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Travel sites take mobile booking to the next level with tablet apps

As mobile bookings increasingly become more sophisticated, online travel agencies such as Priceline, Hotwire and HotelTonight are beginning to invest more heavily in tablets to keep up with research-focused consumers.

Although tablets are still relatively new to marketers, online travel agencies seem to be one of the industries capitalizing the most on the device’s bigger sizes. At the same time, tablets also play a critical role in connecting all of the different screens that consumers use to make travel plans.

“We have yet to see if tablets will replace mobile users,” said Leslie Cafferty, spokeswoman for Priceline, Norwalk, CT.

“We have a lot of customers going between screens and toggling between desktop, mobile and tablet,” she said. “The ability to get hyperlocal in what they’re doing is key.”

Switching gears
The talk around mobile bookings for online travel agents until recently has revolved around cementing last-minute bookings.

Traditionally, this has meant that smartphones played a prominent role in online travel brands’ mobile strategies.

Over the past few months though, a slew of online travel agencies have rolled out tablet applications and sites with the goal of making the booking experience simpler and more intuitive than it might be on a smartphone.

Take Priceline’s approach to tablets, for example.

The brand recently rolled out a new iPad app that hones in on tablet users specifically (see story).

The app is aimed at travelers that have pulled off of the road and are looking for a quality hotel that is not overly expensive.

As an example of a feature that takes specific advantage of the tablet, the app lets consumers segment off an area for hotels by using their finger to draw a circle on an interactive map.

Compared to smartphone bookers who are simply looking for a last-minute stay, tablet bookers use other factors such as proximity to city attractions to sway their booking choices.

“When we did our research early on, the app was geared towards consumers who have more time on their hands to book,” Ms. Cafferty said.

Hotwire also recently rolled out a tablet app that plays up location.

In June, the brand cited tablet bookings as beginning to overtake smartphone bookings when it rolled out a new iPad app.

To differentiate its tablet app from its smartphone one, Hotwire used an interactive app to plot out different hotels that are available for consumers (see story).

Hotwire claims that 75 percent of its smartphone bookings are made for the day of arrival. This audience is also less concerned about a hotel’s rating.

Tablet users, on the other hand, are much different for Hotwire. Only 40 percent of tablet bookings for Hotwire make same-day bookings, and these travelers are also more inclined to book a four-star or higher hotel.

“We expect to see a sizeable increase in bookings for all of our mobile channels,” said Pierre-Etienne Chartier, vice president of the Hotwire Group, San Francisco.

“Our data shows that mobile customers rarely return to the desktop version of our site once their first mobile booking is made,” he said. “So the transition appears to be much more than just a trend.”

Bigger screen, bigger opportunities
Tablets also give online travel marketers more of an opportunity to experiment than they can do on smartphones.

As brands continue to pour more money into mobile, marketers are looking to test different types of features that they cannot pull off on smartphones.

Marketers should be looking to leverage richer in-app experiences that focus on more than the simple act of booking.

“We designed our iPad and tablet apps to offer more of a casual, laid-back browsing experience for our users,” said Jared Simon, chief operating officer of HotelTonight, San Francisco.

“We really wanted to let users visually visit, explore and engage with HotelTonight’s destinations with features like full-screen, high-resolution photography,” he said.

In exchange for creating these tablet-only features, HotelTonight decided to stick with its three-tap and eight-second booking within the iPad app, which is what the brand is known for on its smartphone properties.

HotelTonight focuses on images with tablets

Breaking into mobile
Online travel brands just looking to get into mobile should also focus on tablets because consumers who use the devices tend to have similar habits as desktop users, with which brands might be more familiar.

For example, Priceline’s sees that 50 percent of mobile bookings are made for last-minute bookings. Twenty-two percent of tablet bookings and 12 percent of desktop bookings are made for same-day reservations.

“While we can’t predict the future, we are seeing significant shifts to mobile devices from desktop,” said Paul Hennessy, chief marketing officer of, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

“We’re also committed to delivering the best service across platforms and across devices in the way a customer wants to engage us,” he said. “We will remain customer-focused and technologically agile so that we can exceed our customer’s expectations at home or on the road, on a mobile device or desktop device.”

Final Take
Lauren Johnson is associate reporter on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York