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Jessica Twentyman meets: the man driving online hotel bookings

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman January 29, 2014
Summary:
The recent partnership between Hotels.com and automotive company Ford is a major milestone on the journey to the ‘car of the future’, says Hotel.com’s vice president of global product, Adam Jay.

Adam Jay joins Hotels.com as VP, Global Product
Adam Jay

Customers who book hotel rooms through online travel agents (OTAs), rather than directly through a hotel chain’s own Internet channels, have a tendency to leave their accommodation plans to the last minute.

Recent research conducted in the US by travel industry advisory firm Hudson Crossing found that guests who book rooms via hotel brand websites, such as Marriott.com or Hyatt.com, make their reservations, on average, 25 days in advance.

Those who use OTAs, such as Hotels.com, for example, book just 10 days ahead of their stay. In fact, one in three of those booking through an OTA website leave it until the same day that they’re due to check in.

So what could be more convenient for these eleventh-hour customers than the ability to book a room in a nearby hotel, directly from their car, as they drive towards their destination?

That’s the thinking that’s powering a partnership between Hotels.com (a subsidiary of online travel company Expedia) and automotive giant Ford.

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At the heart of the deal is Ford’s Sync, a factory-installed, in-car ‘infotainment’ system that allows drivers to make hands-free telephone calls, control music and perform other tasks with voice commands.

Newer versions of this system include Ford’s Sync AppLink feature, which creates a hands-free, voice-activated bridge between a driver and their smartphone applications.

“There are two things that we’re looking to do initially,” explains Hotels.com vice president of global product, Adam Jay. “First, we’ll allow a customer to do a voice search for a nearby hotel, which would then link them through to our call centre to make the booking.

"The second piece is the ability to give instructions to the car: ‘Give me directions to my hotel booking.’ The app will then look up the booking and give you turn-by-turn directions to help you navigate to that destination.”

“We’re working with Ford to think through the safety aspects of this,” he adds. “We wouldn’t want people to be looking for their credit card details, for example, as they’re driving along.”

The road ahead

The first product from this partnership, says Jay, is “reasonably imminent”. (Earlier statements from Hotels.com forecast a release date of “early 2014”).

Either way, it will make Hotels.com the first hotel and travel app available on Ford Sync AppLink when it launches in Europe this year, to coincide with the introduction of the EcoSport compact SUV. Some 1.5 million Ford vehicles sold in the US already have the Ford Sync AppLink technology.

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Of course, this first foray into the ‘car of the future’ concept is limited in its scope: Ford Sync AppLink is only available in certain models and only compatible with newer mobile operating platforms. But it’s an idea that Hotels.com is keen to pursue, says Jay. Similar deals could follow.

In any case, the scope of Jay’s role is far wider: he joined Hotels.com in April 2012 and oversees the development and roll-out of Hotels.com across desktop and mobile platforms on a global basis, reporting directly to company president, Scott Booker.

In the second half of 2013, he led a design overhaul of the company’s iPhone and iPad app, which relaunched in early January. Android will be a big focus for 2014, he says, “and we also have a Windows 8 app, which we continue to invest in, but the biggest focus is iOS and Android.”

In a fiercely competitive - and rapidly consolidating market - mobile takes centre-stage as one of Hotels.com’s major points of differentiation for customers, alongside price and range of hotels.

In the US, 95% of the 2012 OTA market was divvied up between just four competitors: Expedia (which also owns Hotwire, Venere, Trivago and several others, including Hotels.com); Priceline (which owns Booking.com and Kayak, among others); Orbitz; and Travelocity (which last year signed a strategic marketing deal with Expedia).

Europe is heading the same way, says a recent report from travel industry research company PhoCusWright, with Priceline’s Booking.com and Expedia holding a 64% share of the OTA market in that region in 2012, up from 60% in 2011.

And then there’s the hotel operators themselves who, riled by the slimmer margins that the OTAs offer them (although not averse to the business they bring in), have begun an aggressive campaign to build direct (and more profitable) relationships with customers.

That means that customers still have a wide range of choice when it comes to booking a hotel room, but they tend to stick to with whatever channel works for them - and downloading a mobile app to a personal device at least implies an ongoing commitment to a travel brand.

“The mobile app experience is critical,” says Jay. “If we can persuade customers of the benefits of downloading the app, and then it makes their booking experience better, then that becomes a powerful means to keep them engaged.”

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