One thing we hear a lot of in the hospitality industry is that service and customer experience is where it begins and ends.

We also hear that hotels have a unique and powerful advantage over OTAs and metasearch engines because they own the actual guest experience during the hotel stay.

NB: This is a report by Pamela Whitby, editor for EyeforTravel.

What’s more, all research points to mobile as an increasingly important component of the guest’s journey, and that when it comes to loyal members, native app could just be the answer.

“Because our loyalty members stay with us a lot, we are able to understand their needs and better meet their expectations,” says Intercontinental Hotels Group’s (IHG), Fabrizio Di Martino, its manager for mobile and social media in Europe.

IHG, must be doing something right as along with Guidepal,, Jet2Holidays and Thomas Cook, IHG is one of the finalists in EyeforTravel’s Mobile App in Travel Awards to be announced in Berlin in October.

So what actually happens when you analyse the data, listen to what your loyal customers have to say, deliver what they want and then market with meaning? Well you might just outstrip the competition.

Di Martino:

“Overall we’ve had 862,000 downloads of our app globally and have been voted by Apptentive as the best iOS app in the world – better than Amazon or Domino’s Pizza.”

The nearest direct competitor was Starwood with just 369,000 downloads, followed by Accor with 238,000 and Marriott, a close fourth with 234,000 (according to Appannie).

What is more, IHG is seeing direct benefits to the bottom line with mobile bookings delivering $611 million in revenue in 2013 – a doubling on sales via mobile the previous year. According to Di Martino, in Europe the majority of bookings are for stays within 24 hours and many more people are booking via mobile.

Di Martino attributes IHG’s app success to three things:

1) A clear marketing strategy

IHG covered over 40 marketing touch points to raise awareness of the app. These included an IHG rewards club point incentive to book via the app; Facebook custom audiences; Google search site-links; a call to action to download the app in all email; and in all hotel communications (eg. At WiFi login, in the room TV video, keycard wallets and so on. It also helped enormously to be ranked as one of the best by a love index from Appentive, a Google Ventures-backed startup that works with companies to gather feedback on how customers feel about their apps,

2) The quality of the app

This is achieved by putting what the customer asks for into action. When it comes to payments, for example, customer feedback has consistently pointed to ease of use as an important requirement. So when IHG’s updated app launches this month, payment will be possible in just two-clicks. The guest will even be able to choose from options like favourite rate and credit card.

3) A strong corporate strategy

It’s not just for consumers but also for travellers on business.

So a focused app has worked for IHG but it may not be for everybody.

On this subject, Mattias Borg, CEO of the travel-planning app GuidePal, has this to say:

“If you are developing advanced mobile functionality, go for native apps. If you just want to make booking or information services available in a mobile format, go for mobile responsive web.”

Taking a different approach

While getting the marketing mix right is critical, delivering what’s on the customer’s wish list is arguably more important and all EyeforTravel’s mobile innovation finalists have tested a range of different scenarios to improve the customer experience.

Responding to EyeforTravel’s latest research that shows 42.2% of customers would like the opportunity to check in via mobile, IHG is currently expanding this new feature across its hotels.

Interestingly though, while the group tested a mobile room key solution during the London Olympics, in the end the have elected to continue to issue keys from the front desk.

While there are lessons around online check-in to be had from the airlines, one size doesn’t fit-all. And as Di Martino points out, when people fly they are focused on the destination, so the speedier online check in is, the better but when guests arrive at a hotel they are more focused on the experience.

“The human interaction at the front desk is a real opportunity to stand out, especially with loyal members,” he says, adding that the group was concerned that a mobile room key could lead to a slump in guest reviews.

As a tour operator, where it’s tough to drive loyalty, that seven-letter word has also been a core focus of Thomas Cook’s Travelguide app.

Brita Hanafy, Thomas Cook’s CRM project manager with responsibility for the Travelguide app, says:

“We had a clear objective to strengthen customer loyalty and we did that by giving the customer useful information in our app such as hotel descriptions, contacts with local reps, transfer details and the ability to book excursions.”

High quality content as well as tips from local reps and a first-of-its-kind augmented reality feature to help the guest get around were other important developments, she believes.

Addressing key trends

When it comes to keeping up with new technologies like iBeacon and Apple Pay, IHG takes a pragmatic approach.

Di Martino says:

“We try to figure out the benefits of new technologies and then work internally on ideas to see if they make sense for us.”

What’s clear though, is that technology doesn’t always solve the problem.

“With new technologies or ideas like iBeacon, we develop a prototype and then we test it to show that this could bring some benefit to guest and only then do we roll it out.”

Apple hasn’t yet rolled iBeacon out in Europe, and another problem, says Di Martino, is that it appears to run down the smartphone battery, which could be more of a problem for customers and lead them to ditch the app.

“One of the challenges we face is recognising our loyal customers at the front desk and new technologies like this [iBeacon] could be a solution but it’s not a mass market technology yet.”

Apple Pay is another development that all brands will, of course, have to consider but again it is still not clear what the plans are for Europe – so for now that too remains a wait and see.

NB: This is a report by Pamela Whitby, editor for EyeforTravel. It appears here as part of Tnooz’s sponsored content initiative.

NB2: Join us in Berlin on Octber 1-2 for our Online Marketing, Mobile and Social Media Conference to hear more from IHG and other leading travel brands such as Ryanair, Disney and Thomas Cook.


NB3: Guessing game image via Shutterstock.

Original author: Pamela Whitby