In January, when the 10 billionth app was downloaded from Apple’s App Store, the company said that 7 billion of that total had been downloaded in the last year alone.

It is certain that these mini-applications have changed the way people use their smartphones, but for the travel sector, figuring out how to harness the power of apps is still in the nascent stages.

And what some are finding is that building optimized mobile technology might be a far better investment than native applications, a term used to describe software that works only on one kind of platform, for example on an iPhone.

By some measures, travel companies have been slow to join the app parade.

Very few cruise lines, for example, have apps or even mobile-enabled websites that enable people to book cruises, and only the largest hotel brands have employed such technology.

Moreover, among travel agencies, mobile-enabled websites and apps are almost nonexistent, mostly due to their cost of development and also because in this stage, agents question their value to clients.

But travel apps do exist, and in some cases travel companies have come up with unique ways for their consumers to engage with their brands via mobile technology.

Here are some examples:

Starwood  

Starwood allows Starwood Preferred Guest members to connect with the company’s customer service agents using FaceTime, Apple’s video-calling feature for users of the iPhone 4, iPad 2, iPod Touch and Macs.

FaceTime enables customer service representatives to handle inquiries using face-to-face video calling in which the rep and the caller can see each other. Starwood said last week it is the only hotel company using FaceTime for customer service.

Sabre

Sabre users already have the ability to check in for flights, view and change seats and post to social media sites including Facebook and Twitter on Sabre Virtually There Mobile. This year, Sabre expects to enable commercial transactions within that product, specifically to allow for the purchase of ancillaries from mobile devices.

This month, Sabre is launching shopping and booking for hotels within GetThere Mobile and will launch shopping and booking for air later this year. In Asia, Sabre rolled out a trial of Abacus Mobile, which enables agents to view, edit and book reservations from their smartphones. If successful, it will roll out in other parts of the world within the next year.

Royal Caribbean International

Vacationers cannot yet book cruises on Royal Caribbean’s mobile app. What they can do is view deck plans, look at cabins and, with a touch of the screen, connect to customer service or get an email quote. The app has been downloaded 40,000 times since its soft launch in November.

iCruise.com

The online retailer launched Cruise Finder, an iPhone app that gives users access to information on 20 cruise lines, 200 ships and 12,000 itineraries.

According to iCruise.com, consumers use the app to research cruises and view cabin descriptions, deck plans and port weather. If they find something they like, they can save it to their favorites, share it or request a quote from an iCruise agent. Consumers cannot book on the app.

Holland America Line 

HAL launched a marketing campaign that incorporates Microsoft Tag 2D bar-code technology to connect its print advertising to more information about cruise options and onboard amenities via a Web-based interactive experience.

Tags will appear in HAL’s consumer magazine advertisements and consumer brochures. When scanned by a smartphone using the Microsoft Tag Reader, the tag will open a mobile site containing video and interactive content.

The content includes a series of mobile-optimized videos and a mobile gallery displaying art collections aboard Holland America Line ships.

Avoya Travel

Since day one, all of technology-forward Avoya’s software has been mobile-compatible. Anything Avoya agents can do on their desktop they can also do on tablets and smartphones through browsers.

The technology was designed the help agents give their clients better customer service, as travel professionals can be reached anytime.

Orbitz

In 2006, Orbitz became the first online travel agency to introduce a mobile website. In November, Orbitz became the first OTA to let Android and iPhone users search and book hotels, flights and rental cars from within its mobile app, instead of being directed to its mobile website.

Another feature Orbitz’s app offers is a geo-locating tool: With one click on a GPS button, consumers can see available hotels within walking distance, which has increased the company’s same-day bookings. 

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