Going Mobile: Website or App?

Going mobile is bar none an important topic for 2011 and many years to come.  Just this past week, I was asked to review a mobile application (app for short) on behalf of a client property considering its options for the near future. The main question on their minds was: Is it worth it? I gave an immediate affirmative – it’s where the technology and customers are headed. At this point, however, a more critical question to ask is: Should you strive for a full-scale native app or a mobile version of your website?

The Mobile World
For those of you lacking a Blackberry, iPhone or Android, I’m sorry to say that you are now on the losing side of this battle. Your customers nowadays, with smartphones in tow, have more computing power in their purse or pocket than was available in a desktop computer five years ago. It’s no doubt these advanced mobile devices continue to sell in the millions each year across the world.  Their main advantages over regular cell phones are crystal clear: internet access through WiFi or 3G networks and, of course, the abundance of apps.

The construction and marketing of mobile apps represents another rapidly proliferating business. As of this writing, the number of apps available for the iPhone is in the hundreds of thousands. The other smartphones trail in numbers to Apple, but the reality for consumers is that there are still numerous apps to choose from.  In the travel world, airlines, magazines, rental car companies and cruise lines all have apps. Just as it’s now almost incomprehensible to not engage customers through social media networks, so too must hotels investigate their options to support mobile devices.

An App Versus a Website: Defining the Differences
The main difference between a mobile website and a traditional website are the size of user interface elements, layouts, viewable areas, and accommodating ‘swiping’ rather than ‘scrolling’. Traditional websites are built for computer monitors (over 1024×768 resolution) which are navigated using a mouse or trackpad. The user experience for a traditional website does not consider the much smaller, compacted screen of a mobile device. After all, the finger is much larger and less precise than a mouse pointer. A traditional website is viewable on a smartphone, but this can often involve excessive scrolling and difficulties using some of the site’s functions (i.e. dropdown menus, flash elements, other hoverable actions, etc.)

A mobile website is designed specifically for the smaller screen and the finger being used primarily as the navigation tool. For example, a traditional site may be coded with a width of 960 pixels, but the ideal width of a mobile site is 320 pixels.

The good news is there are a number of ways to serve a mobile version of the site to users visiting from specific devices. One of the more optimal methods to achieve this at the moment is by following the principles of ‘Responsive’ web design for your main website. This essentially includes building your website so that its layout elements will respond and flex to the various devices accessing the site. Of course, there are other ways to detect mobile devices, including the actual detection of the specific device using a server-side language, or even by creating a completely separate mobile website for smaller device screen sizes.

Advantages and Disadvantages
There’s no question of that certain cool factor associated with having your own app.  Mobile apps can be designed for very easy access of information that guests might want.  Or, you can cater different apps to different markets, such as a spa-only app or a golf app. Such ‘native’ apps tend to feel smoother and run faster on smartphones than HTML5 processes which are the norm for mobile websites.

But this aside, there appears to be no other major advantages. Apps require downloading though a facility such as iTunes, which in itself is a minor turnoff. And although you may set your price as free, the app may not be readily found by those not already searching it. Beyond that, one of the single greatest barriers for native apps is the cost involved in developing a separate app for each mobile platform. For example, if you want to be compatible with iPhone, Android and Blackberry’s operating systems, you’d need to develop three individual apps in completely different programming languages.

So what about updates? In this case, your app users will have to download each update, which is still one more step that doesn’t concern mobile sites. Plus, app updates are cumbersome; each revision in essence relates to a new version of the app that must be approved by the app marketplace. On the other hand, content management systems (CMS) allow you to simultaneously push changes to both your regular and mobile sites, making repeated updates a cinch.

Lastly, think of your target audience and their booking frequency. Does it make sense to have your customers go through the effort of downloading an app just for something they’ll access on average once or twice a year? Hardly.

Alas though, I’m tackling this largely from the perspective of an independent hotel.  If you are part of a big chain like Hilton or Marriot, then an app might make sense. In the same way an airline app provides a user with updated flight information and flexible booking resources, a hotel app aimed at a large demographic might garner enough utilization to make it worthwhile. For this, I stress that it’s the ability to get frequent use out of the app that makes it valuable.

As a relatively new technology, mobile app prices are restricted to those vendors capable of producing them. Native apps can become quite expensive primarily because a separate version is required for each mobile device. Also, some shops exclusively develop iPhone apps, which would require working with several companies to cover multiple platforms.

Depending on creative decisions and site capabilities, a solid mobile site can typically be built for around the same price as a relatively complex website, depending upon functionality and content management programs. Because this mobile site would be designed to synchronize with your regular site, additional maintenance fees would be nominal, if any. You should also consider that this may well be the faster of the two executions to implement.

The Bottom Line
If you are an independent property, I’d advise that you shy away from creating your own hotel app. However, you don’t want to miss out on traffic and potential bookings by leaving your website unformatted for smartphones, so definitely plan a mobile version of your site for this year’s marketing plan.

Conversely, if you operate one of the major chains, it would be smart to review your options for a mobile app. These dedicated programs will allow you to slate aspects of your property distinctively for smartphones as well as give you that chic ‘more than just a website’ buzz.

Either way, mobile devices are here to stay. Website or app, you have to pick a solution to ensure that you are well positioned to handle customers reaching you via smartphone. As always, sooner is better.

(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, published on eHotelier.com on August 11, 2011)

Larry MogelonskyGoing Mobile: Website or App?