Hotel Companies Get App Happy

It’s no longer an online world. Instead, as many hotel marketers have discovered, it’s a mobile world. Hotel brands, individual properties, resort destinations and other travel providers are rushing to create mobile websites and downloadable applications for the millions of business and leisure travelers who rely on their smartphones for all forms of communications and information.

According to eBusiness Strategies, nearly 40 percent of smartphone owners say they’ve done at least some of their leisure travel research on their mobile device; 25 percent say have booked travel through their phones. Those percentages should continue to grow, as consumers and business users rapidly shift their computing from desktop PCs, and even traditional laptops, to devices like iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrrys and other platforms.

The iTunes store stocks about 125,000 apps, many of them in the travel segment, and more than two billion app downloads on iTune have already taken place.

Most lodging brands and a few other individual properties or related industry businesses offer smartphone apps. And since iPhone apps appear on user screens when they open their devices, these mini-web sites act as 24/7 marketing agents. Here’s a review of the smartphone app initiatives underway by the major chains and other hospitality companies.

Although only operating in the smartphone marketing arena since April, InterContinental Hotels Group is quickly becoming one of the most aggressive players in the hotel industry. More than 30,000 people have downloaded IHG’s Priority Club Rewards iPhone app. An Android version is due in a couple of months as are apps for IHG’s individual hotel brands.

Priority Club members can use the app to find and get directions to nearby IHG hotels and view and cancel upcoming reservations. Users can book through the app and connect directly to front desks at individual hotels. Consumers can use the app to join Priority Club Rewards and members can manage their accounts and view special offers.

IHG also optimized the websites for each of its brands so smartphone users can access them for bookings and other services.

“It’s important to have a holistic view of customer’s needs when creating a mobile strategy and supporting applications,” says Michael Menis, vice president, global interactive marketing for IHG. “Customers want access to information whenever and wherever they want and mobile provides that capability. With this in mind we developed our iPhone app to complement our mobile strategy which includes our optimized mobile websites. These websites allow customers to reach us through various mobile devices giving them greater accessibility. This is particularly important as different regions of the world have different customer needs and smartphone adoption rates.”

IHG is also leveraging smartphone technology to complement its “Hit it Big” summer promotion. When guests check into various IHG brands and also use their phone to check in to Gowalla, a location-based social network, they receive targeted reminders on how they can access the promotion. And in a different approach to smartphone technology, IHG is testing an app that allows guests to use their phone as the key to guestroom doors.

Best Western introduced its Best Western to Go iPhone app last December. The app, which has been downloaded 22,000 times so far, allows users to research and book all 4,000-plus Best Western properties worldwide. They can also use the app to create itineraries and input addresses of attractions and restaurants and find them on a GPS-enabled map.

In April, Best Western launched a contest asking iPhone users to vote for the app’s next feature. One voter will be chosen to receive one million Best Western Rewards points, which can equal 62 free roomnights. Among upgrade options under consideration are additional travel tools (flashlight, to-do list, tip calculator), nearby special offers and a receipt photo-tracker for business trips.

La Quinta Inn & Suites launched its iPhone and iPod touch app last September, but two years earlier the brand optimized its website for mobile devices. The smartphone app has attracted 20,000 downloads so far. The application includes a property locator, maps, photos, real-time rates and extensive property information such as nearby restaurants and businesses. Other features include click to call and frequent guest information and services.

The brand says it continues to look at ways to upgrade the app with better information, ease and use and improved interaction with the chain.

Omni Hotels, the Texas-based chain of upscale North American hotels, has had an iPhone app for a year and added a BlackBerry version last fall. It’s also considering developing one for the Android platform.

Omni’s app, which has had 5,500 downloads and used 35,000 times per month, has a property locator and promotions information and allows users to make reservations. Users can also join Omni’s Select Guest loyalty program and access their account information, preferences and redeem free nights through the app.

In the future, Omni plans to add location-based services such as GPS, local event information and guest notification. Another possibility is integrating the chain’s online roomservice ordering system into the app.

