People who travel the world on packaged trips or guided
tours have traditionally clung to the paper documents they receive before their
trip, an excitement-inducing package of information containing all their travel
Even as tour operators have attempted to steer customers
away from costly paper documents by, for example, emailing their clients
PDF versions of the same documents, customers have resisted, asking instead for
their beloved paper packs (preferably sent along with a branded document
holder, travel bag and/or baseball cap).
But as the use of smartphones and tablets becomes
significantly more widespread across demographics, there is renewed hope on the
horizon of weaning customers off their physical travel documents and converting
them to a digital version of those documents, not via email but by way of
downloadable mobile applications.
As of last year, mobile apps downloaded onto smartphones and
tablets took over the No. 1 spot for how the majority of all digital media is
consumed in the U.S., according to the U.S. Mobile App Report, an in-depth
study into mobile app usage released last year by Internet technology company comScore.
The report found that apps drive the vast majority of media consumption
activity on mobile devices, with 88% of activity on smartphones coming from
apps vs. 12% from standard Web browsing, and 82% of online tablet activity
driven by apps vs. 18% by standard Web browsing.
Consequently, tour operators who have been holding off on
investing in mobile for a variety of reasons are finally starting to look more
seriously into mobile app technology, and they are doing so in growing numbers.
The latest high-profile convert is Trafalgar, which after years of delivering
travel details on paper and e-docs is preparing this month to launch a mobile
app called myTrafalgar.
The myTrafalgar app, developed in-house in collaboration
with a technology company, will enable those who download the app to access all
their trip information, connect with other guests as well as with their travel
director, share their experiences on social media, view images and learn about
future trips. Guests will be able to download the app via the App Store or
Google Play using their booking code to log in.
A countdown feature on the myTrafalgar app shows travelers how many days, hours and minutes are left until their trip.
“The myTrafalgar mobile app is designed to improve and
personalize the on-trip experience,” said Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar
USA. He said that downloading the app before the trip gives guests the
opportunity to connect with their travel director before the trip begins, and
the travel director, in turn, can learn more about his or her group in advance
to better customize the experience. Once the trip is underway, the app will help
facilitate social connections made while the group is traveling together.
“One of the common sentiments expressed by guests is how
much they appreciated meeting new people within their travel group and the
shared experience within a destination,” Wiseman said. “The app enables easy
connectivity to new friends even sooner, rather than waiting for the trip to
end, and encourages social engagement with family and friends through image
sharing and journaling.”
Wiseman emphasized that the app is not intended to replace
traditional paper documentation but rather is being offered in addition to it.
Trafalgar isn’t the only tour operator to see the value in
connecting with customers via mobile. Anticipating the new wave of customers
who want to be able to access all their travel documents, itineraries, boarding
passes, e-tickets and weather on their smartphones and tablets, the British
company Vamoos expanded into the U.S. market this summer, joining a small but
growing group of companies that are developing mobile app technology
specifically geared toward tour operators and travel agents.
“I tried to understand why there wasn’t any activity going
on in mobile,” said Tony Bean, director of Appex Mobile, which developed the
Vamoos white-label mobile app technology.
Bean came up with the idea for Vamoos after returning from a
ski vacation. Although he had a great customer experience, he couldn’t
understand why there wasn’t a way to have all his trip information in a single
place on his smartphone. What he found after researching the mobile space is
that when it comes to tour operators, “there are only a few companies that can
afford the build cost of a new app.”
Three years ago, the Globus family of brands became one of
the frontrunners in the U.S. tour operator mobile app space when it launched
its Passport to Travel app as well as mobile-friendly customer service sites
for its four brands: Globus, Cosmos, Monograms and Avalon Waterways.
Since it was launched, there have been more than 10,000
downloads of the Globus app, and the most popular function is the ability to
view itineraries. So far this year, 40% of the company’s website traffic comes
from mobile; mobile-driven website traffic has increased 14% this year over
But until recently, only the larger tour operators have had
the financial resources to invest in mobile technology; for smaller operators,
it has not been a worthwhile or attainable goal. Not only is mobile app
development costly, but it was unclear whether and how much customers would use
technology instead of traditional paper or emailed documents. Only recently, as
mobile technologies have become ubiquitous, has a growing number of tour
operators taken the leap of faith into mobile.
The myTrafalgar app includes a journaling function, which allows users to take notes and upload photos of their trip.
Frederic de Pardieu, CEO of Montreal-based mTrip, which has
been providing mobile app solutions to tour operators since 2009, said part of
the reason for the delay in going mobile is that until now, operators have been
much more focused on getting their websites up to speed. Even in the mobile
age, creating a great website is still much easier and more cost-effective than
developing a solid app, he said.
