Bookings via mobile apps soar


 Correction: Orbitz did not commission the Atmosphere Research Group study on smartphone user habits. Smartphone 

New research suggests that U.S. travel bookings through smartphones may have doubled in the past year, as more travelers buy the devices and more suppliers and travel intermediaries produce a broader range of travel apps.

Almost 40% of the nearly 2,400 smartphone users surveyed by Atmosphere Research Group said they intended to use their mobile device to book a hotel stay, while 27% indicated a willingness to use their iPhones to reserve hotel rooms, book car rentals and buy airplane tickets.

“More than a third of online travelers are interested in actually sealing the deal [through mobile devices],” said Jeffrey Breen, president and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group. “Those numbers are only going to increase.”

Granted, the Atmosphere Research study, indicated that smartphone owners are still more likely to use the devices to perform same-day travel activities, such as making a restaurant reservation or buying theater tickets, than they are to purchase a hotel room or plane ticket.

Still, Orbitz, which publicized the study as it unveiled an updated version of its free iPhone app on June 21, said 9% of its first-quarter hotel bookings had been made on mobile devices. That was more than double the figures for the same quarter in 2011.

More than half of Orbitz’s hotel bookings through mobile devices are for same-night stays, indicating that smartphones are becoming an especially effective way for travelers to secure last-minute deals.

“It isn’t just about looking at stuff on the iPhone and doing the serious business on the computer at home,” said Chris Brown, Orbitz’s vice president of product strategy. “Mobile has the ability to provide travel-planning on the fly.”

Brown said the company had been developing its all-in-one travel application since last September.

Mobile’s growing impact on all areas of retail sales has been fueled by surging sales of Apple’s iPhones, Research in Motion’s BlackBerrys, phones running Google’s Android operating system and other mobile devices.

More than 145 million smartphones were shipped globally during the first quarter, up 41% from a year earlier, research firm Strategy Analytics said in April.

Last year, smartphone shipments jumped 58% from 2010, to 472 million units, and accounted for almost a third of all mobile devices sold, research firm Gartner reported in February.

As a result of the devices’ snowballing popularity, mobile has been having a huge impact in the travel-shopping arena.

In a June 13 webinar, PhoCusWright reported that last year, mobile leapfrogged print publications and travel brochures when it came to methods prospective travelers used to shop for their trips.

Carroll RheemIn 2011, 16% of those surveyed by PhoCusWright used their mobile device to shop for trips, up from 11% in 2010, while the percentage of those shopping through print publications fell from 18% to 13%, Carroll Rheem, PhoCusWright's director of research, said during the webinar.

At stake is what’s expected to be a growing chunk of the expanding U.S. online travel market. Annual U.S. online leisure bookings, which account for about 40% of total bookings, will jump to about $124 billion in 2012, from $109 billion last year, PhoCusWright predicted in a report released last November. (PhoCusWright and Travel Weekly are both owned by Northstar Travel Media.)

And while PhoCusWright estimated that mobile accounted for less than 1% of total travel bookings last year, that figure could jump to more than 4% of total bookings by the end of this year.

Additionally, one factor that could further amplify the impact of mobile is that smartphones are most likely to be embraced as a booking tool by the youngest adult travel group, whose travel-spending habits are more volatile than those of older groups.

PhoCusWright estimated the typical traveler age 18 to 24 spent $2,718 on travel in 2011. While that number trailed the overall adult average of $3,109, it marked a 19% jump from a year earlier.

Still to be determined is what impact the growth of mobile bookings will have on the battle for distribution share between suppliers and intermediaries.

Breen said that single-purpose suppliers such as hotel chains might have an opportunity to boost reservations through mobile devices by appealing to loyalty members and producing smartphone apps that streamline the reservation process.

Not surprisingly, Orbitz’s Brown pitched OTAs as the easiest method for mobile travel booking. Smartphone users without the luxury of a large screen, full keyboard and multiple windows will be more likely to book through OTA apps that enable one-stop bookings for hotels, car rentals and airplane reservations, he said.

“There are a ton of surprises left,” Rheem said of technology and its effect on a travel industry on the rebound. “Disruptive technologies are continuing to change behaviors and preferences.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Follow Danny King on Twitter @dktravelweekly. 


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