Mobile travelers increasingly call to book - travel companies must optimize call centersNews / Technology | OnlineBy Sean O'Neil | October 16, 2013Share This article was originally published on The typical travel company thinks it has adapted to the popularity of mobiles. But many act as if it's enough to provide travelers with a pretty app to download or a responsive website design that looks sharp on a small screen.Yet the ugly truth is that most of the travel industry has never quite found its niche in mobile. That is now changing, though, as the industry plays catch up with trends.A headline statistic comes from a July PhoCusWright study, Optimizing the Mobile Travel Experience, which found that mobile will account for 18% of the global online travel market next year. That figure includes leisure/unmanaged business travel gross bookings.Meanwhile, a May eMarketer mobile report forecasts mobile as the medium for processing 16% of digital travel sales in 2014. “By 2017, eMarketer estimates mobile travel sales will total nearly $50 billion, and account for almost 30% of all digital travel sales.”Share this quote Google research on call-to-bookOne side effect of this spiking growth in use of mobile phones is the "revenge of the call center," or the rising demand being placed on call center.Some experts had forecast that call centers would go extinct in the digital era. Yet many marketers have found they can boost click-through rates for mobile advertising by inserting a click-to-call option. The spread of that option is driving call center activity.This summer, Google hired Ipsos to survey 3,000 mobile searchers who had recently made purchases (including travel) to understand the role that click to call played in the process.The results showed that 58% of mobile searchers said they would use click to call to book hotel stays. And 68% said having the option to call during the purchase phase was important to them.Call-to-book behavior is prompting the travel industry to respond. For instance, in August Starwood opened a 120-person call center in Wichita.Upwardly mobileThe impact of mobile-phone adoption on the travel industry is the topic of new report by Eric Taylor, a senior analyst at the Marchex Institute, the research arm of Marchex, a call-based ad network based in Seattle.Marchex's report has some eye-catching findings about what travel companies could practically do to improve their conversion rates and lower their costs. Here are a few highlights:Calls from travelers requiring their loyalty information to be looked up in databases last nearly twice as long (17 minutes on average) as those that do not involve a look-up (9 minutes).Ironically, this means that the most loyal customers are often the most difficult to service. That's a state of affairs unlikely to change anytime soon, as consumers show no signs of memorizing their loyalty program numbers.Marchex suggests that travel companies "should implement technology that recognizes a loyalty member’s mobile number and automatically presents all relevant account info to the agent."Empower call centers to handle truly mobile travelersMany travel companies have been taken by surprise as mobile devices exacerbate many customers' innate procrastination. In a December 2012 study, Priceline found that 43% of same-day bookers were making reservations from vehicles.The problem for the industry is that the staff at call centers are often not trained to handle the specific questions that travelers have about properties. Calls are then forwarded directly to the hotels themselves -- a cost drain with a sour impact on conversion.Says Marchex: "In a recent analysis of hotel shoppers across providers, 47% of callers were interested in reserving a room within three days, three-quarters of which were interested in same day lodging."Share this quote "Among these hotel calls, 30% of the shoppers wanted to talk to hotel directly before booking. A common theme among these travelers is a lack confidence in a central reservations agent's ability to talk to location specifics like walkability to venues, nearby dining and entertainment or general neighborhood vibe."Share this quote Marchex concludes that "equipping call center agents with location editorial extending beyond a description of the physical structure of building and room would be a good start for instilling this needed confidence in mobile customers."Eye phones -- and eye call centersThe Marchex research follows on an earlier report on how travelers are adopting call-to-book behavior via mobiles.After several false starts, established travel players are adjusting their business models to suit the pace of mobile adoption.Improving the mechanics of call-to-book functionality appears to be an important next step. Call centers can be dramatically profitable if run properly for cross-selling and up-selling, says Marchex.