starwood, etc) with millions of members in their loyalty programs and b) only as an additional option to these brands' well-developed mobile brand websites. Smaller hotel companies' apps have little chance of being discovered by mobile users, let alone becoming popular.

Technological Boundaries between Mobile Apps and Mobile Browsing Are Disappearing:
With rapid advancements in mobile technology, the lines between mobile apps and mobile websites are disappearing. Newer, more sophisticated mobile devices, mobile operating systems and mobile browsers have enhanced the quality of the mobile web browsing experience tremendously: touch screen user experience, GPS and LBS (location-based services) capability, HTML5 rich media, video and audio enhancements, data storage and interactive functionalities. In 2011 you will be able to create a mobile website that does everything that a specially-designed mobile app would do.

A good hotel mobile app can cost $15,000 and up, based on custom design, functionality, interactivity, handling of heavy graphics, and even "sexiness". At the same time, a hotel mobile website is a much cheaper endeavor – a 10-page mobile website should not cost more than $1,500, including an integration of the mobile booking engine, Google maps, etc.

A well-developed mobile website is by default a cross-platform entity that can be viewed on all platforms capable of browsing e.g. iPhone, RIM (BlackBerry), Symbian, Google Android, Windows Mobile, etc. In contrast, a different app or a customized version of an app is needed for every major platform i.e. an app for iPhone, an app for Blackberry, an app for Google Android, etc. All of this greatly increases the cost of developing and maintaining the hotel mobile app.

There are more than 300,000 apps in the Apple App Store alone. Hundreds of apps are available for Google Android, BlackBerry, and now Windows Mobile. How do you promote your new hotel app? You need a very well defined strategy and special budget to promote your hotel app and break into the top list for your category (AdWhirl estimates $1,875 per day advertising budget can get you there, Pinch Media says the impact of being in the top 100 is a daily increase of 2.3x in the number of users).

A mobile website needs good mobile SEO and SEM (Search Engine Marketing) such as Google Mobile AdWords in order to reach potential customers looking for accommodations in your location.

Mobile apps can be viewed only on smartphones, which comprise roughly 50% of the mobile device marketplace today. In other words, after you develop expensive apps for iPhone, BlackBerry and Google Android smartphones, you will be reaching only half of potential mobile customers. A cross-platform mobile website will reach 100% of Internet-enabled mobile devices.

Smartphone "Screen Saturation":
The Mobile App Check, a nationwide survey of 3,500 male and 3,500 female adults (18+ years of age), has identified the most popular mobile apps and how they are used in the United States:
  • 80% of smart phone users reported having apps on their phones.
  • 30 mobile apps was the reported average number of apps per user.
  • 10 mobile apps were in regular use/per user.

The survey identified the top 10 apps cited among the male respondents: Google Maps (14%) followed by Facebook (13%), Pandora (6%), Weather (3.2%), ESPN (3.1%), Angry Birds (2.0%), Words With Friends (1.4%), Shazam (1.3%) and Yahoo (0.9%). Twitter and Yelp! tied for tenth place (0.8% each).

For female respondents the top 10 apps were: Facebook (27%), Google Maps (7%), Weather (5%), followed by Pandora (4.5%), Twitter (2.9%), Google (2.5%), Words With Friends (2.4%), Shazam (1.4%) and Solitaire (1.1%). Bank of America and Calendar tied for tenth place (0.9% each).

As we see from the survey results, excluding Google Maps, Weather.com and web search apps, the rest of the Top 10 apps were in the social media, entertainment and gaming realms. Not even a single travel app made it into the Top 10 list. Where is Expedia's app? Marriott's app? Delta Airlines' app? A hotel company, be it an independent or franchised hotel or resort, a small chain or multi-property company, has no chance of creating an app that can squeeze through the mobile app clutter and find its way to the mobile user's smartphone.

HeBS Recommends:
In 2011, independent or franchised hotels and resorts, as well as small and mid-size hotel chains and multi-property hotel companies, should focus on building and enhancing their mobile websites. The main focus should be:
  • Creating mobile-friendly textual and visual content that presents the hotel product well.
  • Enhancing the mobile user-experience via well-thought out mobile site navigation, a mobile booking engine widget, mobile calendar of events, etc.
  • Increasing website "discoverability" via mobile SEO and mobile SEM (e.g. Google mobile AdWords) and online media initiatives.
  • Making the mobile website more interactive via mobile-social media initiatives, interactive sweepstakes and contests.
  • Soliciting sign-ups to the mobile opt-in list via the traditional hotel website and the mobile website, via hotel email marketing campaigns and various sweepstakes and contests, such as interactive scavenger hunts, QR Code promotions, etc.
  • Tracking conversions and user behavior via mobile analytics (e.g. Omniture) and special tracking phone functionality.

On average, the share of mobile website enhancements and mobile marketing initiatives from the hotel 2011 Internet marketing budget should be 7%-8%.

About the Author and HeBS:
Max Starkov is Chief eBusiness Strategist at Hospitality eBusiness Strategies (HeBS). HeBS is an award-winning, full-service Internet marketing and Direct Online Channel Strategy firm, strictly dedicated to the hospitality and travel verticals. Having pioneered many of the "best practices" in hotel Internet marketing and direct online distribution, HeBS specializes in helping hoteliers profit from the Direct Online Channel and transform their websites into the hotel's chief and most-effective distribution channel, establish interactive relationships with their customers, and significantly increase direct online bookings and ROIs. Visit us online at www.hospitalityebusiness.com.

A diverse client portfolio of over 500 top tier major hotel brands, luxury and boutique hotel brands, resorts and casinos, hotel management companies, franchisees, independents, and CVBs has sought and successfully taken advantage of HeBS' hospitality Internet marketing expertise. Contact HeBS consultants at (212)752-8186 or info@hospitalityebusiness.com.
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