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Travel brands, are you making the most of mobile?

A recent study by Google on the changes in the travel habits of consumers highlighted some interesting facts.

Few things were clear; online videos are proving to be a great influence on travel decisions; mobile is the go-to medium for research but not booking. (See the slides below for  more results.)

Speaking on how digital and particularly mobile has impacted brands in the travel sector, Chetan Patel, vice-president, strategic marketing & e-commerce, ONYX Hospitality Group said it allows the brand to be more targeted in its approach. ONYX offers a wide portfolio of hospitality brands, including Amari, OZO, and Saffron.

But going digital/mobile is easier said than done. In an interview, Patel shares with us the initial days of digital/mobile marketing for the brand and some of its key lessons.

For ONYX, an ongoing challenge is to grow and grab the market share from the existing large players such as Starwood, Accor and InterContinental and others.

In 2008, the group saw 8% of the business coming in through the Internet. The rest came from the usual market comprising travel agents, wholesalers, and the travel retail market in general. In 2013, the brand is about to close the year with 40% of the business coming in through digital.

“With such growth, it was important for us to ensure our visibility online,” Patel said. It was about 2-3 years ago, it decided to invest seriously in digital advertising beginning with display and banner ads along with search and social.

Moreover, it figured seven out of the 10 bookings for the hotel brand started on Google, so it was important to work on keywords for each step and tailor its messages to effectively engage the audience.

The advantage ONYX has over its well-established competitors, says Patel, is its nimble approach in adapting campaigns. “They [the bigger companies] may have a global campaign but that may not speak to the local audiences  or at least not as promptly as it ideally should,” he says.

Mobile: Looking at the big picture

The proliferation of devices and the challenges it poses to marketers is not unheard of. Last year, about 20% of the traffic for the brand’s website came from tablets and smartphones. The figure this year stands at 40%. So how did ONYX take the first steps in tackling it?

“We started with a mobile website which we created two years ago and refreshed it last year,” Patel says.

For tablets, the company had a clear strategy as well. Patel says if brands let their regular website run on a tablet, they run the risk of certain functions not working at all.

“When we were tweaking our website for tablets, we had to ensure the photo gallery was enabled to support swiping,” he says. For mobile too, ONYX cut out a lot of information which wasn’t primary and focused on a fewer sections such as photos and the booking engine.

Last year, on 4 out of 7 days, it received a booking through mobile. Now, not a single day passes by without  a booking coming in from mobile. ONYX is currently investing 15-20%of the marketing budget on mobile and ideally, it should grow to 35-40% in the near future, Patel says.

Moreover, contrary to popular perception that bookings through mobile are mostly last minute and for shorter stays, ONYX is seeing a rise in longer stays and higher value bookings thorough mobile.

But concerns around mobile payment still linger. Mobile is still used more for research than bookings, he says. “It is disproportionate as people still prefer to use desktop when it comes to making the payment online.”

A mobile site versus apps

Coming up with an app is easy, marketing and maintaining it is difficult as we all know but at the same time, an app offers more value to customers. How did ONYX decide which way to go when it first came up with a mobile strategy?

“Firstly, it’s a matter of scale and resources. It’s not cheap to get an app running and maintain it. By the time I’m ready with an app, Google will have a new version of Android for instance. Keeping up with that is not easy,” Patel says.

Secondly, reasons Patel, the app will be used by most loyal or repeat customers. For the brand, which first started in Thailand and still has its largest presence by far, almost 90% of its customers are from oversees travellers. These guests are not coming that often. So the probability of people downloading the app, after making sure it’s successfully marketed, is very low.

Patel advocates a more gradual approach for brands that are yet to achieve that critical mass of repeat visitors. “We are in the midst of experimenting with an app but it will be closely tied in with our loyalty programme,” Patel said.

Reviews And Reputation

Another factor ONYX has seriously factored in is reviews and reputation as social media amplifies the word of mouth advocacy even further.

One of its brands, Oriental Residence which was started in Bangkok two  years ago, took about 8-9 months to reach the top in Tripadvisor’s rankings and when it did so, the occupancy for the brand increased by almost 25% and rates by about 20%.

“There is a direct correlation between what people are saying in reviews online and the performance of the business. And we have a policy in place to monitor the online sentiment,” says Patel.

ONYX has invested in social media listening, which alerts the team on what negative feedback is trending so that the operation team can be activated accordingly.

“Last year, beyond Facebook, our team started using Google+ and given how integrated it is with search, we are already seeing revenue being refereed to our site. It took Facebook a long time to show revenue referrals.” Patel said.

Social is now an integral part of the company’s operations.

 

 

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