Opinion: The mobile opportunity for travel operators

Opinion: The mobile opportunity for travel operators

Justin Cooke is CEO of Fortune Cookie, a digital agency for brands including ebookers, De Beers and Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

My involvement with the travel industry has lasted nearly two decades and 15 of those have been online. Like many of you I’ve got a pretty good sense of how the industry has changed over the years.

At times it has felt that change was endemic and days and years go by in a blink of an eye but when one gets a chance to step back, one thing that strikes me is that in recent years we have seen a slowdown in the level of real innovation in the travel sector, relative to other industries.

We all know that the introduction of CRS (central reservation systems) and GDS (global distribution systems) and the creation of a global network of connected reservation hubs changed the game. The 1990s saw the rise of the low-budget airlines, pioneered by EasyJet and Ryanair and in the noughties it was time for the online travel agencies to shine. Then, as more of us have become dependent on the Internet, aggregators and online review sites have come in to their own.

But in the last few years, when you really look at it, there has been very little innovation. In fact, other than Zipcar I am struggling to think of any recent developments that have made a significant impact. We all know travel is a low-margin business and as a result it’s challenging to find capital to fuel innovation. It’s true to say travel has had its fair share of issues recently – SARS, tsunamis, volcanoes, rising fuel prices and as I write, one of the UK’s first and best-loved travel companies, Thomas Cook, faces an uncertain future.

Perhaps the industry is in such turmoil that it’s too risky to innovate? I’m not sure I believe that. When it comes to the travel industry, the one area that is crying out for innovation is mobile. No-one can have failed to notice the amazing rates of mobile adoption and the rise of mobility the world over. For the travel industry, which by its very nature is all about being mobile, this reluctance to capitalise on the mobile opportunity is curious. (I accept that the mobile operators haven’t always made it easy and confusing overseas tariffs and data consumption charges have stalled things somewhat, but things are starting to change.) While there are some exciting applications in the marketplace at the moment, there is no killer mobile app for the travel sector. But what better time to try to create something that’s truly disruptive – and change the industry for good.

Online travel company ebookers is an example of one company that is using the mobile opportunity to create a better experience for its customers, and fuel growth. Recognising its customers’ reliance on the Internet to source travel-related information, ebookers created the industry’s first social media travel app. The ebookers Explorer app pulls together socially-generated content from across the internet, tailored to the destination the user is looking to explore, and delivers it in an easily digestible travel magazine format. The fact that the app has become a top 5 app in 104 countries underlines travellers’ appetites to consume information in this way.

Another company blazing the mobile trail is Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH). Tapping into consumers’ love of all-things mobile, it created an iPhone booking and information app, which enabled its guests to find and book any SLH hotel, share their favourite hotels and experiences with friends and family on FaceBook, Twitter or by email, and get expert, personal recommendations for local points of interest while exploring the area around their hotel.

For the travel industry, I genuinely believe that mobile could be the ‘silver bullet’. If travel operators focus their customer and business strategies around the web and mobile technologies, they might just be able to better capture data in a way that enables their businesses to develop better products for customers, and ultimately, fuel business growth. Give it a try. What have you got to lose?

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