Tour ops cautious in embracing technology for phones, tablets

By Michelle Baran

Airplane and tabletPushing against the widespread image of tour operators as the Luddites of the travel industry, a handful are starting to invest in apps and mobile websites that enable both travel professionals and consumers to explore tour products on their tablets and smartphones.

Even so, these operators are the exception, and for the most part even they are focusing only on digital brochures and catalogs of their products, rather than on a fully interactive interface capable of taking bookings.

But in many cases there are sound reasons for the slow rate of adoption.

Last week, the Globus Family of Brands launched mobile websites for its Globus and Cosmos brands, making all four of its travel brands — including Monograms and Avalon Waterways, which launched mobile sites in late March and late 2012, respectively — accessible via mobile devices.

Steve Born, Globus’ vice president of marketing, said that implementing technology that offers both consumers and travel agents a mobile interface to the brands’ Web content will give Globus a competitive advantage, and he sees it as a necessary investment given the prevalence and continuing growth of smartphones and tablets.

“Tour operators and river cruise companies in the online space are not real innovators,” Born said, acknowledging the segment’s reputation for slow adoption.

But he said the company’s own research on mobile device usage revealed that in the travel segment, people are using their mobile devices not just to search airfares and hotels but increasingly to search for packages. Already, he said, Avalon is drawing 10% of its total Web traffic from the mobile site that Globus launched for the brand several months ago.

When the company conducted research on tour operators with mobile sites, “We only found one other tour operator at the time who had a mobile site — one student operator,” Born said. “It seemed like a real opportunity.”

Many tour operators acknowledge the pervasiveness of travelers and agents using mobile devices to access Web content, but they say they’re not yet convinced that the time is right to provide mobile sites and apps.

A spokesman for G Adventures, for example, acknowledged that a large portion of the traffic to its websites arrives via mobile devices. He added that the company is aware of the potential of a mobile interface and is looking into “bringing the G experience to the mobile space for both consumers and the agent community in the future.”

Noel Fitzgerald, director of agency and supplier relationships for the online booking provider VAX VacationAccess, said her company also recognizes that a mobile interface needs to be part of its strategy going forward.

She wrote that VAX “is aware of the growing demand” for such an interface, “and as we continue to improve and evolve the site, we will consider the mobile strategy.”

Fitzgerald said VAX knows that many agents already use their tablets and phones to make bookings on the VAX website, so the company is looking into design and functionality enhancements that will improve that experience.

For the Travel Corporation, the issue is where best to invest. And for now, said TravCorp President Richard Launder, money is better spent working with agents via existing technology rather than overhauling the company’s mobile capabilities. He noted that most of the company’s numerous tour operator brands “are very travel agent-centric and so tend to invest in their sales teams instead.”

In fact, travel agents interviewed for this report said they were not necessarily looking to do bookings on a mobile app or site because tour itineraries are often too complicated to complete on a handheld device. What they would find really helpful, they said, is mobile technology that would enable them to access client reservations and destination information while on the move.

“As a travel consultant, I would love to see more tour operators use mobile technology for booking support,” said Leah Smith, president of Garden Grove, Calif.-based Tafari Travel. “I am often traveling or on the go, and being able to access client reservations or even make payments through a mobile app would really help me do my job, whether I am on the road or in the office.”

Smith said the most useful mobile technology that tour operators could provide would be the ability to send itineraries, photos and destination information to her clients via mobile interfaces.

Lesley Egbert, owner of Helena, Mont.-based Longitude Travel, said she, too, would be reluctant to book through apps.

“It’s too much detailed information to enter without a keyboard,” she said. “I find the iPad too glitchy and my Android phone too small for the things I need to do.”

She would, however, still like the ability to access bookings and make modifications to them via mobile. And she said she is constantly using mobile apps for research.

Contiki Holidays, a TravCorp brand that focuses solely on the 18- to 35-year-old demographic, introduced a mobile website in January 2012 and followed that up in September with an iPhone app and, more recently, with an Android app. Contiki reports that 30% of its Web traffic comes from mobile users.

As of now, Contiki doesn’t offer booking capability via the mobile site or app.

“We don’t really see it as a preferred booking channel,” Contiki USA President Melissa da Silva said of the app, which the company calls Shout. She said Contiki’s app was created primarily for consumers. In fact, Shout is intended to be used only after travelers book to help them connect with other travelers on their trip.

As for the trade, “if the travel agent community wanted to book through a mobile site, we would definitely support that,” da Silva said. But she noted that the majority of travel agents still call the reservation center to make bookings, or they book online at the company’s website.

Some agents expressed concern that mobile technology could become a way for tour operators to reach consumers directly and bypass agents.

Smith, for example, said that rather than focus on consumer-interfacing mobile technology, “I would love to see tour operators create mobile technology that aids our efforts in selling their trips.”

The Globus mobile sites are a good example of an operator doing just that.

Globus does not yet offer booking capability on its mobile sites, which have two main functions: a search feature, so that customers and agents can browse available tours, packages and river cruises; and a travel agent locator function, to connect customers with retailers.

Tours remain a complicated product to book, and mobile sites and apps usually contain less product information. “You have to connect [consumers] to a human being who can provide them with that information,” Born said.

Despite the slow pace of adoption by tour operators and the reluctance of both operators and agents to add booking capabilities, Resmark Technology, a Salt Lake City-based software company, recently developed a mobile booking system that enables clients to book tours and activities on their smartphones or tablets.

Resmark’s founder, Brandon Lake, said that if tour companies have online booking capabilities, they should be able to translate that into mobile booking capabilities with relative ease — with one major exception.

“For a company that has a custom [online booking] system that they’ve developed, it could be very difficult to go to mobile,” Lake said, because “they could be so pigeonholed into desktop.”

In addition, Lake acknowledged that for some larger tour operators with complicated systems, the “big hurdle is really budget.”

Nevertheless, mobile is clearly the future. The ability to book tours and packages on their smartphones or tablets is the direction customers and agents are headed, Born noted. And it’s where tour operators are going to have to be sooner or later.

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly. 

Airplane/tablet illustration courtesy of Shutterstock.com. 

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