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Does mobile technology fit in the travel industry?

May 11, 2014 11:48 am

By Nadine Sayegh

Gone are the days where the word ‘smartphone’ was registered as a foreign concept, particularly in GCC countries.

With new data and statistics being published frequently regarding smartphone penetration in the region, it does not come as a surprise that businesses are making a move to mobile.

While some may believe the opposite, many users are flocking to use the internet for their travel needs. A recent study published by British Airways (BA) reveals that, in the UAE, 75 per cent of all BA passengers books their tickets using the internet. Also, more than 50 per cent uses the online check-in feature, in addition to online seat selection, so it is vital that businesses develop user-friendly mobile websites that meet their requirements.

The report continues to explain that, across the Middle East region, more and more travellers are opting to transition to digital boarding passes. According to the survey, one in every six UAE passengers has decided on using digital boarding passes, eradicating the need for paper, in addition to reducing the risk of forgetting travel documents at home.

“In 2014, it is estimated that one billion mobile phones will be shipped versus 210 million desktops, and this trend is only going to continue,” says Kara Moddemann, industry manager Mena at Google, who spoke at the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) today (Thursday, May 8).

“Particularly in the [GCC] market, we see that smartphone penetration is very high when compared with other global markets. For example, if you look at Saudi Arabia, you see that it is 73 per cent and, in the UAE, it’s 74 per cent versus South Africa at 40 per cent. We have a discrepancy here, which means that, in the GCC region, we have a high opportunity to reach consumers on their mobile phones.”

While different businesses have already integrated themselves well into the mobile market, others are just beginning. The travel industry has a lot of potential to integrate different facilities easily onto mobile devices and can prove to be a success, as it has already in some cases.

“When we talk about mobile, we talk about the connected traveller. They haven’t made their purchase of an airline ticket using their telephone and then just forget it; they are really using their mobile phones at all times while travelling,” she says.

However, which sub-sector has the most to gain? Moddemann tells AMEinfo.com on the sidelines of the event: “Hotels have a large space for innovation and benefit from mobile because of the shorter time window for bookings.”

When asked if the travel sector is gaining momentum in this aspect, she adds: “There are a few key players that are ahead of the game when it comes to mobile technology and, if others don’t catch up, they may miss out on future opportunities.”

Meanwhile, Hani Alharbi, online sales and marketing manager at Saudia, talks about how the airlines is taking its business online. “We currently don’t have a mobile app, but it is in the pipeline, hopefully it will be released this year; I would say Q3 2014, we should have it. We see the importance of having mobile technology and on different platforms to meet the customer experience at different touchpoints.”

When asked whether he believes the online aspect of the business is important, Alharbi adds: “Especially in the past three or four years, the trend is high and I think, in every business you see, the offline contribution is slowly decreasing, while the online is strengthening so you have to accommodate it.”

However, there are still difficulties when attempting to encourage moving offline customers to online devices, including smartphones. “You will always have people using offline; you find people want to touch the product, and that depends on your business, but some people are concerned with their credit cards, so for security purposes, they choose to purchase offline. The good news is that you see people searching online and they look at the product and like it, and they complete the purchase offline, you need to maintain both channels,” says Alharbi.

Sverre Christiansen, senior market manager at Expedia, adds to the insight by pointing out other potential difficulties of moving to mobile. He says: “It should be compatible for all devices. From a technology point of view, it has to fit and display correctly and scroll nicely so the pictures are large and bold. What we sell is product on a shelf, so we view the mobile as a shelf and, if it’s not displaying correctly, people will fall off.”

Nevertheless, as is the case in many aspects, with great struggle reaps great rewards. “From a hotel point of view, we see a steady 30 per cent increase year on year, so it’s very a healthy growth for us.”

He also adds that there are a significant number of users that prefers using mobile: “The interesting thing about the mobile site is that we saw an immediate increase in last-minute bookings, because people would use it as soon as they arrive in a destination.”