Downloadable applications for the iPhone, BlackBerry and other smartphones are increasingly popular among travellers, especially those on business trips.

Their growth can be attributed in large part to the inclusion of GPS (global positioning system) technology in smartphones. A few years ago, a visitor to Barcelona who wanted to find a tapas bar would have had to type in the address. Now, their phone automatically knows their current location, making the whole process of finding any destination a lot easier.

Hotel groups and destinations that were recently busy installing Wi-Fi are now scrambling to tell the industry about their new mobile apps, especially those for the iPhone.

There are already many individuals and organisations trying to capitalise on this quick growth market, especially in the travel industry. The advice from experts is to be careful which applications you recommend to your clients or get involved with.

“It’s the Wild West out there. Many are forsaking quality for quantity”

Paul Nixon, who runs Roam Edinburgh, a digital guidebook application for the Scottish capital, says: “It’s the Wild West out there. Many are forsaking quality for quantity and are opting to release apps with very little content.

“You only have to read some of the reviews on the Apple store to see that some people have been duped into downloading an app which has not met their satisfaction.”

Peter McCormick, general manager of ExactTarget, a digital communication specialist, says: “The hottest apps in the industry combine the knowledge of a local guide by suggesting the must-see and must-do activities with information to keep travellers up to date with flight times, weather reports and room booking information.”

If the US market is any indication as to how things will evolve in the UK, which it usually is when it comes to travel technology, then transactions via mobiles look set to grow.

Bookings on smartphones in the US will reach more than £100 million this year, according to online travel consulting company PhoCusWright. Although this prediction appears a relatively modest figure, researchers say there is vast potential for growth for mobile apps that empower travellers, improve travel efficiency and build ancillary revenue.

Killer mobile apps are also a way of generating money for the travel industry. Consumers with an iPhone are more willing to pay for digital content than the wider online population, according to research by  media law firm Olswang.

In a poll of more than 1,000 adults and more than 500 younger teenagers about their digital habits, 43% of iPhone users said they would pay for an extract from a travel guide, compared with 32% of non-users of the Apple device.

But think before you invest in developing your own mobile apps. As Vivienne Dean from Web Applications UK puts it: “The question is, which do you prefer: application-based solutions specific to mobile phones or PC browser-based solutions that are more generic but harder to use?

“Neither gives universal coverage, especially with the expense of making an application for all platforms. Then there is the problem of getting people to use it once it’s created.”

Proliferation of standards and inertia among consumers is also a real problem. Everyone has a different phone and people grow tired of downloading new applications all the time. There are already more than 100,000 applications for the iPhone.

Everyone in the travel industry welcomes the rise of web applications, but with so many on the market, and with the number likely to rise significantly, the savvy agents will be those who think carefully about the ones they develop or recommend to their clients.

Expert advice: Which apps should you recommend?

“I like the Tripwolf app, which provides you with points of interest everywhere you are – so you can take your travel guide with you wherever you go.”
Jonas Sprenger, online marketing manager, Pixell Daten and Design

“Digital-guide applications are currently doing very well for a number of reasons. The good thing is that all the content is offline. This is very important when visiting a foreign country as many other applications connect to the internet, charging the user a great deal in terms of roaming costs.” 
Paul Nixon, Roam Edinburgh

“There are free apps that provide your full itinerary, real-time flight alerts and weather. A good translation app also comes in handy in an emergency, but it’s best to find one that works in offline mode, as networks always disappear in a pinch.”
Vivienne Dean, Web Applications UK


Case study: Snow report app

The Ski Club of Great Britain has just launched a free iPhone app providing snow reports. Abi Lee, the club’s new-media manager, explains how the app works: 

Q. How can agents get involved?

A. Once agents have signed up a client for a winter sports holiday, they can encourage them to download the app and keep up to date with the snow conditions in their chosen ski resort. There are also webcams and weekly snow depth information.

Q. How do mobile phone apps help agents?

A. The travel trade needs to remember that these resources are there for them to use to help them to book holidays, retain clients and keep people interested. For instance, most skiers want to know how their resort is faring – no snow, no fun.

Q. What are the challenges with mobile apps?

A. Awareness and getting the word out is a big issue. This is free, it’s new, and it’s available.

Apps at a glance

  • Most mobile phone users do not like to install apps unless they offer real value and the buyer can see themselves using it frequently. No one downloads apps for one-time use.
  • Agents should do their homework on an app before they recommend it to a client. Content and usefulness can vary by destination. Some are sponsored and can be biased towards companies with a strong marketing budget.
  • For travel businesses that want to develop apps, it can be a potentially lucrative market with good returns if awareness is high. It is a great secondary spend and can also add value to the customer’s experience of a holiday and destination.
  • The real challenge with mobile apps is making sure that there is enough content to meet all the needs of the client you are offering them to or designing
    them for.
  • There are a number of operating platforms (Apple, Nokia and Android) so simply choosing an app for one can often be quite limiting. Then supporting the application involves hardware, which presents its own set of challenges.