Killer Apps & Mobile Menaces: Travel Apps Most Apt - Business Travel News

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Killer Apps & Mobile Menaces: Travel Apps Most Apt

October 27, 2010 - 04:00 PM ET

By Michael B. Baker

Mobile applications can assist business travelers with nearly every aspect of their trip once they're on the ground and, through other applications on the back end of travel, buyers are finding ways to ensure these helpful applications are not harming compliance.

Once the travel day arrives, travelers' mobile devices can get them aboard a plane, procure transportation to their hotel, help them navigate the city and its public transportation systems and book dinner reservations for the evening. Hotels have lagged other travel vendor categories in applications—and many of the large brands' applications largely are for travelers to manage rewards and book stays—but a few, such as Omni Hotels, allow travelers to check in remotely.

Individual hotels have worked with third-party developers to present deeper mobile offerings. Texas' Westin Austin, for example, this summer partnered with Los Angeles-based Runtriz for an application through which guests can order food, request their car from the valet and schedule spa appointments.

Eventually, mobile devices could allow travelers to bypass hotel check-in altogether. InterContinental Hotels Group in late September announced that it is piloting technology that allows travelers to use mobile phones as room keys.

IHG has begun testing the technology, called MobileKey, at the Holiday Inn & Suites Chicago O'Hare Rosemont and the Holiday Inn Express Houston Downtown. The properties are inviting travelers via e-mail to receive secure links on mobile devices to encrypted tones that can open room doors on arrival, bypassing the front desk when checking in.

"More of our guests, especially Gen-Y and business travelers, are looking for simpler, more efficient ways to check in and get to their rooms," IHG senior vice president of revenue and guest technology Bryson Koehler said. "Due to the proliferation of mobile devices, a MobileKey could be a great option."

Top applications for travelers on the road, said Travel Technologies president Jon Farrier during a panel discussion on mobile solutions at the National Business Travel Association's recent International Convention & Exposition, include restaurant/dining applications Yelp and Urbanspoon. Yelp maps nearby restaurants with user ratings, while Urbanspoon lets travelers search a city for restaurants by cuisine type and price, even featuring a slot-machine-style randomizer if they would like to leave their dining experience to chance.

Another popular travel application is Taxi Magic, an application that integrates with taxi dispatch systems. With it, travelers book taxis from a mobile phone, track their arrival, charge rides to their corporate cards and receive electronic receipts. Participating taxi suppliers include cabs in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and Seattle.

Michelle De Costa, global travel manager at technology and marketing consulting firm Sapient, said her travelers use the Sapient-produced application GoHow Airport, which helps them navigate the airport on their day of travel. It launched for Denver International Airport and is spreading to other airports, she said. "It does flight tracking, but it has other features, like showing you airport dining options," she said. "If your flight's delayed, it can tell you healthy food options around Gate 28, for example."

As with hotels, car rental vendor applications largely center on finding locations and mobile booking. While such capabilities are helpful to travelers, they can be a headache to travel buyers trying to maintain a corporate policy.

"The challenge of mobile is that it decentralizes the decision and purchasing process," said Tom Wilkinson, president of TRW Travel & Expense Management in Pennington, N.J. "The more powerful these tools are, the more likely it is users can make decisions out of a managed environment and violate corporate policies that help the company safeguard and keep in touch with travelers."

Mobile applications also are proliferating on the back end of travel, boosting buyers' abilities to enforce policy. Expense management supplier CyberShift is one of the granddaddies of that trend, having allowed users to manage expense reports on a BlackBerry since 2007. Concur launched Concur Mobile in 2009 and since has integrated several applications into its platform, including Taxi Magic and the restaurant reservations application OpenTable.

"We're enhancing the level of information that's available to the traveler while on the trip," said Mike Hilton, Concur's executive vice president of worldwide marketing. "We're also looking at the ability to share itineraries through sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter."

Sapient's De Costa said her travelers use Concur's mobile solution, and the new version seems to have worked out some of the kinks in the first version. "It's great for calendaring and scheduling dining reservations and taxi reservations," she said. "We provide a lot of feedback to them. Being a technology company, we have no shortage of feedback."

TRW's Wilkinson said ultimately airlines, hotels and other suppliers, rather than travel management companies or third parties, will develop applications designed to directly help travel management, not just the travel process. "For example, if you were checking into a flight or a hotel, it would be great if a mobile message could be sent back to corporate, showing the rate you paid versus the corporate rate," he said. "When that becomes prevalent, buyers will be giving these tools to users to make life easier."

This report originally appeared in the Oct. 25, 2010, issue of Business Travel News.

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