How mobile changes the web travel business

Mobile is turning travel on its head, and much like it’s changing the way thousands of other web companies do business, it’s also changing how Expedia (s expe) builds apps and thinks about its product. Instead of searching and booking travel, the business on a mobile device is about providing a concierge-like level of service for travelers — regardless of whether the traveler booked through Expedia or not.

Your mobile phone as your travel concierge

Joe Megibow, VP and General Manager at Expedia, who spoke with me at the Mobile Future Forward event in Seattle, on Monday, said that 60 percent of Expedia’s mobile hotel bookings are for stays for that night. The number jumps to 80 percent for its Hotwire property. This data changes how Expedia develops its mobile app. For example when you open it, the app assumes you are searching for a hotel in the location you are currently in and delivers tonight’s rates and availability on the first screen. But it also changes the way Expedia can interact with customers.

“Factor in the idea that you now have this connected computer in your hand that knows I am on a trip, who I am, where I am and the possibilities for services are huge,” Megibow says. Instead of being passive, a mobile experience can be predictive and proactive, reacting to the context provided by knowledge of the itinerary and the phone. When you check into the app from Denver, when you are supposed to be in Phoenix, it might trigger the app to offer to rebook a flight or adjust your hotel on your behalf.

It also could be a way to get rid of inventory at the last minute. There’s the hotel bookings for the night of, but there are also opportunities to serve a user if their plans change suddenly because of weather for example. If someone is on vacation in Orlando, Fla. and it rains, it might be the perfect time to send them a coupon for an indoor activity. The customer would appreciate an alternative and the vendor might appreciate a lead it otherwise might have missed.

Mobile means browser and apps

Megibow says mobile is the glue holding that experience together. However, mobile is not the end all and be all for a site. Expedia has divided its business into four sections: mobile, tablet, desktop and TV and in each channel it has an app and a browser-based strategy. That may seem expensive for anyone without $3.64 billion in sales during the last year, but Megibow says it’s essential because people use different platforms in different ways, and they all can contribute to sales. Half of the traffic to Expedia’s mobile web site comes from attempts to engage with other links he said, so to ignore the mobile browser site would disappoint customers who perhaps clicked through an email on their phone and then weren’t sent to the appropriate place.

Of course, apps have challenges unaffiliated with a web site, such as how to measure conversion rates for apps. “On the web site, conversion is king, but apps are more aspirational,” Megibow said. “You hoard apps that you might need one day.” To that end Expedia is seeing that the transaction growth on the Expedia app is four times the download rate.

So as Expedia adapts to the mobility, it’s doing so with the realization that the web still matters. He hinted that we should expect something along the lines of a user interface improvement after I told him how much I liked and used Hipmunk, so I’ll keep the site bookmarked and my eyes peeled. On mobile, I’m excited to see how far Expedia can take this shift.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Mark Wheadon.