The two major trends in travel technology today are mobile apps and inspirational search, and the two complement each other because of the ubiquity of mobile devices today.
Whenever consumers find themselves with nothing to do -- say, standing in line at the grocery store -- they increasingly pull out their mobile devices. When they do, there are myriad travel apps available to them that make it easier than ever to dream about where they want to go, regardless of where they are.
Major online players recognize that they've pretty much reached the limit on their ability to grow their businesses on the rational model: the grid of date, city pair and price.
So they're going the evocative route, using tools such Amadeus' Featured Results and Vayama's FastSearch. These are tools that aren't defined by a grid. Instead, they open with maps that immediately show consumers all the places they can get to from where they live. By merely touching an icon, the consumer can see what destinations are more affordable and which offer the particular activity they're seeking.
None of this is really new. Five years ago, Travelocity's ExperienceFinder did the same thing, enabling travelers to experience what they could do rather than giving them a two-dimensional grid for planning. Ahead of its time -- and ahead of the mobile era -- ExperienceFinder faded away, but the concept is gaining ground again.
Hotwire's Flexible Date Search enables consumers to find affordable dates for flights to a specific destination, while its "Shop by Theme" enables them to filter their searches through categories like "Sunny" or "Family."
And entirely new sites like the airfare search site Routehappy focus entirely on experience; it rates carriers by the quality of the in-flight experience rather than by price.
Developers of mobile apps understand the importance of inspiration. Even Hotel Tonight, which sells distressed hotel inventory that can be booked only after noon, is about more than a cheap room. It's about a great deal on a hotel with a cool bar or one located in a hip neighborhood. And it delivers that message with evocative photos of a packed hotel bar or beautiful images of tasty-looking appetizers.
This kind of mobile inspiration means that consumers are getting ideas "higher up in the funnel," said Noah Tratt, Expedia's global vice president for media solutions. He said it's often assumed that mobile is all about last-minute buying decisions.
But while mobile is clearly perfect for last-minute bookings, he said, there's more to it than that because people can use their mobile devices to discover ideas about what they want to do.
Many agents have already embraced a mobile work style. They're able to make a booking or shoot off an email if someone calls them while the agent is shopping or sitting at a car wash. That's thanks to the fact that many consortia, franchises and host agencies have embraced the "cloud," making it possible for agents to work anywhere they have Internet access and on any device.
Avoya Travel has built all its systems so that agents can access everything they need in order to do business on iPads and smartphones if they wish, said David Anderson, the company's chief information officer. Cruise Planners/American Express is another host whose systems work on mobile devices.
Now, some retailers are adding consumer-facing mobile offers. Cruise Planners/ American Express is offering its agents their own mobile app, said Vicky Garcia, executive vice president of sales and marketing. Cruise Planners introduced the app at its annual meeting in early December and is currently running a contest to come up with a name for it. The app was set to be in the iTunes App Store and Android Marketplace by the end of this month. Having a mobile app with an agency's own branding enhances its creditability.
Amadeus has introduced Travel Seeker HD, an app available in the App Store. Still in beta, it's an inspirational travel planning app that Amadeus will white-label for agents. Like others of its ilk, it eschews the grid, replacing it with a map of the world with color-coded balloons indicating which destinations have the most affordable airfare.
Travel Seeker HD integrates with Facebook, so consumers can see which of their friends are in affordable-to-reach cities. Users can filter it by activities, enabling them to see, for example, whether it's more affordable to fly out West or to Europe to go skiing. Touching a calendar icon factors in a date; a piggy bank icon opens a budgeting assistant.
Travel agents can go mobile via Facebook. One who is doing exactly that is Margie Jordan, CEO of Jordan Executive Travel Service, an agency based in Jacksonville, Fla.
Jordan, who runs social media training sessions at Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld and Home Based Agent Show conferences, said she has found many tools, some free, that can help keep agents front of mind with their clients across all the clients' devices.
Facebook, for example, is part of daily life flow for many people, and agents can use it to stay in front of their clients. They can put their booking engine on Facebook, as well.
The important thing to remember is that Facebook is not a place to market on price. It's a place to paint evocative pictures about you and your own travels. Social media, Jordan said, is about generating and nurturing leads. It's the place to post photos and videos of your travels, your clients' travels, a trip you're planning or a destination you're studying.
Using an app called Woobox, agents can put their own websites on their Facebook page, and if they have a booking engine on their websites, they can take bookings right from Facebook.
Inspirational search means that technology has automated something that traditional travel agents have long excelled at, and that is lifting travel planning off of the old two-dimensional grid and making it more multidimensional and evocative.
It enables agents to sell more because mobile and inspirational search tools mean they are working with a consumer who is better informed and knows more about what they want to do than one who has only vague visions of what they want for their vacation.
That can mean less time spent qualifying clients and shortening the booking cycle, thus leaving agents more time to sell. Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.