Apps to assist agents, not replace them

By Johanna Jainchill
Johanna JainchillThe latest data suggest that you are very likely reading this column on your iPhone or Android phone.

Mobile is big. And there's no denying that smartphones are changing the way we all research, shop and communicate -- a trend that people in the travel industry recognize and are trying to tap into.

But it is unclear how travel agents, whose top asset is personalized service, can best use this technology.

Should agents invest in mobile applications and mobile-enhanced websites that enable their clients to book trips from their phones? Are they better off offering their clients the ability to research products and destinations? Should they enable clients to make reservations, get directions and read user reviews?

Here's what we do know. Statistics from research firm PhoCusWright show that smartphone ownership among leisure travelers is already more than half, at 52%, and for business travelers it has reached 73%.

Those numbers naturally skew higher among younger people, meaning that the next generation of travelers is going to be even more comfortable on smartphones.

Looking at the general population, mobile phones are set to surpass personal computers for Internet access by 2015.

What PhoCusWright also found, in a recent report titled "Mobile Hits the Mainstream: Leisure and Business Travel Trends," is that what most travelers are doing on their smartphones is looking for content; actually booking on them is still nascent.

Travelers are comfortable searching on their mobile phones for information, but much less willing to buy. The report found that almost half (49%) of online leisure travelers using mobile phones are either "very" or "somewhat uncomfortable" making mobile purchases that require them to enter a credit or debit card number. And a full 74% of leisure travelers and 64% of business travelers said they have not reserved or purchased travel products such as hotel rooms or flights. Even fewer have purchased extras while traveling.

However, 40% of leisure travelers and 39% of business travelers use apps to research local activities such as restaurants and shows, and almost as many use them to view maps and get directions.

Based on this research, companies like Travel Leaders Group appear to be on the right track with their app development focus. Two Travel Leaders brands -- the Travel Leaders Franchise Group and Vacation.com -- recently unveiled mobile apps that offer their leisure clients itinerary and booking information as well as destination information, a GPS tracking system and maps.

V-com agents can personalize the app with their own logo, agency description and contact information.

"After [clients] buy the trip from you, do you want them going to a TripAdvisor app or do you want them to have your agency's branded mobile app?" Stephen McGillivray, chief marketing officer for Travel Leaders Group, asked at V-com's national conference last month.

Travel Leaders' leadership has stressed that these apps do not offer clients the ability to do things that would potentially bypass the travel agent. Instead, as Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Franchise Group, said about its new app, it enables clients to "take their agents with them virtually on a trip."

"The entire reason why we're investing in mobile app technology, both on the business and leisure sides, is to further enhance the level of service our Travel Leaders agents are able to provide their clients," Block said. "Instead of providing apps to enable consumers to book directly, each app underscores the continued need for a trusted travel adviser's counsel and help throughout the booking process. Nothing in our business or leisure app is intended to take the place of the travel agent, but rather to repeatedly convey the value that a great travel agent can bring to a traveler's experience."

Barry Liben, Travel Leaders Group CEO, said that while the company must be at the forefront of mobile technology, it will never build apps that replace agents.

"We start from a proven premise that travel agents represent the world's greatest search engine," Liben said. "Strategically, we've been very careful to ensure that nothing Travel Leaders Group undertakes in development and implementation of mobile app technology will undermine our fundamental premise. So given that premise, we view mobile app technologies as a way for our agents to create additional touch points throughout their travel experiences by strengthening the bond they already have with their clients."

Travel Leaders is not the only travel seller taking this kind of approach to mobile.

Signature Travel Network debuted a mobile app in November called the Pocket Travel Consultant, which provides clients with information on hundreds of cities around the world and is also customized with each Signature member's branding.

Online retailer iCruise.com was among the first travel companies to launch an app, back in 2010. Called the Cruise Finder, it offers users extensive information on cruise lines, ships and thousands of itineraries through the company's database.

The Cruise Finder has multiple search options, enabling users to find cruises by destination, departure date, departure port, cruise line or cruise ship.

ICruise.com's co-president, Uf Tukel, noted back then that a lot of vacation "discussion and planning occurs away from a personal computer."

Two years later, Tukel said the app is still not about completing a booking.

"A small percentage of all cruises are booked end-to-end online, and as you can imagine, an even smaller percentage would book online using a mobile device," Tukel said. "While the number of actual bookings on mobile devices is small, the usage of mobile devices to plan a trip is significant and growing."

Tukel said the app has opened a whole new channel of business for his company that didn't exist five years ago.

"Vacation prospects will use whichever channel is most convenient to them when they are ready to start thinking about their trip," Tukel said. "Quite often, that happens to be when they are holding their cellphones. As a result, our apps have brought us new clients who may not have found us otherwise."

Email Johanna Jainchill at jjainchill@travelweekly.com and follow her on Twitter @JJainchillTW. 
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