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How the 5 biggest online travel agencies are expanding beyond mobile bookings

The next generation of mobile innovation for online travel agencies is moving away from transactions to influencing all parts of the travel experience, including loyalty programs, personalized messages and real-world sales.

Mobile Marketer looked at the mobile offerings from five online travel brands: Expedia, Travelocity, Kayak, Orbitz and Priceline. Although streamlining the mobile commerce experience is still a big priority for many, brands are also looking at how to leverage other mediums to gain market share. 

"We?re actively thinking about ways to use mobile devices in the future of hotel travel," said John Caine, chief product officer at Priceline, Norwalk, CT.

"Can a phone unlock a door?" he said. "Do you need a concierge? One of the most exciting things about our space is the rapid pace of technical innovation. Every new technology brings an opportunity to innovate."

Here is a look at how all five brands are taking their mobile strategies to the next level, in alphabetical order.

Similar to Starbucks and Sephora, Expedia is playing up content instead of commerce in its newest application revamp.

Earlier this month, Expedia rolled out a new feature called Media Lounge within its app that recommends other travel-themed apps. Media Lounge is aimed at increasing app retention with more than aggressive mobile-only offers, which is a common tactic for most online travel marketers (see story).

The brand?s iPhone and Android app is also set up so that consumers can view and share itineraries and opt-in for notifications specific to a trip, such as gate changes or delays.

Moreover, Expedia has pulled its Expedia Rewards loyalty program into the app so that travelers can redeem points for making mobile bookings.

Expedia?s mobile Web site is more geared towards spurring quick transactions, but the site does include the itinerary features. There is also a mobile Web feature called Scratchpad that syncs up cross-screen searches so that consumers can save hotels and flights that can then be accessed on any device.

Expedia is among a growing group of online travel brands that are leveraging Big Data to rethink the mobile and tablet traveling experiences. For instance, the company analyzes booking patterns to match travelers up to the best hotels and flights (see story).

Priceline acquired Kayak at the end of 2013 for $1.8 billion, which could reflect other consolidations to come as mobile becomes a bigger focus in the online travel space.

Kayak continues to operate as an independent company, with iPhone, Android, Windows Phone and Kindle Fire apps as well as a mobile site.

Similar to Expedia, Kayak also offers additional app features including flight trackers and a tool to manage itineraries. 

However, Kayak?s app also pulls in some other interesting information into the app, such as baggage fees, weather and images of destinations. The paid version also includes maps of airport terminals.

Kayak?s mobile site is a streamlined version of the app, with the features primarily tailored towards consumers looking for flight, hotel or car information.

?We see heavy usage at home, suggesting mobile devices are replacing desktops and laptops roles in booking and planning travel,? said Giorgos Zacharia, chief technology officer at Kayak, Stamford, CT.

?We?re also seeing travelers use mobile devices more for last-minute bookings, one-way flights, short-haul flights and same-day hotel bookings,? he said.

With mobile becoming the primary way that some online travel agencies generate last-minute sales, it seems that many brands in this vertical are pouring significantly larger amounts of money into apps versus mobile sites as a way to bolster loyalty and retention.

Kayak also recently launched a tablet Web site for a cleaner and more streamlined experience.

Orbitz is aiming to differentiate its mobile services with a loyalty program that went into place last year. The Orbitz Rewards program places a bigger emphasis on mobile bookings than desktop by awarding consumers with additional points for booking from a smartphone or tablet.

Additionally, members can view hotels in search results with their points already applied (see story). 

When the program launched, a feature called Zap that Bag let consumers earn $25 in bonus points for sending in a mobile photo of a checked bag receipt.

Similar to Expedia, Orbitz is also testing a set of tools that harnesses big data to improve mobile bookings. This set of tools includes heat maps and historical data.

Orbitz has also put a team together that specifically looks at the mobile journey of travelers. This group is responsible for developing some of the non-commerce parts of travel, such as itinerary lookup, updates and alerts.

?We?re looking at other opportunities to engage with consumers in-trip, starting with ignition around the actual flight experience,? said Chris Brown, group vice president of mobile at Orbitz, Chicago.

Priceline is betting more on connected devices and real-world transactions than other brands when it comes to differentiating its mobile strategy.

Most recently, Priceline rolled out a partnership with Routehappy scores that pulls together different pieces of personal criteria to help consumers find the best flight (see story). 

"In our quest to go where the customers are, we?re heading into some pretty interesting new territory, including recently-announced debut on the GM in-dash console," Mr. Caine said. "What?s next? The wristwatch? The TV?"

Brett Keller, chief marketing officer at Priceline, Norwalk, CT, also sees a bigger opportunity for Priceline to influence real-world transactions, including on-site transactions at hotel check-ins (see story).  

Priceline launched an in-car app with General Motors? Chevrolet earlier this year. The app relies on voice recognition to walk consumers through the process of booking a hotel or flight (see story). 

As marketers increasingly look to move towards more connected digital experiences, mobile plays a crucial role in how marketers will connect the real world to digital.

Travelocity?s mobile app and site are still largely focused on transactions, but also includes a few of the same features that the online travel agents do, such as travel planning and management.

Additionally, the app includes a built-in camera that recognizes a credit card to speed up the transaction process and mobile-only deals.

Travelocity has also worked with responsive design quite a bit.

In fact, the online travel agency claims that the bulk of mobile conversions have switched from iOS to Android as a result of going responsive (see story).  

Final Take:
Lauren Johnson is associate reporter at Mobile Marketer, New York