Call it the dawn of a new travel age. Handy and powerful tablets and smartphones are becoming de rigueur for travelers, leading to dramatically different ways of researching, planning and actually taking a trip, as new travel apps and optimized websites spring to life on the small screens almost every day.
"Every travel agent should be embracing it," said Norm Rose, travel industry analyst with PhoCusWright. "The always-connected traveler needs the always-connected travel agent. You have to figure out how to be relevant in this new age of mobile."
Travel Weekly's 2013 Consumer Trends Survey underscores the surge in popularity of mobile devices: In 2012, 25% of respondents reported using a smartphone or tablet for purchasing travel online at any point in the previous 12 months. That number grew to 30% in this year's survey, representing a 20% increase. (Read more from the Consumer Trends report here.)
Just as importantly, the survey revealed that the percentage of the population using mobile devices for buying travel has grown beyond typical early adopters. While mobile users last year were predominantly in the 21-to-34 age group, over the past 12 months, older travelers have caught on.
Among ages 35 to 54, use of mobile devices to make a travel purchase climbed from 23% to 33%. An even bigger growth was reported among the 55-and-over crowd, where use of tablets or smartphones for travel purchases jumped from 14% last year to 24% this year.
What's more, Henry Harteveldt, industry analyst for Hudson Crossing, predicts that those percentages will skyrocket in all demographic groups in the coming year.
A recently released Hudson Crossing study concluded that if prices remain "reasonable" and the devices become even more appealing, with speedier and more accessible data downloading, 59% of travelers will own a tablet by the end of 2014 and 89% by the end of 2018. It's only a matter of time before mobile devices become the norm, Harteveldt said.
"As tablets support more functions and have more capability it will allow travelers to leave laptops at home," he said.
New apps by hotel companies and other travel firms are offering an array of products and services designed for travelers on the go, and they're often easier to use for booking than websites.
"They [travel suppliers] are streamlining the research and booking process for mobile compared to a desktop," Harteveldt said. "United, for example, has streamlined flight check-in to two steps on their app, whereas there are more steps on its website."
Suppliers are also enabling customers to store booking information on mobile devices so that they don't need WiFi or a data connection to access information.
Apps for mobile devices are currently geared to travelers while on trips, rather than for pretrip planning, Rose said.
"Smartphones, especially, are all about local search," Rose said. "It's about finding what's around you now, finding an alternative when a train is delayed or a last-minute hotel room."
And that, he said, is where traditional agents come in.
"It's an opportunity for travel agents to be involved," Rose said. "Just because travelers can go online and look for every hotel doesn't mean that they'll want to do it. Every agent should be embracing [mobile app] tools such as TripCase or Tripit and have ownership of their clients' itineraries."
Rose and Harteveldt agreed that the biggest change for agents is that they need to be connected at all times. Clients who carry smartphones or tablets on their travels will expect their agents to be available.
"Agents have to be there and be relevant in the conversation," Rose said. "The holy grail is expertise. If you can tell someone who's just found something on a travel app that it's not what [you] would recommend, that there's something better, well, that's gold."
Andi Mysza, president of Mtravel.com, a subsidiary of Montrose Travel, said that agents need to pay close attention to their clients' use of mobile devices.
"Anything that people can do at their fingertips affects us," Mysza said. "And it means we can join in that trend ourselves. Our agents who are proactively using new technology are very active in the mobile area."
Montrose Travel, No. 47 in Travel Weekly's 2013 Power List, already offers apps for corporate travel and is planning to have its website optimized for mobile devices.
Mysza is confident, however, that the apps will be used for impulse travel and last-minute purchases and not for the kinds of complex travel arrangements and exotic trips for which agents prove their value.
"That's our selling point," Mysza said. "Even though people can go out and easily research and do all these things, the pendulum is swinging back to agents, because consumers are getting confused and still need someone to untangle that glut of information."
Tiffany Glass, Vacation.com's vice president of e-commerce, technology and member services, said travelers don't want to be "overwhelmed with data."
"This competition requires the travel professional to be duly informed and use the consumer-facing websites and apps as well as agent-only information sources and differentiators that consumers cannot obtain," she said in an email interview.
Vacation.com stepped into the mobile field, offering GoSiteSee, a destination-guide app for travelers that stores info and thus doesn't use roaming charges.
It comes down to agents doing their jobs well, according to Jose Ferreira, Travel Leaders Franchise Group's vice president of travel technology and marketing.
"Our mobile solution for leisure consumers features custom itineraries delivered from the agent right to the consumer's smartphone or tablet," he said in an email interview. "The consumer is able to build upon that itinerary by viewing nearby points of interest, restaurants, etc. In both cases, the agency's contact information is a click away, allowing for immediate contact for any issue."
Ferreira added: "The core value proposition of a travel agent -- expertise, service and accountability -- does not change for the mobile 24/7 consumer. It's probably more important since they are looking for ways to sort through enormous amounts of information."
Read more from the Consumer Trends report here.
Airplane-tablet graphic courtesy of Shutterstock.com.