Tech Debate: Are mobile apps necessary for survival in the luxury travel sector?

Tech Debate: Are mobile apps necessary for survival in the luxury travel sector?

It seems de rigueur for mainstream suppliers to invest in mobile apps. For a consumer, having up to a dozen across multiple devices is not uncommon. But is this type of software necessary in the luxury travel sector? Do high-end travellers really demand that brands provide virtual, automated interactions?

This was the question posed at the Travel Weekly Group’s Connections Luxury event at the Yas Viceroy in Abu Dhabi by industry provocateur Ewan Macleod.

To stir discussion among delegates – from both the agency buyer and supplier communities – he predicted that businesses purveying products and services across the luxury sector supply chain faced extinction by 2019 if they did not develop consumer apps.

The Scotsman, who is the founder and editor of, believes all modern travellers, no matter their social status, expect seamless travel experiences. He cited numerous cumbersome processes at airports, hotels and eateries that could be simplified by the introduction of software.

“For example, why do I always have to sign for everything in a luxury hotel or resort,” he said. “The hotel should know who I am; I don’t want to have to provide a signature each time I require a service.”

Macleod used check-in and check-out kiosks at budget hotel brand Premier Inn to illustrate the type of efficiencies he believes should be emulated by suppliers of premium products, services and goods. “I still want my luxury experience, I just don’t want each step to take forever.”

The topic ignited great debate: After lengthy deliberations, a divide in the room was evident, though some common ground did exist. The side of the house backing Macleod’s prediction surmised: “The move towards mobile apps and seamless experiences can’t be stopped. If your company doesn’t address that demand, one of your competitors absolutely will,” they said.

“It is the only way to maintain and grow market share. Like in any segment of the travel industry, modern consumers expect a seamless, self-service experience; they want efficiency and control.

“For those who embrace technology, they see the future as a microchip in their head that interprets thoughts and desires, and creates a virtual, end-to-end process,” was their conclusion.

The opposing side was not, of course, anti-app. Its contention was luxury consumers do not demand apps and automation as much as the mass-market.

Elected to represent the contrarian view was Rob Sinclair-Barnes, Amadeus IT Group’s global director of strategic marketing. He said: “Purchasing an item like a can of Coke is functional, not luxury, and luxury is about experience rather than functionality.”

“Executive assistants are often used to make travel arrangements; it is important they don’t get anything wrong, and so they want to deal with people. Luxury travellers also expect tailored, bespoke, personalised products and services; it’s difficult to see how this could be provided via an app.”

Sinclair-Barnes’ group made the point that luxury travellers insist on using trusted brands, and are less likely, therefore, to use random apps for different products and services. It was added that many high-end travellers also use their leisure time to escape from mobile devices, which are so ubiquitous in their working lives. The concept of a ‘digital detox’ was becoming far more prevalent, according to the group.

Sinclair-Barnes concluded his side’s summary by reminding opponents that digital apps would not work in some of the world’s more remote luxury locations, such as the safari destinations Africa. A point difficult to refute, for now.

While there were no debate winners, it was clear to delegates to all that suppliers and intermediaries have to find the right balance. As one delegate said: “One size does not fit all; but if you don’t provide an app, or a seamless experience, you may lose your customer to someone who does.”

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