Mobile has become an essential part of the travel experience, but as the battle for customer loyalty intensifies, it’s become even more critical to develop a robust, meaningful mobile experience. Beyond reserving a room or checking in, today’s apps take the customer service experience a step further, from highlighting local attractions and restaurants, to providing service to the customer before they even step foot inside the property.

“If a company makes my life easier, my loyalty is going to be inherently stronger,” says Steven Allmen, president and co-founder of Toronto-based Loyalty and Co. But it’s important to recognize that business and leisure travellers have different needs, he adds. “[Choosing a hotel] comes down to three things: for business travellers it’s corporate policy, proximity to clients and whatever loyalty program they’re a part of. For leisure travellers it’s generally price and then loyalty.” Therefore, hoteliers need to cater app development to their target market. “If you’re targeting 55+ leisure travellers, a complex app may not be where you need to spend your money.”

Staying Ahead of the Curve
As technology advances and users’ expectations shift, apps need to constantly evolve. The Four Seasons app is continually updating its offerings based on insights from guests and employees from the brand’s properties around the world. “We are evolving the app using feedback, learnings and trends amongst guest usage,” says Scott Taber, SVP of Rooms at the Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. “We’re looking to further enhance the platform to offer more personalized service, expanded functionality and additional key languages.” For example, a new dedicated app in simplified Chinese was launched at the end of November 2015, offering access to hotel services and concierge recommendations, with a culturally intuitive look and interface tailored to Chinese guests. Users can access hotel services throughout China and at a select number of international hotels.

But keeping ahead of the curve is no easy feat. Lack of access to technology, shrinking budgets and a knowledge-gap when it comes to using the data collected by the apps are barriers to the app evolution. “It’s such a fast-changing [technology]. If you don’t have all the plumbing connected, an app’s not going to work. If you do and something breaks down, the app may not work. So I think hotels, like everyone else, are really trying to see where the evolution of apps is heading. Instead of throwing everything at it all at one time, they are really trying to step their way through it,” says Allmen. A wise approach, he says, considering how many things can go wrong. “In the hotel world, if you have a great app experience but walk into the hotel and have a lousy experience, I don’t care how good the app was, you’re not going back.”

Getting Around
Aside from the ability to book a room, Allmen says discovering nearby attractions tops the list of desirable app features. The Four Seasons app offers a “Four Seasons Recommends” feature curated by the hotel. Using geolocation technology, the app pinpoints nearby attractions and includes directions in the customer’s native language. “We believe the seamless integration of service delivery through the app will create loyalty and further entrench our brand promise. These may or may not be incremental revenues, but it gives us the opportunity to put more of our services in front of our guests to give them a better suite of choices,” says Taber.

The Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) app is Starwood’s fastest-growing digital channel. Since its launch in 2012, usage has increased 90 per cent year-over-year. The state-aware SPG app adjusts the app’s look, feel and content depending on whether the user is at the trip-planning stage, en route or already checked in. It serves as an extension of Starwood’s concierge service, shifting to “Stay” mode when members are on-property and serving up local recommendations about where to eat, drink and visit. “[The app] is an area where we continually look at ways to incorporate sources of recommendations, both traditional and from guests who have stayed at the hotel before,” says Alyssa Waxenberg, VP of Mobile for Starwood Hotels & Resorts.

Keeping Track
GPS and push notifications are an increasingly popular app feature and are being utilized in ways ranging from traditional marketing to traveller safety.

The Starwood development team dedicated a great deal of time to deciding how and when to deploy push notifications. “We focus on providing alerts with meaningful content that is relevant to guests’ travel plans or their loyalty to the SPG program,” says Waxenberg. “For example, guests who have opted-in for push notifications will be sent an invitation to check-in using SPG Keyless (Starwood’s mobile check-in feature) the day before their stay. We keep them updated as to when they have been checked in and when their room is ready. For a guest who we know enjoys spa treatments, we may have an offer for a discounted massage at the hotel’s wellness centre.”

More complex apps include information and resources pertaining to traveller safety, such as directions to local hospitals or the Canadian Embassy for those travelling abroad. Allmen says the ability to build in this type of information is what will differentiate brands’ apps and create loyalty.

Hotel apps are a Mecca for data scientists but is the information being utilized to its full potential? “I think it’s always a work in progress,” says Allmen.

At Four Seasons, the data collected from the app is used to determine enhancements and updates. “The guiding principle for us is to ensure, as we add features, that they be relevant and useful for guests,” says Taber. “It’s not adding features for the sake of it.”


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