For years, hospitality executives have been talking about how their apps are a critical part of their loyalty and guest engagement strategies during all stages of booking, staying and departing.
In an era when everyone lives on their phones, it’s no surprise.
And as mobile applications have become increasingly important, they’ve evolved. IHG, for example, released updates to its IHG One Rewards mobile app earlier this fall including one that’s particularly attention-grabbing: The company mapped its properties and now lists its rooms with details such as view, floor, the amount of space and other amenities, allowing guests to select and book rooms based on what meets their preference for their stay experience.
The mobile app landscape’s evolution aligns with an ongoing trend of personalization and experience prioritization among travelers, according to Josh Weiss, IHG’s vice president of product for guest and digital platforms.
“It used to be enough to say things like high floor and low floor, away from an elevator (or) near an elevator … or obviously king bed (or) queen bed,” Weiss said. “Certain basic attributes like that were, in many cases, enough for most people. But travelers have really changed in terms of the type of customization that they want to achieve.”
As customization becomes paramount, mobile applications have evolved to help meet those expectations, according to Robert Cole, Phocuswright senior research analyst for lodging and leisure travel.
“Mobile apps started as little more than condensed websites adapted for phone screen real estate,” he said. “They then added booking engines, touchless check-in, mobile key, guest messaging, food ordering, Wi-Fi access, folio settlement, guest reviews and reward program management.”
Mobile apps have become central to guest experience, Cole continued. “Ultimately, hoteliers should be striving to become the home base for the guest destination travel experience – with the mobile app as the primary point of contact.”
Like IHG, many large hotel brands are prioritizing their apps’ advancement – some are even looking to implement tools like generative artificial intelligence.
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Hotels are prioritizing mobile apps
Three-quarters of travelers appreciated travel apps that can lower friction and travel-related stress levels, the Hilton 2024 Trends Report found. So the company seeks to do just that with its Hilton Honors app, said Dan Morton, the company’s vice president of guest experience.
“Hilton Honors app usage has and continues to increase,” he said.
Likewise, widespread adoption of the Marriott app has been underway since before the pandemic, said Charlie Durkin, vice president of mobile products for Marriott.
“It accelerated over the past few years with the desire for more contactless service,” Durkin said. “In 2022 alone, our hotels saw more than 80% year-over-year growth in mobile check-ins using the app and a 30% growth in both chats and mobile key usage.”
That growth has continued at Marriott this year, and the brand is deploying experiences that it said has kept users returning. “Our active user base has grown substantially [+78% since 2019], which has led to the app becoming the largest contributor of room nights among Marriott International’s digital direct channels,” Durkin said.
Marriott’s mobile app is its fastest growing channel, Durkin said. The majority of the brand’s digital customers want to do business on the app – especially its most loyal customers, he added.
For Wyndham, tech has been a big priority – the Wyndham Hotels & Resorts mobile app included.
“Over the last five years, Wyndham has invested over $275 million in technology, ensuring our franchisees have the tools they need to deliver memorable experiences to guests all over the world and drive business to their bottom line – our mobile app is key in delivering on that,” said Scott Strickland, chief information officer of Wyndham Hotels & Resorts.
Strickland added: “Our guests are more connected to their phones than ever before, and we’ve strategically positioned our app to meet the evolving guest expectations we’re seeing today. Our app brings this all together, allowing guests to book their stay, connect with the hotel and engage with our award-winning Wyndham Rewards loyalty program – all in one place.”
And IHG Hotels & Resorts emphasized last month it has been releasing updates on its IHG One Rewards mobile app as it becomes a focus for the hospitality brand, which reported an increase in downloads in August.
“At IHG, we believe that technology can redefine hospitality, and our IHG One Rewards mobile app is a testament to that,” said Jolie Fleming, senior vice president of guest products and platforms at IHG Hotels & Resorts. “We knew that by placing our app at the center of delivering choice and control to our guests, we could stand out in the industry.”
The IHG One Rewards mobile app and the company’s digital channels are its “fastest growing” booking channels, said Weiss, and those features drove more than half of all of IHG’s digital bookings in 2023.
How guests use hotels’ mobile apps
While mobile applications often offer similar features, they sometimes vary.
The Hilton Honors App offers members access with digital check-in and a digital key that allows guests to skip the front desk, choose their room, unlock their room door and also the elevators. There’s also a feature for sharing digital keys among travelers’ groups.
The app can also be used to personalize in-room television experiences with streaming applications and more.