Worldwide lodging giant Accor has an iPhone app for 3,000 of its properties across 13 brands, including Sofitel and Novotel, but not Motel 6 or Studio 6. Since its launch last December, more than 240,000 people have downloaded the tool, and 150,000 travelers use it each month. The chain says the app and an mobile-enhanced website account for more than 100 reservations a day and should generate about $6.1 million in revenues this year.

Customers use the app to find hotels, learn about promotions and book rooms. This summer, Accor will upgrade the app to enable members of its loyalty program to earn points made on mobile reservations. The app will be available for BlackBerry by the end of 2010 and Android in 2011.

Choice Hotels was one of the first hotel companies to embrace smartphone technology when it introduced an iPhone app in April 2009. The technology allows users to book rooms at Choice’s 5,800 properties and 11 brands. In addition, its GPS capabilities allow iPhone users to find hotels based on location, get door-to-door directions and look at street-view images of the properties. They can also make changes to or cancel existing reservations, and Choice Privileges members can access their accounts.

Earlier this year, Hilton rolled out a unique smartphone application that allows guests to print documents wirelessly from their BlackBerrys at 1,300 properties in the brand’s portfolio. Hilton worked with HP and PrinterOn to develop the technology.

Last fall, Hilton launched iPhone and iPad applications for seven of it brands, including Conrad, Hilton, Doubletree, Embassy Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, Homewood Suites and Hampton. In addition to searching for and making reservations at individual hotels, users can access Hilton’s Request Upon Arrival service that enables travelers to place an order for roomservice at the Hilton, Doubletree and Embassy brands and have it delivered upon arrival. The app also allows remote check in up to 48 hours in advance.

A number of other major brands have yet to adopt smartphone application technology. Hyatt says it’s working on an iPhone app, while Marriott plans to launch a BlackBerry app this summer. Carlson Hotels says it will launch smartphone apps and its mobile web platform in the fourth quarter. Vantage Hospitality is focusing on maximizing effectiveness of its mobile websites while it evaluates costs and return on investment for a smartphone app. Likewise, Wyndham is concentrating on its mobile website, which are available for 10 of its 11 brands (Wyndham Hotels and Resorts is the exception.) Red Roof doesn’t have an app and has no plans to develop one.

Worthy of the glitz of Las Vegas, MGM MIRAGE last month unveiled five new iPhone apps that stretch the technology. The apps allow users to stroll the Las Vegas Strip and point their iPhone or iPod touch at one of MGM MIRAGE’s casino hotels and learn about its shows, nightclubs, restaurants or more. Users can buy tickets and book reservations with one touch and access the property’s real-time Twitter feed for deals and events. Other capabilities include roomservice ordering, browsing restaurant menus, previewing and reserving rooms, checking local weather and using GPS maps and indoor casino maps to navigate the properties.

Another new iPhone app introduced last month comes from TripAdvisor, the popular user-driven social media network for the travel industry. Available for the iPhone and iPod touch, the app gives users access to the 35 million traveler reviews and opinions of hotels, attractions, restaurants and more on TripAdvisor. The site’s GPS capabilities allow travelers to find nearby businesses and sort by rating, distance or price. They can also send in reviews while traveling.

The TripAdvisor app is available in 13 languages and covers 20 countries.

During the recent American Resort Development Association convention, timeshare giant RCI unveiled an RCI TV application for the iPhone and iPod touch that allows users to view a network of video channels that both explain vacation ownership and its benefits and showcase hundreds of resorts and destinations in the RCI portfolio of properties. Using another application, RCI SnapBook, users can capture photos, videos voice memos and texts on their iPhones, with the application automatically logging when and where the event took place. The media can be loaded on the SnapBook website as a scrapbook, timeline or map display and is available for sharing with friends and family.

Smartstay is a so-called white label iPhone app that hotels can purchase and brand it for their own properties. The app has a content management system hotels can use to create, edit and instantly publish their own offers, news, last-minute deals and more.

Similarly, the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills, a Luxury Collection Hotel, teamed with technology firm runritz to develop its own application that’s compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, BlackBerry, G1 and Palm Pre. Branded GoSLSHotel, the application allows guests to set a wake-up call, order roomservice, request luggage pickup, purchase show tickets, make restaurant reservations and more. If a guest doesn’t have a smartphone, the hotel will provide one pre-loaded with the application.

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