Host agencies help retailers forge ahead with mobile technology

By Kate Rice
HostMobilePlatformsWhen it comes to profitably exploiting the business potential of mobile technologies, many agencies and agents have been well ahead of the curve.

And frequently, these have been home-based travel retailers taking advantage of solutions provided by forward-thinking hosts.

Jeff Anderson, vice president of marketing for Avoya Travel/American Express, whose affiliated agents have full access to Avoya’s technology platform on their handhelds and tablets, said the host agency opted early on to build a browser-based technology platform. That immediately put Avoya on the path to mobile.

“We were using mobile significantly eight years ago,” Anderson said. Avoya was first able to do mobile bookings in 2006 with the Palm Treo 700, and since then its platform has offered everything agents need to do business, from customer relationship management to booking engines.

“All the functionality they have on their desktop is 100% available to them on their iPhone, iPad and Android platforms,” Anderson said.

Avoya has tweaked its technology, making sure its platforms are “thumb-friendly.” Its server recognizes what kind of device is accessing it so it can adjust the browser’s text size and screen resolution accordingly.

Avoya’s LiveLeads program, which drives leads to agents, is also built for mobile; if agents are not at their desks, leads are pushed to their handhelds via text.

Cruise Planners’ ERez mobile enables its home-based agents to run their businesses from the palm of their hand, said Vicky Garcia, the host’s executive vice president of sales and marketing.

Michael Consoli, a Cruise Planners franchisee, said that ERez mobile enables him to make a booking from anywhere in the world using an iPad or iPhone. He can send a customized quote from any device that automatically updates. That means if the price changes between the time he sends it and the moment his client opens the quote, it will update automatically.

Consoli, who said he had booked a Royal Caribbean cruise using his iPad minutes before he was interviewed for this report, does a lot of group business, and he said he can work on a group on his handheld.

This kind of easy and instant access is one reason Consoli was named Royal Caribbean’s Southeast Partner of the Year and was Viking River Cruises’ Top Travel Advisor for 2012.

Besides B2B tools, Cruise Planners has a B2C white-label app for its agents, which enables their customers to find vacations and book them from within the app. It lets them access travel reservations and see the destination they’ll be visiting, check out the weather and get directions.

The app has social functions that enable clients to share that trip with friends and family. The agent’s business name and contact information are embedded in the app.

Virtuoso is revamping its technology platform for its agents to make it mobile-friendly, according to David Kolner, senior vice president of consumer acquisition for Virtuoso. It began the redesign about a year ago, and a key goal was to make it tablet- and handheld-friendly.

David KolnerSome agents are testing the new site now, Kolner said. They can access the more than 1,000 hotels in Virtuoso’s hotel program, refine the search to see the ones that will fit the client and access the Little Black Book that includes contact information for each property, commissions and other information.

“How many people work while sitting on a couch with a tablet while watching ‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ and thinking about what property is right for a client or what cruise looks good to them for a client?” he said.

Virtuoso, which is also revamping its consumer website, is following principles of consumer website design for its agent site, rather than travel industry conventions. That’s being done to accommodate new entrants who might go into shock when presented with the legacy green screen of a GDS, Kolner said.

Virtuoso has also given the mobile-friendly treatment to Composer Reports, a management reporting tool that synchronizes with members’ back-office systems and CRMs. Members can check their total sales, their performance with preferred suppliers, client activity, individual agent activity and other data while on the go.

“It’s not like people are sitting at a desk all day long,” Kolner said. “They are in Bora Bora, on a cruise ship, on a river cruise, in Antarctica.”

Virtuoso also has a B2C mobile tool called Travel Folio, which agents can use to quickly send up to three options for a client. It is a social tool, which means they can extend it to friends and family members who can vote for or comment on the choices.

Travel Leaders Franchise Group, which has several mobile apps for corporate travel managers, this spring introduced a leisure travel app for agents to provide to clients for use on their vacations: a mobile version of Travel Leaders’ “Personalized Travel Planner” that provides destination content.

It uses augmented reality technology, which means users can point a device at a landmark or attraction to learn about it, as well as get information such as business hours and admission fees.

RogerBlock“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,” said Roger Block, president of the Travel Leaders Franchise Group. “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.”

Vacation.com announced a post-purchase mobile app last summer called GoSiteSee. Once the client buys a trip, the agent can input the traveler’s itinerary: flights, hotels and recommended points of interest.

Other highlights include pictures, reviews, maps, and navigation. The application also enables trip sharing; clients can write a trip journal and post pictures and postcards online and via email.

Vacation.com’s AirPro and CruisePro are Web-based and mobile friendly; agents can make bookings on them using handhelds and tablets.

CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. will be launching mobile-friendly websites in Q2, according to a company spokesperson. The goal is to make it easier for customers to shop from their phones, search for their local agent, sign up for the email newsletter and find cruise itineraries.

Liberty Travel is developing its mobile technologies; consultants at its Madison Avenue flagship store in New York have access to Liberty’s full suite of booking tools on their iPads.

Even GDSs are going mobile. Travelport, which last October introduced a mobile app, in November significantly upgraded the product, bringing complete green-screen functionality to Apple and Android devices.
Jason Coleman
The host agency Oasis said its online booking tool, Freedom, scheduled to be launched in the first quarter, will be tablet friendly.

Some suppliers provide agents with mobile enabled websites. Royal Caribbean’s CruisingPower is one. Starwood Hotels and Resorts’ two agent websites, StarwoodPro.com and StarwoodMeetings.com, are both smartphone- and tablet-friendly.

And, of course, agents can also use their handhelds to access supplier websites even if the site is not mobile-enabled.

One agent sees suppliers as lagging when it comes to providing mobile tools for agents.

“None of my preferred suppliers have travel agent apps that I can use to book clients,” said Jason Coleman, president of Jason Coleman Inc. “Suppliers are behind the curve on this one. Thankfully, most of their travel agent websites work on my iPad, fewer on my iPhone, so I can still book clients that way, but it’s a challenge.”

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly. 
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