Would you block people who drive an SUV from parking and entering your store? Probably not? So why focus your mobile app strategy on serving users of a single device (such as the iPhone, for example)? iPhone apps may be popular. But limiting your mobile strategy to one platform effectively discriminates against customers on the basis of their technology preference. Not a smart move. We look at Premier Inn, a hospitality brand in the U.K. that wracked up record downloads (and bookings) by offering a cross-platform app that works on all leading devices.
In 2010 Premier Inn noticed that a large percentage of their bookings were being made last-minute by business professionals and people on-the-move. However, the vast majority of these premium customers were not using their desktop PC to find and book rooms, they were using their mobile devices. Or at least they were trying to.
The company’s website, which was not mobile-optimized to process this traffic, counted about 250,000 hits per month from people using mobile devices. “But we were only converting that into about 1,000 bookings,” Paul Canavan, Premier Inn CRM Program manager, told MobileGroove in an interview. “This showed us that customers were struggling to navigate the website with their smartphones.”
Not that the website wasn’t packed with the appropriate mix of features and functionality.
Specifically, Premier Inn’s PC website allows visitors to do a variety of tasks, ranging from browsing and selecting rooms, to pinpointing hotels on a map, to reviewing customer feedback on rooms and locations of interest. It further supports this functionality with call centers and direct marketing, channels and approaches that cater perfectly to the needs of leisure customers sitting comfortably in front of their PCs, or using downtime to plan their next vacation. Leisure customers are encouraged to book accommodation more than 21 days in advance through a discount rate, which makes them more likely to book over a desktop PC.
“But this wasn’t the facility for business people wanting to book their room on the move,” Paul says. Faced with such a broad menu of options and actions, it was clear that customers accessing the destination on their smartphones were getting lost or frustrated along the way. Premier Inn realized that the only way to serve its diverse customer base and convert the mobile traffic to its website was to “guide the customer through a simple journey.”
Smart approach to smartphones
Premier Inn needed a solution that harnessed mobile and — more importantly — allowed these premium customers to interact with the brand “at a time and in a way of their choice,” Paul recalls.
The approach would also need to accomplish two key objectives: promote customer engagement with the brand and streamline the process to make booking rooms and managing these bookings quicker and easier. Finally, customers “should have the opportunity to do all this on their smartphone,” regardless of make, model or platform. “While the iPhone is great, a lot of our business comes from major corporates, and the Blackberry is the smartphone of choice for many corporates. So, we didn’t want to alienate what is a significant percentage of our customer base by just doing an iPhone app.”
Thus, to connect with the largest possible percentage of their customers Premier Inn chose to develop a multi-platform smartphone app. The company partnered with app development specialists Grapple Mobile and charged them with the task of creating a cross platform mobile application that would work on all the leading mobile devices. The project was managed by Fujitsu UK. The app was released in early January 2011.
Controlling the customer journey
Why an app? “It’s all about focus,” Paul says. “We were really clear about what we wanted to provide customers. We wanted to give them the facility to book rooms while they were on the move and apps can help you to lead the customer on this journey. On a mobile website the temptation [for customers] is to browse, and the browsing experience on some platforms isn’t optimal. An app gives the brand the control and with it we can guide the guest through a simple process in three or four steps to get them to their goal. On a website you just don’t have that control over the user journey or the outcome.”
The customer journey supported by the app allows customers looking to book a room last minute to do so directly from their phone, whenever and wherever they are. They are also able to find their nearest Premier Inn, manage existing bookings, view photographs of the hotel rooms and find contact information quickly and easily. The app has a transactional element, allowing customers to provide credit card details to make a booking, but plans are in the pipeline to enable customers to pre-pay for rooms using their smartphones.
In Paul’s view, Grapple Mobile’s fully cross-platform app reflects the Premier Inn brand and appeals to the target demographic. “Business users aren’t interested in browsing. They want to make a booking closest to their postcode or the postcode at their destination. The service we provide them is to help make this as simple and quick as possible.”
Another advantage of the app is the price. “We have managed to get maximum reach for minimum investment. It is cost-effective to go across platforms. Today we are in all the major app stores and that is how we distribute the app.”
According to an interview with Premier Inn head of marketing Steve Conway (published by CIO magazine), the app was “already taking 47 percent of the company’s same-day bookings over iPhones alone” when it launched in January 2011.
Overall, the response to the app in the first weeks exceeded expectations. In the first six weeks Premier Inn reported that 1 percent of total bookings were coming through the app, “which was already higher than some of our more traditional distribution channels such as automated telephone [IVR].”
Additionally, the app chalked up over 500,000 downloads in the first four weeks across all platforms. “We were the top [free] app in the travel section for the first three weeks and we even made it to the Top 10 of the top apps across the Apple App Store,” Paul recalls.
Today Paul reports that the mobile app has generated gross revenues of over GBP2 million. (The company chalked up GBP1 million in the first 12 weeks.) Moreover, the app has been downloaded a whopping 250,000+ times since the launch. Finally, actual bookings (by customers using their mobile phones) has increased from “less than 1,000 per month to more than 8,000 per month,” a total that continues to increase week on week.
Mobile CRM focus
The app also lays the groundwork for an ambitious and increasingly multi-channel approach to CRM. “CRM is absolutely a core objective,” Paul says.
Part of Premier Inn’s strategy is sharply focused on building and rewarding customer loyalty. “We see the app as giving us the ability to deliver unique, focused individual business to customer marketing, and direct offers based not just on preference, but based on where the guest happens to be at any given time.”
Moving forward, Paul can imagine a variety of scenarios around the app and location-linked offers and discounts. Among these: the ability to push through the app an offer that allows customers staying at a hotel to book a table at a nearby restaurant and receive a 10 percent discount.
“Longer term, it will be about leveraging mobile to extend customer engagement and enabling guests to use their mobile to check in and pay for goods and services,” Paul says. “That’s real innovation and a step forward.”
On mobile the end-game is not only about brand awareness; it’s about brand interaction. In the case of Premier Inn the cross-platform app enables customers on all leading platforms to make and manage a booking on the move. The app strategy also fulfils the number one rule of mobile: don’t waste people’s time. Successful apps enable customers to do what they came to do in the first place. And extremely successful apps will encourage people to come back. As Paul puts it: “Keep it focused on what your guest wants and remember: you are delivering a service to keep existing guests and potentially acquire new guests.”