As more Americans own smartphones and iPads or other tablets, they are shopping for and booking more of their travel with hand-held devices.
The growth is dramatic. According to Travel Weekly's 2014 Consumer Trends survey, the percentage of travelers who have used a mobile device to purchase travel surged, from 23% in 2012 to 38% in 2014. (Read more from the Consumer Trends survey here.)
"We're seeing such an acceleration of the shift from desktop shopping and booking to mobile devices," said Norm Rose, senior technology analyst for PhoCusWright and president of Travel Technology Consulting. "We're seeing laptops replaced by tablets. The tablets are going to be stronger for shopping and smartphones stronger for purchasing travel."
PhoCusWright's studies suggest that consumers are using their mobile devices more for shopping than for booking travel, Rose said.
However, bookings are rising, with hotels and car rentals leading the way. Rose predicts that by the end of 2014, 50% of Americans will have booked some kind of travel product on a mobile device.
This includes on a new breed of mobile device that's a cross between a smartphone and a tablet -- the "phablet" -- that Rose predicts will lead to an explosion in travel bookings.
The reason is ease, convenience and 24-hour capability, he said.
"You can be sitting on the couch watching TV and searching for a hotel and booking it," Rose said. "You can do it anywhere. It's a lot different from shopping for travel and booking from a desktop."
Travel agencies and consortia are getting the message.
Tiffany Glass, COO of Travel Leaders Leisure Group and Vacation.com, said that travel agents today are more interactive with their customers and available at all hours.
"Agents are becoming more mobile and also are using social media, particularly Facebook, to engage one on one with each client while having broader conversations with their many followers," Glass said. "This means that agents need to be ready to respond not only to their clients' mobile interactions immediately but also to prospects."
Agents, she added, need to continually reinforce their value, because the benefits of using agents continues to trump new technology.
"The Internet was expected by some 'experts' to extinguish the travel agent," Glass said. "But the relevancy of the travel agency channel is stronger today than in 2004."
Agents 'adapting well'
Brian Hegarty, Travel Leaders Franchise Group's vice president of marketing and destinations, said that Travel Leaders has not seen technology take business from travel agents.
"Our agents are adapting well to the changes in technology and are becoming more flexible in meeting their clients' schedules," he said.
Since 2011, when Travel Leaders launched mobile apps for business and leisure clients, it has seen steady growth in traffic on the apps, and Travel Leaders executives say agents are not losing clients to the new technology.
Jeremy Van Kuyk, Travel Leaders' senior director of technology, observed that the "battle in the mobile app space appears to be more between supplier-direct and third-party [online travel agency] intermediaries battling for share of the online channel, more so than shifting share from offline to mobile."
At Los Angeles-based Montrose Travel, Chris Martin, leisure sales marketing manager, said that clients are primarily using smartphones for booking last-minute hotel rooms and car rentals and for shopping.
Montrose is launching mobile-optimized travel booking websites to ensure that its clients are served. Even so, Martin said the company is confident that traditional channels will endure.
"Mobile devices will certainly not be replacing agents," Martin said. "True, mobile can be a useful tool for on-the-go product research and some of the more simple booking processes, but many bookings are just more easily and conveniently done with the assistance of an experienced, live human being."
He added: "Putting aside the agent experience factor, one of the biggest killers of online bookings is the keyboard -- even more so on a smartphone. With all of the information required to book a flight, cruise or vacation, booking those product types can require a lot of 'hunt and peck' on that little screen."
To read the Consumer Trends report, click here.