Handheld Corp. Travel Apps Accelerate: Mobile Booking, Checkin, Expense Applications Use Soars - Business Travel News

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Handheld Corp. Travel Apps Accelerate: Mobile Booking, Checkin, Expense Applications Use Soars

June 22, 2009 - 12:00 AM ET

By Seth Harris

Use of handheld mobile device applications by corporate travelers has skyrocketed in recent months as some of the largest and newest travel technology providers have entered the market with mobile applications, offering flight status updates, itinerary management, hotel bookings and expense report management.

Meanwhile, suppliers have started to adapt some processes, such as mobile barcode airline boarding passes, which are beginning to make mobile devices an essential part of the travel process (BTNonline, April 16).

As smart phone usage grows across operating systems and tens of thousands of applications hit the Apple IPhone App Store, business travelers have been keen to equip their mobile devices with these tools.

This month, Concur began offering to all clients a downloadable application for BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices that enables travelers to add hotel or car rental bookings to itineraries and file expenses and photo image receipts. Since its initial March release, several thousand users have opted into the service. Travel managers also can approve expenses through the tool. The company now is developing the capability to change airline tickets through smart phones.

Concur is using Pyxis Mobile open source technology to build an IPhone application that is scheduled for release in the coming months, according to executive vice president of worldwide marketing Mike Hilton.

Sabre for several years has dabbled with such technology, including attempting to build a mobile phone version of online booking tool GetThere and using a text-based platform for its Virtually There itinerary management tool. In March, Sabre released a mobile Web-based version of the revamped Virtually There with flight alerts and other updates.

Meanwhile, its Sabre Travel Studios innovation lab in April jumped on the IPhone application bandwagon with the release of its TripCase trip organizer and itinerary management application.

It now is developing BlackBerry and Windows Mobile applications, which would have more wide appeal to corporate users. The tool updates the traveler on flight status, security line wait times and other information. The application is populated with a traveler's itinerary information from bookings made through the Sabre global distribution system or manually inputted by the user.

Sabre also is the largest investor in itinerary management platform TripIt, which has Web-based mobile versions and a free IPhone application, said TripIt president Gregg Brockway. Earlier this year, TripIt opened itself up for integration into other mobile applications through an application programming interface and now is part of five other IPhone applications.

On June 30, Amadeus plans to release downloadable applications for multiple operating systems that provide travel information and other services through its E-Travel Management online booking platform, according to head of product management for corporate and distribution channels Jean-Noel Lau Keng Lun. By having downloadable applications, which work offline, users will not incur roaming charges outside of their home network areas.

Egencia released its On The Go browser-based mobile platform in July 2008, which delivers trip information and schedule updates. European users now have the ability to approve trips through their handheld devices. In the first quarter of 2009, U.S. traveler enrollment in Egencia's mobile service increased by 33 percent, the number of companies enrolled increased 17 percent and the number of itineraries accessed via mobile phones doubled, according to Egencia senior vice president of product and technology Simon Tam.

Rearden Commerce released a BlackBerry application for its Personal Assistant online booking platform in May 2008. Rearden's mobile product development team is working on an IPhone application scheduled for release later this year. The opt-in service costs $1 per user per month.

While questions remain about mobile travel application's overall role in the managed corporate travel environment, usage undoubtedly is growing and some innovative travel buyers are starting to embrace the technology.

When healthcare company The Advisory Board Co. senior director of information systems and travel buyer Steven Mandelbaum went through an online booking tool sourcing process last year, he was looking for a tool with a strong mobile component and proper online calendar integration capabilities, which he said is key in increasing adoption for any piece of technology. "What can I do to make people want to use the system and get value out of it?" said Mandelbaum. "The best thing I can do is make the technology transparent, make it work in their daily workflow and not make it an afterthought."

About 150 of 500 Advisory Board frequent travelers have downloaded the Rearden BlackBerry application since its July 2008 implementation. The Washington, D.C.-based company does not use a standard mobile phone operating system across the enterprise.

Along with the sizable traction of the mobile application, The Advisory Board has increased online adoption from 76 percent to 96 percent without a mandate, and such ancillary services as dining reservations are used more through the mobile version than the desktop tool.

Mandelbaum attributes the quick success of the switch to Rearden to a separate communications campaign for the Rearden mobile app in conjunction with messaging through the desktop version and an accessible Web download.

For users, Mandelbaum said enterprise technology needs to be simple, easy and if possible automatic to gain traction. "If it doesn't have that criteria and it doesn't integrate well and it's tough to implement I don't care how useful it is, it's dead on arrival," he said. "IT resources don't have enough time to configure and install it. They don't want to support it and users aren't going to deal with it."

Booking airline tickets or other core travel transactions remains elusive on mobile devices because of screen sizes, resolution and lack of interest by many corporate travelers in originating their trip in the mobile environment, but the lessening of development cost barriers, broader connectivity and reduced hardware limitations are enabling developers to build mobile applications more efficiently and faster. With those advances, travel managers should soon see more applications and services.

The cost of a mobile site's initial development can be under $10,000, according to Michael Lacy, CEO of U.K.-based mobile travel technology development firm The Handy Group, which has built mobile versions for Hertz and leisure sites.

The price of the IPhone app software development kit is a few hundred dollars, according to Sabre Travel Studios senior vice president John Samuel.

However, other technology developers said that as corporations and consumers expect more out of their devices and content providers, costs will rise because enhancements will become more frequent and developers will have to build for new operating platforms like Google Android. Such barriers also will hinder the development of fully capable mobile online booking.

"It's expensive and will take a lot of iteration to get it right," said TripIt's Brockway, who also cofounded leisure online booking site Hotwire. "Mobile is a lot more expensive than people realize. It's straightforward to build a Web-based site like m.tripit.com, but to actually build rich functionality that sits on the handset is a bigger undertaking."
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