If you spend more time on the road than you do at home (as I had to do for a number of years), you quickly realize something: Control is an incredibly valuable commodity.
At home, you’re the boss-everything can be set up the way you like it. (Or, at least, the way a majority of the rest of your family likes things to be.)
On the road, it often feels like you control nothing. Your flight was delayed? Luggage was lost? Hotel shuttle’s not showing up? Uber’s not finding you? Desperate for food but all the reachable restaurants just closed?
Not a whole lot you can do.
By the time you’ve reached the hotel, all you want is to collapse in a comfortable bed in a clean room immediately.
So when you have to wait in an endless line to check in because a bus tour arrived 30 seconds before you did and there’s only one employee at the desk at that hour and your room is located between the elevator and the bar that doubles as an all-night karaoke lounge when you have an 8am meeting…well, you accept it because you don’t have other choices for the night, but you vow to yourself: Next time in town, anywhere but here.
Which is why mobile technologies are amazing. In particular, apps are invaluable. Quite simply, apps give travelers increasing amounts of control that can generate very real loyalty and additional revenue when done right.
The Appeal of Apps
I’ve been fortunate enough to play a small role in the evolution of mobile applications within the hospitality world. Today my company Plan A Technologies creates custom software for all kinds of different organizations — and that often includes mobile apps. But back in 2008, I ran a mobile app development company focused on the hospitality space, where we created some of the first mobile apps for hotels, casinos, and restaurants around the world (including dozens of the biggest hospitality brands in the world). It was early enough in the existence of apps that many of the executives I spoke to had never used a mobile app. Indeed, many of them had yet to see an iPhone — it was the end of the Age of Blackberry devices; Android hadn’t even been invented.
They came around soon enough. They had no choice. Apps quickly proved staggeringly popular and only grew more so. Today, Apple offers over 2 million apps, a massive number dwarfed by the 3.5 million available on Google Play.
Of course, in the years since Apple launched its App Store, the mobile web has become increasingly powerful and accessible. Many of the features that only a native app could offer in the past are now easily achievable through a great mobile-friendly website. And it’s harder today to convince consumers that they should download an app, especially since many consumers have app-fatigue, having loaded up on dozens of apps that they barely ever use.
But if you can convince them to download your mobile app, it can be a major win for you. For often a hotel’s most loyal and profitable guests are the ones who mostly rely on the mobile app experience rather than the mobile website experience. Stepping back from the hospitality world to look at the larger trends is also telling: Recent studies indicate 70% of the time spent on digital media is spent using an app, including an impressive 89% of total mobile minutes in the US.
A native app isn’t critical for all hospitality businesses, particularly those that don’t have many repeat guests. But for brands in the hospitality world that DO have repeat customers, a solid mobile app is an important tool that is worth the investment. Quite simply, a native app provides certain functionality that a mobile web experience cannot yet deliver.
Here are some of the benefits mobile apps can provide potential guests to give them more control and convenience, while simultaneously helping your business thrive.
1. Digitally Dodge the Front Desk
During my true road warrior days, there were few feelings worse than finally getting to the hotel when I was utterly exhausted, walking into the lobby, seeing a crowd and realizing that it would be at least another 20 minutes before I reached the front desk. Today’s apps often offer a virtual check-in and a digital key, so the phone itself will let guests into the room. Then they can use the app again to settle their tab at the end of the stay, so they can complete a stay without ever joining that line, much less getting stuck on it. This has the double benefit of both improving the guest experience and reducing the burden on your team, making it easier for your staff to handle other tasks.
2. Offline Functionality
It’s never fun to lose Internet access, but it’s particularly frustrating when you’re traveling. That’s why offline functionality is so important. Most good apps provide guests with an offline mode that still contains much of the app’s content and data stored directly on the device (instead of in the cloud). That way, even when WiFi’s nowhere to be found, your app is still available with at least certain core functionality still being accessible. It also helps to keep interactions speedy even when there is a connection, as loading times are quicker when everything is already stored locally in an app.
3. Better Housekeeping Services
While this can also be achieved via mobile web, specific requests tend to be easier to submit via an app. Guests can choose the exact time that they want services performed, or provide specific instructions, like asking for more towels or leaving a tip, without having to rely on hand-written notes or calls to guest services.
4. Personalized Service
Personalization is key in the hospitality industry, and apps make the process a lot easier. If you have a guest who always requests a room with an operable window and arranges a late checkout, they can make these requests easily in the app, and this data can be quickly integrated into your property management system. Apps can also help track a guest’s behavior more effectively than the mobile web, so that additional services can be offered to them based on what they are doing both in the app and in the real world. For instance, if a guest with an app goes to the fitness center, you can push the guest a notification asking if they would like a free water bottle or extra towels.
5. In-App Upselling
Many hotel apps offer in-app upselling, which can be a great way to increase revenue. When guests are already in the app (either before or during their stay), it’s easy to offer extras like a local sightseeing tour, a round of golf, a room upgrade or stay extension, a dinner reservation, or tickets to a nearby show. And since the guest has already provided payment information, it’s a natural place to add on extra purchases to their folio.
6. Improved Communication and a Virtual Concierge
Apps can harness chatbots for AI-based answers. They can also offer guests detailed local information to help them learn about what’s going on and find things to do during their visit.
7. Push Notifications
Push notifications can be a superb way to communicate with guests, whether letting them know that their room is ready or that the valet has brought around their car. And since they’ve already downloaded the app and given permission to receive transaction-based notifications, there’s no opt-in process required (unless you plan to use this for marketing purposes in the future).
8. In-App Currency Conversions or Pay-with-Points
When you’re traveling internationally, it can be difficult to keep track of the exchange rate. An app can take care of that for your guests by automatically converting prices into their home currency. It can even allow guests to more easily pay for your services using loyalty points.
9. Control the Room
Hilton’s Connected Room program allows guests to control the in-room temperature, lighting and, yes, TV with their smartphone. Giving guests the ability to run things in their room with their smartphone generates a feeling of empowerment and convenience that today’s travelers crave.
10. A Gentle Nudge to Join the Loyalty Program
I was really impressed with one of the apps we worked on recently (the app is still in beta phase now). The native app is robust and offers a lot of great functionality to guests, but certain functionality is grayed out and inaccessible…unless you decide to join the loyalty program. Doing so unlocks the full functionality of the mobile app and their loyalty program, which includes cool extras like access to a member’s only lounge, a free drink, late check-out privileges, and more. For app users who are not part of the loyalty program, seeing the grayed-out features serves as another little nudge to help convince them to join.
11. Useful Analytics and Feedback
A mobile app can provide a wealth of powerful user data, whether it’s tracking how often certain features are used or monitoring which upsells are being accepted. This can help you to adjust your strategy on the fly and make changes to improve the guest experience.
There have been a lot of people wondering if the golden age of mobile apps has passed and given way to the mobile web. Mobile-first websites are certainly critical — I’d argue that they’re actually more critical than mobile apps if you only have the budget to choose one — but apps are still a terrific channel to connect with your guests. With the right approach, they can be a powerful tool to increase revenue, loyalty, and guest satisfaction, while gaining invaluable insights about your guests.
This article first appeared in HotelExecutive.