The Marriott Bonvoy Mobile App allows users to discover, search, plan and book — while also offering tools to improve in-stay experiences. Durkin pointed to features like “Road Trips,” which allows users to look for hotels situated along a road trip route and to search by activity.
On the Wyndham Hotels & Resorts app, guests can book, check in and check out as well as tip on mobile.
IHG’s Weiss is betting on the evolution of travelers’ desires and the promise of in-app inspiration as they move forward with features accessible to app users.
“Traditionally, apps were primarily focused on being a really effective booking funnel – and that’s still super important,” he said. “But … it also has to offer some of those experiential pieces as well. And so we’re really trying to balance – we definitely want to be a really easy, effective, convenient global place to book. But we also want to offer these little moments of inspiration or something that delights someone without detracting from that core booking experience. But for those that want to explore a little bit, add something a little bit more custom, do something a little bit local and fun … they have the ability to do it.”
On the IHG One Rewards app, users can create travel wish lists, see their room charges in real time, make a customized room selection based on features, explore their loyalty benefits, connect to Wi-Fi and more.
How hotels use generative AI in mobile apps
Generative AI has been the most prominent technology topic of 2023, and many travel brands brands, such as Expedia Group, Tripadvisor and MakeMyTrip among others, have begun to incorporate it into their apps and websites.
Hotels, however, have been relatively quiet on their work with generative AI. Marriott is among the brands that said it is working on integrations.
Ultimately, hoteliers should be striving to become the home base for the guest destination travel experience – with the mobile app as the primary point of contact.
Robert Cole – Phocuswright
“We hope to make the Marriott Bonvoy Mobile App an indispensable travel product for our customers and the go-to discovery, booking and loyalty destination for our Marriott Bonvoy members,” Durkin said. “To get there, we will continue to enhance our core product experience while testing new capabilities, including AI and natural language search — all with the aim of further seamlessly connecting our customers to our unmatched portfolio of travel products.”
At Wyndham, generative AI is already in play, per Strickland.
“We’re already using AI to drive efficiency today,” he said. “For example, we’re leveraging it in our call centers and integrating it into our property management systems so common guest questions can be addressed, and thereby giving team members more time to focus on other guest needs that require that human touch.”
Natural language search and generative AI are “main priorities” as Wyndham considers the future – including on mobile apps, Strickland said. “It’s critical that we deliver an experience for guests that balances the right level of personal connection – an emotional attachment to our hotels, our brands and our loyalty program – and this innovative technology can help us to deliver that by amplifying what we’re able to do on a daily basis.”
Strickland added that as the company looks ahead, it is considering additional ways to bridge physical and digital guest experiences.
“We will continue adding new technology features that improve the guest experience, like the use of augmented reality to help guests understand the layout of a hotel room, as one example,” he said. “There’s a lot ahead, and we know investing in technology will be a critical piece for our franchisees.”
Hilton’s Morton said the brand is planning to launch additional capabilities to enable self-service and reduce friction for guests during their stays.
Weiss said IHG is looking ahead at innovation to try to edge out competition and drive revenue. The company has put together a “GenAI Steering Committee” composed of leaders from various functions who seek to provide guidance on how to use the technology while ensuring that its customers remain the priority.
Weiss offered an example on how generative AI might be incorporated: “Today guests book a room by location and date,” he said. “In the future, leveraging GenAI we want to allow guests to find hotels by an event [like a concert], distance from home or even by the weather forecast.”
Phocuswright’s Cole sees both opportunities and challenges for hotels in working with generative AI.
“Generative AI could be used to produce a lot of positive benefits,” he said. “However, the challenge with generative AI is that it needs to be trained on quality data.”
Cole continued: “It could be great and incredibly powerful. The challenge is that it is also incredibly difficult if the underlying data required for AI model training is not clean or readily available.”
Could hotel apps be a larger part of brand strategy?
While improving the technology behind mobile applications is important and top of mind for many brands, Cole believes that relevance is part of what hotels should strive for with their apps. He thinks there’s room for growth outside of the immediate travel purpose.
“Now that (apps) are being used as mobile keys, more guests are downloading them,” Cole said. “The key for the successful future hotelier is figuring out how to expand usage beyond the stay itself.”
He added: “There are huge opportunities, for example, not many hotels are doing it now, but there are big opportunities for upscale properties with food service and/or meeting space to engage guests who live in their local communities – when they aren’t traveling.”
The mobile app should become the primary point of contact and the home base for destination travel through hotels, he said.
The Phocuswright Conference 2023
Hear from Hilton’s vice president of partnership development and global distribution, Oral Muir, at the event November 13-16 in Fort Lauderdale.