De Pardieu said he has only begun marketing to U.S. tour
operators seriously for the last year as interest in mobile began to pick
“For a website, they can hire a developer or a designer and
do it on their own,” he said. “If you go to the mobile space, if you want to do
something that is really adding value, if you don’t want to only show flight
and accommodation, if you want to go further in terms of planning and guidance,
there is a technology barrier.”
And it can cost tour operators upward of $100,000 to
$200,000 to get past that barrier, he added.
What companies like Vamoos and mTrip hope to do is to give
operators the opportunity to tap into existing mobile technology templates with
accessible pricing. The cost of Vamoos, for example, averages around $1.50 per
passenger for the operators and travel agencies that sign up for the
Tour operators can then customize the look and feel of the
When he launched Vamoos in the U.K. last year, Bean said, he
wanted the app to be available to “all tour operators, whether they’re the
smaller ones or the ones with deep pockets. Technology is supposed to be an
equalizer, a democratizer. We have very small operators who find it’s a very
good value for them, and we’ve actually signed a very large operator in the
U.K. who also finds it to be a very good value.”
For the most part, the mobile app technology that currently
makes the most sense for tour operators does not actually have much, if any,
In this beginning stage of mobile adoption by operators, the
most popular apps compile and organize all the travel documents that would
normally be delivered to clients on paper or as PDF email attachments, provide
multichannel communication options and, hopefully, enable companies to stay in
touch with customers once they return from their trips.
An example of an app developed by mTrip.
They serve as a value-add and marketing tool rather than as
a booking transaction tool. App developers note, however, that during the app
development and customization phase, companies that want to build in booking
functionality can certainly do so, though at an added cost.
Given the wide variations in the pace of adoption and levels
of technology in the market at this point, there really is no way to calculate
a clear-cut potential return on investment for mobile technology, which of
course stands as yet another hurdle in justifying the investment.
Yet common sense suggests there is great long-term value in
creating a mobile app that customers can download to their smartphone or
tablet, because the technology is about staying connected to customers, learning
about their needs and ultimately keeping them engaged before, during and after
“For us, both the app and the mobile-enabled sites have been
about improving access and ease of use for travelers, rather than a straight
ROI,” said Steve Born, Globus’ senior vice president of marketing. “Our
evaluation of these tools has been as gateways to further research rather than
App developers agree that companies that invest in mobile
will get a combination of increased customer satisfaction from users who engage
with and appreciate the app’s functionality, the ability for an operator to
maintain a more consistent connection with the customer and the opportunity to
generate future bookings based on information gathered during app usage.
Additionally, travel apps can help facilitate social media
interaction, which can serve as a great marketing tool for tour operators if
passengers are snapping photos and sharing their experiences while on the road.
For customers concerned about their ability to access
content while roaming internationally, most, if not all, of the apps being
developed for the tour operator space are designed to have features such as
itineraries that can be downloaded prior to the trip so that they can be
accessed without using WiFi or other data sources.
There are already numerous popular apps in the travel space
that do a lot of what the apps being developed by and for individual tour
operators do, including apps such as TripIt, TripCase or CheckMyTrip.
But according to de Pardieu, tour operators shouldn’t be
discouraged by the prevalence of these heavyweight travel-itinerary apps, which
he said are geared more toward business travelers who predominantly need to be
able to access their flight information and accommodation details. The
opportunity for tour operators is to go beyond simple logistics.
An example of a Vamoos mobile app interface.
“Our goal is really to provide something that is used from
the time the trip is booked,” de Pardieu said, emphasizing the important role
apps can play in generating pre-trip excitement by offering detailed
itineraries and destination information.
While he does not see
these apps as a primary booking tool, he suggested that tour operators and
travel agents can also use apps to promote optional excursions and add-ons
closer to the departure date, when customers are more likely to begin thinking
about their detailed travel plans.
As with the Trafalgar app, there is also the opportunity to
enable guests to connect with the tour guide or with past and present clients,
including through social media, in advance of the journey.
Once customers are on the road, tour operator apps can
essentially serve as a travel concierge service. Some of mTrip’s clients, for
example, have opted for a function that gives customers suggestions for what to
do during their free time in a destination, based on their individual
preferences, what is popular in the region and what establishments are open
during their free time.
As travel companies big and small race to get into the app
game and develop loyalty through app usage, tour operators are entering a
market already rife with noise. Beyond the TripCases and TripIts, everyone,
from the airlines to the OTAs, already has their own apps.
“Everyone is going on the trip now with their smartphone,”
de Pardieu said. “If [tour operators] want to survive, they need to go in this
direction, also. They have to fight to keep the client with them and to not
have the client go to the airline app.”
The winner in any tug-of-war for the client, he asserted,
“will be [the one] who owns the client during mobility. The [app] that will be
used is the one where you have the relationship.