For years we’ve been told that "this year will be the year of mobile". Unfortunately, for many of us, this tiresome line became mundane and predictable years ago.
You can only go to so many conference that tell you that mobile is just over the horizon before you realize that, at the time, no one was ready for mobile.
Luckily, however, Apple and Google stepped up their game and it is now fairly safe to say that mobile has arrived.
But are businesses, specifically of the small tourism variety, any more ready now than they were ten years ago, when WAP and cHTML were the name of the game?
You’ve undoubtedly heard me previously mention the PhoCusWright report When they get there and why they go.
I’m going to mention it again because, in 2011 when the report came out, one of the most interesting snippets of data showed that 63% of consumers intended to use their mobile devices for booking in-destination tours and activities and that 39% had already done so.
This data is interesting because it shows that consumers - primarily those in the US - are already using their smartphones and tablets to do their bookings.
Based on our own Rezgo booking data, we know that the majority of bookings of direct to supplier in-destination bookings are made between three and seven days in advance of the activity date.
We have also seen booking using mobile devices grow from 12% last year to over 21% for the first and second quarters of 2012. For some of the operators we work with, bookings through mobile are as high as 30%.
Since travellers are favouring their tablets and smartphones during travel more than their laptops, I think it is safe to assume that this consumer intent will likely increase over time.
The issue is, however, that the majority of small tourism businesses that provide local in-destination tours and activities who are already struggling with how to handle e-commerce and advanced payments are now faced with the challenge of making their businesses mobile friendly.
For now, marketplace players like Viator and GetYourGuide have done a good job of making their websites mobile-friendly and building mobile apps.
These technologies allow their partners to benefit vicariously through their innovation. Do a search for "tours and activities" in the Apple App store, for example, and you’ll find that all of the applications are for services that re-sell other operator's services.
The chances of finding an app produced by an actual operator are extremely slim. The primary reason, besides the cost of creating such an app, is that an app for a single operator has little usefulness.
On a recent trip to Miami, we booked a dolphin encounter, a jet boat ride, and a sightseeing tour. Despite the fact that none of have had apps to download, there is no way I would have bothered downloading an app for each of these providers because I would most likely only use the app once and then delete it.
I did, however, visit the operator websites while in Miami and, sadly, none of them were mobile friendly.
Location-based service irrelevancy
In addition to app irrelevance, an issue that doesn’t seem to get discussed very often, is that location based services (which are a big part of the mobile ecosystem) are not relevant for many in destination tour operators.
Why? Because very few in-destination tour and activity operators operate out of their place of business.
Showing a traveler how close they are to an operator’s business address doesn’t really help. Almost all of the popular mobile location-based services work well for fixed locations like restaurants, attractions, or points of interest, but they don’t work well for tours.
Being able to show tours or activities regardless of operator however is much more relevant. This is where companies like Viator and GetYourGuide shine.
The Viator iPhone app, for example, shows you all tours close to you. Compare that to Google Local, for example, which will show you businesses (based on their address) close by. These are completely different searches with completely different relevance for the traveller.
Compare the results from the Viator app on the left and centre versus the Yelp
app on the right. The Viator app shows actual tours and allows you to book in destination. The Yelp app shows a travel agency listing - not very useful.]
Mobile is about communicating
So what are tourism businesses supposed to do when it comes to mobile? Is being listed in the Yelp app or the Yellow Pages useful to a tour operator looking for impulse travel customers?
In the pay-to-play world of mobile, small businesses simply cannot compete head to head with the big guns. Frankly there is little point in competing head on with the big players.
Generally speaking they have the marketing and development budgets to outspend any small operator. If possible, small operators should try to partner with the marketplaces so their tours and activities are available in their apps and mobile websites.
In addition to distributing through these channels, there are lots of web applications available now that allow small businesses to create mobile websites that are relatively inexpensive.
Services like Dudamobile, for example, allow small businesses to create a mobile friendly website with maps and click to call buttons for less than $10 a month.
If the operator is already using a platform like WordPress, there are plugins like the WPTouch that will automatically detect and convert a WordPress site into a mobile friendly version.
The key to winning the mobile battle for small business is understanding what travellers are likely to do when they are in destination.
If the traveler is looking for things to do, and therefore shopping around, a good portion (over a third of them) are likely to pick up brochures or rack cards to find out more about local tours and activities.
They may even do a search on Google for "Things to do in X". If they find one they want to do, they will call or go online on their mobile device to book. In this case, having a well optimized website with a mobile friendly interface and clear instructions on how to book are critical.
If the traveler has already booked the tour or activity and is looking to confirm their plans a day or two in advance, they will most likely refer to a printed voucher or email for contact information to call.
It’s generally unlikely that they will email an operator to confirm a reservation that’s only a day or two away, but they might. These travelers will most likely visit the operator's website to check for directions and to confirm travel times once in a location.
What to do
So an operator can focus their mobile optimized site to provide the following information:
- Address information and a map (preferably linked to Google Maps or the new Apple Maps application) for easy directions.
- A click to call button so the traveler can call the operator without having to dial the number.
- A click to email button in order to send an message to the operator.
- A mobile booking interface so that a traveler can book a tour or activity in real-time and get a confirmation on their phone.
That last one may be a bit of a stretch for most operators, but it is eventually where they will want to be. In the meantime, making it easy for the traveler to connect with the operator is a great place to start.
It's pretty safe to say that the age of mobile has arrived and that this year "is the year of mobile" .
In the same way the web became a ubiquitous part of our daily lives back in the 90s, mobile is now becoming just as commonplace.
Thankfully, the cloud and software-as-a-service (SaaS) web applications are making it easier and more cost effective for tourism businesses of all sizes to get mobile ready.
The challenge now, as back then with the internet, is ensuring operators understand the benefits of being mobile friendly and that they make the appropriate investments.
The consumer intent is there - the ability for tourism business to deliver is still in question.
NB:Phone and pin image via Shutterstock.