Mobile is fragmenting the OTA booking process and re-shaping their basic infrastructure.

For most online player’s, mobile represents more than 50% of their traffic, but has a much lower conversion than its desktop cousin. It’s no surprise therefore, that a “Mobile First” approach has become the key focus for most OTA’s with literally 1,000’s of A/B tests constantly being applied to try to find the ultimate “User Interface” (UX) for mobile sites.

The original focus of the industry was on “Responsive” sites, that optimised the desktop journey to represent it better on mobile devices. Quickly, the UX guys realised that the “Friction points” on a hand-held device from “big finger “clumsiness issues, required different solutions to mouse driven desktop interfaces. However, the “Real Mobile” difference, is the very limited time customers view their mobile devices at one time and the development of what the marketers call “Mobile Moments”. This means that the mobile journey must be much faster and to achieve this simpler.

The latest movement in UX is focusing on “Removing friction” in the booking journey. In laymen’s terms, this means understanding the users’ intent and ensuring that the experience provided is exactly what the user wants providing clear actions, in some respect this could be perceived as “dumbing” down the booking journey by removing any possible distractions. Just have a look at how different the “Booking.com” desktop and mobile sites are. On the mobile site, filters are hidden and once a customer is in the booking funnel, any distraction from the key goal e.g. book a hotel, has been removed.

The result is that ancillary sales such as car hire, transfers and insurance, are being shunted to a post booking pitches via email or clever “Remarketing”, using cookies that allow highly targeted “post booking” advertising of ancillaries. This “two stage” approach is facilitated by getting customers to downloading the “mobile App”, as even though many customers forget they have the app on the phone, it allows much more effective push marketing and links to content rich post sale processes. What is dressed up as customer service by companies like booking.com and Airbnb, is highly profitable in-resort revenue, relating to local excursions, transport options or dinning out. These allow them to maximize revenues once a customer has been acquired, but in a two-stage booking process. They would never interrupt their mobile booking flows with these options, but once they have the app downloaded they can easily become the customers “pocket passport” and sale a whole range of “ancillary” products by using both geo location and time sensitive metrics.

Other companies have adopted similar processes, but may become unstuck due to their dependency on email as the secondary customer contract strategy. As GDPR comes into effect next

year, travel companies will be able to email customers about their booking as part of legitimate interests, however it’s still unclear whether these emails can provide a marketing up-sell message in addition. The line between allowable customer service follow up and the sale of new products, looks blurred and grey to me. For example, is it customer service to offer a transfer to customers who have brought a flight or hotel from you or a new sale they have not opted into? I would argue it’s fine, but I’m sure somebody may soon object.

Speed is also a key in a factor in a “mobile moments” environment and multiple layers of “caching” are a fundamental requirement of a mobile site. Slimed down content pages driven by AMP or price caching to drive the speed of results pages are now common. Again, compromise is required and here it is the absorption of price increases during the jump from cache to live, as not absorbing reduces conversion by up to 60%.

The ease of linking between mobile and desktop to allow a booking to be started in a “moment”, but to be completed at leisure on a desktop is key. Currently the only realistic method of doing this is to get the customer to login, which is tough in the travel environment where customers are promiscuous and on average visit 23 sites before booking. Easy login tools using Facebook etc. have helped, as do high levels of repeat booking customers, but this is a hard one to crack and will be a massive advantage to the travel company that gets this right.

OTA’s are also taking a good look at payment options and how these can be simplified, whilst at the same time pushing customers to the cheapest merchant clearing option. From January 2018, the industry will no longer be able to charge the global 2% surcharge for booking with a credit card, compared to a debit card. Logically, most customer will opt for the greater protection and better payment terms offered by booking via their credit cards. Many OTA’s already have plans centering around flexible deposits and payment terms only available for customers paying via debit card, but these tend to be complex and conflict with the requirement to simplify the mobile booking journey. Again, I think we may see a two-stage process with deposits being taken in the simplest way possible and any complexities being aimed at the balance payment process.

The key conclusion from this article is that Mobile is forcing not only a shift in booking flow but also a fundament review of booking process and the infrastructure supporting OTA’s, with caching and two staged booking process soon to become the norm. Well it would be boring if the rules didn’t keep changing in my view!

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