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Hotels Get App Happy

09/11/2009| 10:44:34 AM| 中文

Back in the mid-´90s, The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort launched what was believed to be the hotel industry´s first property-specific Web site. It´s only fitting, then, that the 2,265-key Orlando resort would be one of the first to debut a property-specific downloadable mobile application for Apple´s iPhone.

Launched in June, the free application, designed by resort owner Tishman Hotel Corp. with assistance from students at Florida State University, provides users with specific information on property amenities and a detailed property map with interactive video tour. The Swan and Dolphin app is framed as a sort of digital brochure, designed for travelers to peruse both while en route and while on property.

Student programmers worked with Tishman to create the application, which takes advantage of the iPhone´s large color screen and video capability. At 29.1 megabytes, it is one of the most complex iPhone apps available. The application also is compatible with Apple´s iPod Touch.

Tishman already has mobile sites—Web sites optimized for speed and appearance on handheld devices—online for each of its hotels. But even the best mobile sites are not as user-friendly as downloadable apps, which have the benefit of operating even without an Internet connection. In terms of usability, if accessing the mobile Web is like flying coach, then using an app is like upgrading to business class.

Of course, Apple is not the only player in the smartphone arena, but it is the undisputed market king. "Eventually, every hotel will have an iPhone app—I truly believe that," says Audrey Cornu, Tishman´s vice president for Internet. "The computer is in our pocket and everything is there now. There is no going back."

The pace of Swan and Dolphin app downloads surprised even Cornu. A month after the app´s public release, it was still attracting more than 1,000 downloads per week. "I didn´t think it would have that much of an impact," she says.

Tishman is already at work on its next app, for The Westin Times Square, New York City. There are also plans to extend the Swan and Dolphin app to other smartphone platforms, most likely beginning with Research In Motion´s BlackBerry device.

Downloading Last-Minute Bookings

While the Swan and Dolphin app is primarily geared toward travelers already planning or considering a stay at the resort, other hoteliers are releasing smartphone apps designed to pick up on-the-go bookings.

Choice Hotels International in March unveiled the first iPhone app from a major hotel company, called Choice Hotels Locator. The free app, which has been downloaded more than 225,000 times and in 73 countries, lets users book rooms from the road by employing the iPhone´s built-in global positioning system technology to automatically generate a list of Choice properties in a user´s vicinity. Users also can search manually by inputting addresses or cities.

Each individual property has its own page on the app, with limited property images and a rundown of amenities, along with standard room rates. Rooms can be booked directly via the app in the same way they would be online. As an added bonus, the app provides point-to-point directions and a look at street-view images to make finding the hotel that much easier. Users also are able to view existing reservations, as well as access their Choice Privileges account information.

Within 45 days after launching, the app was generating about 10% of Choice´s total mobile revenue, says Chris Brya, director of user experience and e-commerce projects.

As one of the first hotel apps for the iPhone, Apple listed the Choice app under the Featured section of its App Store. "We wanted to expose the brands to other people that maybe weren´t familiar with us," Brya says. "The buzz factor was icing on the cake, with people talking about it."

A future update for the software will enable real-time rate adjustments, Brya says. Additionally, users have been asking for more property photos, so Choice plans to make viewable on the app all photos that are available online. Social media interfaces also are in the works for future versions.

Choice created the app internally, and Brya says it took about six months to develop. It required a considerable amount of trial and error. "You´re kind of building the car as you drive it, and that´s kind of a challenge," he says. While Brya declines to disclose the cost to develop the app, he says the investment was recouped within the first 40 days.

Omni Streamlines For Speed

Omni Hotels jumped on the iPhone-app bandwagon in July. Created by New York City-based Web design firm Usablenet with input from Omni Director of E-Commerce Kerry Kennedy, the intentionally simple app provides full access to Omni´s mobile site and includes features like account login for the Omni Select Guest loyalty program. The app also includes links to Omni´s Facebook and Twitter pages.

In stark contrast with Tishman´s offering, the Omni app is light on images and other rich media. "Users who are using our mobile sites and applications are getting in and getting out," Kennedy says. "They just want to book their rooms and move on."

Future software updates may include mobile checkout functionality, virtual concierge information and possibly a page that mimics the brand´s pre-arrival e-mails.

Kennedy recognizes that while iPhone is the dominant smartphone device, a large percentage of Omni´s business traveler customers use BlackBerrys instead. Work has already begun on a version of the app for that device.

Loyalty Application

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide is taking a slightly different tack with its iPhone app, choosing to frame it around its Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty program brand.

While Starwood´s app does include basic property search and booking functionality, its primary purpose is to help SPG members keep tabs on their Starpoints and upcoming reservations.

"It´s part of our comprehensive strategy to be where our members are," says Chris Holdren, senior vice president of SPG. "We want to engage them and help facilitate their travel planning and their account management."

The app caches—or makes available offline—user account and reservation information, in case he or she needs to access it while located in an area without network signal coverage. Other features include a listing of customer service phone numbers and a link to SPG´s blog, TheLobby.com.

Developed internally in about two months and launched in June, the SPG app is being downloaded at a rate of roughly 2,000 per week. Similar versions are being developed for BlackBerry and Palm devices.
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