GPS Capabilities Open Up New Opportunities For Communication Within The Travel Lifecycle
IN-DEPTH: Interview with Chris Brown, VP of Retail Product Strategy for Orbitz Worldwide
It is quite often pointed out that mobile is primarily about delivering service at the point of need in a customer's journey. Selected selling opportunities will come later.
So would it be right to say that the mobile market is finding its way into the travel business, more as an information tool and service portal than as a major source of transactions at this time?
This is a fair assessment and supported by a good deal of available data, says Chris Brown, who currently serves as Vice President of Retail Product Strategy for Orbitz Worldwide.
"Travel-related mobile activities such as viewing maps, getting directions, researching local activities and travel products have gained steam faster than transactions to date. However, the growth opportunity in the mobile market as a source of travel-related transactions is far too big to be ignored and is gaining serious momentum. Our customers at Orbitz have clearly indicated that they want to search and book hotels, flights, car rentals, and other products on their mobile devices and have been doing so at increasing levels," Brown told EyeforTravel's Ritesh Gupta in an interview.
At Orbitz, Brown is responsible for comprehensive supplier inventory search and booking, path and cross-sell optimisation, SEO and merchandising, maps and content, i18n/l10n, personalisation, media and partner marketing, social networking and mobile.
Brown, who is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming Travel Distribution Summit North America 2010, to be held in Chicago (13-14 October), spoke about the utility of mobile devices, the scope of improvement, personalised last-minute offers and lot more. Excerpts:
According to some airline executives, selected selling opportunities via mobile will come later. Displaying offers via mobile would be useful but better to focus on click to call to pop customers to call centres rather than forcing then through 5-6 stage mobile booking funnels. What do you make of the best possible utility of this channel?
Chris Brown: Because space and time are at a premium within mobile computing, I think you start by selling your base product – in this case air tickets if you are an airline – and you do it well, without the need to click-to-call. As part of that experience, if you are considering incremental selected selling opportunities, you need to test various approaches to cross/up-selling in your mobile path to see how users respond. In my view, you will eventually see these opportunities being presented to customers on mobile devices, but those experiences will be tailored to mobile, and likely dialed down a notch or two from what you'd see on a desktop browser. For more complex, and high margin opportunities, you may still see click-to-call as an option provided by businesses, but ultimately, customers will want to complete more and more of their tasks without talking to someone.
Location is the holy grail of the mobile experience. One of the major developments this year has been the availability of free navigation systems on mobile handsets. And the way applications are mushrooming around location-based services, one can only expect more excitement in this arena. What do you make of such developments from the travel industry's perspective?
Chris Brown: Location-based services and travel go hand-in-hand (pun intended). Prior to the mobile web, travellers were using expensive navigation systems, paper maps, 411-info, or simply stopping to ask for help as the chief way to find restaurants, hotels, and businesses, or navigate where they wanted to go. Because these methods historically were more error-prone and time consuming, customers did more upfront planning to "de-risk" their travel experience. Now with the advent of trustworthy, nearly always accessible location-based services, travellers can do a lot more of their travel planning and decision-making on the fly, often when they are in market as opposed to prior to the trip. From a travel industry perspective, our jobs will be to provide customers great products that aid this new traveller behaviour.
While there is a lot of attention on current private sale-type sites, it is being said with GPS capabilities becoming more common, suppliers will soon be able to deliver much more targeted and personalised last-minute offers that marry their real-time revenue management strategies with an individual's specific location and trip lifecycle status. How do you assess all this shaping up from travel intermediaries or developers' perspective?
Chris Brown: It's about relevance. From a travel perspective – whether you are a supplier an online travel agent, or a meta-site, or now private sale – the value you can provide a customer has always been intrinsically tied to how relevant you can make your offer, your search results, your communication, etc. GPS capabilities provide both suppliers and intermediaries more ways to improve their relevancy as well as open up new opportunities for communication within the travel lifecycle.
Can you elaborate on how do the needs of business and leisure travellers differ when it comes to use of mobile phones? What should companies need to focus on as far as their mobile-related investments are concerned?
Chris Brown: Companies should focus on the needs of their highest value customer segment(s). For some, this will be business travellers, for others it will be leisure or somewhere in between. To generalize a bit, business travellers tend to know more where and when they are travelling and spend less time in the research phase. Mobile products for this segment will focus more on quick execution of tasks, travel policy support, itinerary management and may have business travel add-ons for things like expense management. On the leisure side, there is an element of research and discovery that still needs to be supported – and even folks that focus on transactions will still need to make sure they provide enough entries into their mobile site and/or app for consumers researching within the wider mobile web.
It is recommended that mobile travel information and booking services need to be quick, easy, and light on data transfer. Do you think this is really the case right now?
Chris Brown: I think it's absolutely the right recommendation and no, I do not think this is the case right now – even with the growth of 3G, 4G, and Wi-Fi hotspots. If you look around the mobile web there are still many sites struggling to get all of their desired capabilities and content into the hands of customers in a light and fast way. At Orbitz, we've focused squarely where customers are asking: the ability to quickly search and book flights, hotels, and cars from any mobile device.
Going forward, how do you think the evolution of mobile and social media will continue to change the travel industry landscape?
Chris Brown: The word that comes to mind for me is immediacy. If you look at how mobile and social media have impacted the world outside of travel – they've done two things very well. First, they've changed the game in terms of the speed and availability at which you can connect with people for business or leisure. And second, they've magnified the sheer quantity of people you can sustain relationships with, influence, and be influenced by, on a daily basis.
This evolution will change the travel landscape in a couple of ways. The big change is that travel-planning and booking will happen anytime, anywhere – even up to the last minute. Another is travellers will draw upon the advice and influence of their social graph throughout the travel lifecycle – and can immediately broadcast reviews and other insights back to their social graph whenever they want. Finally, with location-aware services out there, everyone (including businesses) will make their communications more relevant, based on where the traveller is physically located, at any given point in time.
Travel Distribution Summit North America 2010
Chris Brown is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming Travel Distribution Summit North America 2010, to be held in Chicago (13-14 October). The two-day event will feature over 80 speakers, including the ones from Hilton, Wyndham, Travelport, Lufthansa, Expedia, Google and from many other such organisations of repute.
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