With a wave of us leaving for a short summer vacation, the timing couldn’t be better for a mobile advertising report outlining how we use mobile to reach — and enjoy — our final destination.

Significantly, travel brands — from booking agents, to hotels and resorts, to cruise lines and airlines, to tourist attractions and tourism boards, to regional transit companies and  rental car companies — are using mobile advertising to reach and engage vacationers and business travelers.

In fact, the recent SMART report (Scorecard for Mobile Advertising Reach and Targeting) from the independent mobile ad and data platform company Millennial Media, has drawn from actual campaign data to conclude that spending among travel advertisers grew 200 percent year-over-year in 1Q2012. Travel also took the number three spot on the Top 10 Global Brand Advertising Verticals (ranked by mobile ad spend). The vertical has had a top spot on the list throughout 2011, but advertisers stood as being particularly active in Q1, a period during which they proactively presented mobile users with post-holiday getaway ideas and travel deals.

On the road — connected

The SMART numbers match the real-life behavior documented by recent consumer research.  According to eMarketer data, which the SMART report also notes, travelers may be out of the home or office, but they prefer to stay connected to their world through their smartphones and tablets.

Predictably, most use their devices to check personal email, access map content and keep in touch with friends and family. But vacationers and road warriors are also in an interesting state of transition, a special state where they are looking for things to do, places to be and entertainment to pass the time.

In this new kind of need-state, people reach to their mobile devices for a variety of tasks. They search for local restaurants and tourist attractions (62 percent), consume entertainment (55 percent enjoy content at their final destination and 54 percent watch content in-transit), and make reservations (27 percent).

Have phone, will travel

A special area of opportunity identified by eMarketer (and confirmed by my ongoing interviews with leading brands and agencies around the world) is reservations. Put another way, people are not only reaching to their mobile to perform typical ‘top of the funnel’ tasks such as researching hotels, flights and restaurants, but they are also using mobile to make the bookings.

How Vacationers Use Mobile

According to eMarketer, 16 million consumers in the U.S. alone are expected to book travel on their smartphones. In addition, 36 million will be researching travel.

This is where mobile advertising can play a central role— helping to drive bookings and allowing brands to retarget people who have already downloaded an app, or responded to a campaign call to action.

Travel brands ‘get’ mobile

In a recent interview with Matt Briant — Regional Mobile Platform Director at Dentsu Möbius in Singapore — I learned that his agency is seeing a similar trend. As he put it: The percentage of the overall budget allocated to mobile is up across the board. “But the percentage of budget making it to mobile from the travel sector is growing massively.”

We also discussed why the travel sector has become so active, and so far along the learning/execution curve. Matt suggests that the travel sector is moving down the purchase funnel ­— past brand awareness ­— to encourage transactions because it can. (Look for more mobile insights and examples from Dentsu and others in an upcoming Thought Leadership project.)

Like retail, travel is a sector that maps perfectly to mobile — and to the purchase funnel. Automotive, for example, can harness mobile to support a variety of real brand objectives, such as brand awareness, footfall to the dealership and registrations for a test-drive. But few will buy a car using their mobile. For many other verticals, the story is a similar one.

Not so for travel. Here mobile stitches together a seamless experience. From finding a holiday destination, to clicking the app or site that allows us to book a reservation, mobile is our constant help and companion.

Purchase funnel

This level of activity creates the perfect conditions for brands to deliver effective mobile advertising if they get it right. The SMART report shows that travel brands are indeed leveraging mobile to connect with travelers and vacationers.

Among the findings:

  • Booking Agents & Sites accounted for 57 percent of the travel campaigns run with Millennial Media in Q1, using mobile to promote getaway specials and trip ideas for spring break and summer holidays.
  • Sustained In-Market Presence was the number one campaign goal, representing 62 percent of the Travel Campaign Goal Mix. To this end advertisers ran application download campaigns to encourage adoption of their booking and travel planning apps.
  • Travel brands are focusing spend further down in the purchase funnel. In total 16 percent of campaigns focused on Site Traffic as a campaign goal, and only 9 percent of campaigns focused on driving broader brand awareness.
  • Hotels, Resorts, and Cruise Lines made up 18 percent of all travel campaigns in Q1, enabling and encouraging people to make reservations and book travel directly from mobile sites and apps. Also: App Download represented more than half (59 percent) of the Post-Click Campaign Action Mix for Travel Advertisers, showing that brands have recognized the need to have a persistent presence on consumers’ mobile devices.

My take:

Connect the dots, and it all about taking the friction out of travel research and booking by harnessing mobile to provide people a convenient (and seamless) experience. Many travel brands are evolving their mobile advertising strategies to achieve precisely this. The next step will be to use the data provided by these campaigns to reach people who have responded and — ultimately — build loyal brand advocates.

This post is part of our Mobile Advertising Briefing Room, a thinking space dedicated to providing its community mobile intelligence, consumer research, case studies and industry best practices that equip marketers to reach and engage their target audience at scale. This discussion is hosted & sponsored by Millennial Media.