Hotels standing still as guests go mobile

Google calls for shake-up of Middle East hotels' mobile strategies

Google industry head of travel Nigel Huddleston.
Google industry head of travel Nigel Huddleston.

Internet search giant Google has called for a shake-up of how Middle East hotels offer their products to mobile users following new research.

Earlier this year Google released the results of its online travel survey which revealed that out of 1000 travellers surveyed in Saudi Arabia and 1000 travellers in the UAE, 48% said that they used their smartphone to engage in travel related activity – which could be anything from booking a hotel to searching for destinations or watching or posting travel videos.

In an exclusive interview with Hotelier Middle East, Google’s Head of Travel Nigel Huddleston revealed that: “The percentage of online searches on mobile devices and tablets in the Middle East is going through the roof, and perhaps most importantly now, the percentage of people trying to book travel through those devices is getting really big.”

However, Huddleston went on to question how ready hotels in the Middle East really are to accommodate this growing mobile user market, and whether enough of them are able to provide guests with capable online booking engines and infrastructure.

“The big question facing customers is whether hotels are able to enable that online transaction. For example is their website mobile enabled? Do I have the confidence in the hotel and that country’s financial services sector to input my credit card details? One of our findings is that there was a lot of intent from consumers to look for travel on mobiles, but that has been inhibited by not having a mobile friendly site,” said Huddleston.

Mobile Mistakes
Some examples of the common mistakes made by hotels online laid out by Huddleston include having an ineffective search function on their site, not accepting certain cards, not being able to switch between Arabic and English languages and even something as simple as having too small or illegible a font on their home page.

“The implications this has on companies here can be massive. Essentially, if you don’t make the investment into an effective and mobile enabled, website then you’re going to lose bookings because your competitors will,” warned Huddleston.

Despite the warning from Google, the potential impact of mobile users on the Middle Eastern travel market is not something that has been lost on the region’s hotels, with most of the large hotel groups already having launched, or being in the process of launching, their own dedicated mobile booking websites or applications.

Commenting on Google’s research, Hilton Worldwide’s Middle East & Africa director of e-commerce Artour Severinov said: “Hilton Worldwide has enjoyed double digit growth in mobile traffic to our websites in recent times.

Currently 30%-40% of our traffic is via mobile devices (smart phones and tablets) with up to 70% if we run tactical online marketing campaigns in local markets. Mobile is an integral part of our online strategy with easy to use design at every stage of the booking and conversion process. We customise our online messages for mobile and have built mobile optimised websites for that purpose.

“Our recently launched Arabic site www.hitonhotelsmea.com is bilingual (English & Arabic) and is built in HTML5 responsive web design allowing the site to seamlessly adopt itself to the user browsing device making the search and booking process very simple and convenient,” added Severinov.

Online Opportunity
Another hotel group embracing the importance of mobile optimisation is Jumeirah, with head of digital marketing Terry Kane stating that “without a doubt there has been a significant increase in mobile traffic to both our main site and our mobile specific website.”

Kane went onto explain that when Jumeirah created its mobile strategy, it made the decision to create different content based on which device the visitor was using, be it a tablet, smartphone or other device. Efforts have also been made to localise the content of each site depending on the location and language of each user.

Kane added: “Jumeirah has developed a site targeting desktop and tablet browsers, which is designed as an in-depth, image rich and dynamic experience. For certain mobile phone users we identify the device in advance of them getting to the website and present them with an “app-like” user experience designed to meet a different requirement but with functionality that enables them to book the same hotels and restaurants.

Our mobile site (m.jumeirah.com) is currently only in English, however, by the end of the year we will be in Arabic, Mandarin, Russian and German along with significantly increased mobile web-specific functionality.”

However, even taking into account the number of regional hotel groups already making the effort to optimise their online content, Google has reportedly noticed a key gap in the Middle East online travel market. According to Huddleston, this has inspired the introduction of the internet search giant’s own travel tools and hotel search products.

“We have started to develop our own products into the travel space, in terms of Hotel Finder and Flight Search. Now the booking is still through a third party and when you click a button you’ll go through to that company’s booking site, but the idea is to help simplify that incredibly complex customer journey online,” he said.

This, according to Huddleston, is Google’s next big step, and the company is still currently experimenting with different products and offerings, all based around the idea of ‘intent to action’ — the theory that online offerings portals should revolve around the idea of getting customers from their initial intent, to book a hotel or holiday package, to the act of making that booking in as quick a time as possible.

“The reason we have developed these products is because we know that 70% of people look at a map site before they book a hotel, the vast majority of people read reviews before booking a hotel, and if we can put all of that into one space then we get the user from that intent to action in a much speedier process than the usual search through 15 different sites,” concluded Huddleston.

The Story in Short
Google Travel announced the results of an independent study which revealed that out of 1000 travellers surveyed in Saudi Arabia and 1000 travellers in the UAE, 48% said that they used their smartphone to engage in travel related activity such as booking a hotel, searching for destinations or watching or posting travel videos.

The initial finding from the study also revealed that apart from direct advice from friends and family, the internet has now become the number one source for trip planning for more than a third of leisure travellers surveyed (39% UAE, 38% KSA).

This number rises for business travellers — in the UAE it jumps to 50%, while in KSA it jumps to 48%. As a result, Google has advised hotels to take action to ensure their online content and booking engines are mobile-enabled, as well as announcing plans to launch its own travel products onto the market.

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