Build a Better App: 6 Tips

By Christina Volpe, Associate Editor | September 12, 2011

The mobile application development landscape is riddlht_0911_spser_art.jpged with a number of hard decisions and pitfalls, whether it is choosing the right developer or mobile platform, or ensuring that your application is both up-to-date and continues to engage guests. To help, three hoteliers share their top tips and lessons learned from their mobile application development projects.
 
1. Do your homework
How well do you know your guests—or more specifically—what they are looking for in a mobile application? Take the time to do some research to identify your target audience’s needs and wants. “This is the beginning stage of development,” says Steve Timmer, director of marketing for the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme, Mich. “It all starts with really thinking this through and having a solid app that is smartly built. If you start it off wrong, it is only going to become ineffective as you go on. So you really do need to think it through from the get-go.”
 
“It’s great to have a mobile app,” agrees Amber Trunau, media relations and social media strategist for the British Columbia-based ski resort Whistler Blackcomb, but you need to “have a strategy of: a.) what it’s going to do, and b.) what’s going to help your guests. You need to figure that out before you go down that road.”
 
Whistler Blackcomb’s application, developed by Resort Technology Partners (RTP) and powered by Telus (http://telus.com), was released this past spring for iPhone and Android and features live weather data and trail conditions, lift statuses, trail maps, GPS trail tracking, live web cams, integration with social media, and the ability to purchase lift tickets. “Our basic objective for this application was to enhance the on-mountain experience for our guests,” says Trunau. To determine what features would work best for its audience, Whistler relied on its extensive quality assurance program. “We do survey guests on the mountain daily so we took some of the results from that research and just general guest requests, so we have a pretty good sense of what people are looking for.”
 
2. Handset considerations
What factors should you consider when selecting a mobile platform for your app? According to a July comScore report, Google Android and Apple continue to lead in smartphone market share, with the former outranking the later in terms of national sales. However, Apple continues to post strong app download numbers. RTP suggests that app download and usage are the big driving factors when picking a platform and that the best strategy is to target both Android and iPhone for an initial app release.
 
Additionally, operators should consider who their audience is as well as the future of the platform. “What operating systems to consider was a big question,” says Barbara Gross, general manager for the Garden Court Hotel in Palo Alto, Calif. “iOS from Apple allows our guests to use our app on iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads. We find that more of our guests have these devices rather than the Google Android devices. However, we will be thinking about Androids in the future.”
 
3. App aesthetics
When it comes to the application’s interface, simplicity is key. “The primary focus should be making it very easy to use so that anyone can take a look at it and quickly understand how to use it,” says Trunau. “Ours is quite an in-depth app so we really wanted to make sure that guests can easily transfer screens and get to the different functions that they need. We worked with RTP on ease of functionality within the app, but they were great in that they already had an existing platform that we pretty much use as our basis.”
 
4. Picking the right partner
If opting to hire a third-party to develop your application, there are a couple of factors that you need to take into consideration.
 
“It’s important to find a partner that not only has the technical skills but also has a business, or sales mentality,” says Timmer. “They need to understand the importance of driving reservations and call-to-actions from customer use of the mobile app. It’s not just a branding tool for hoteliers—it can and should be a direct revenue producer.” Grand Traverse Resort & Spa partnered with MacroView Labs for the development of its application.
 
“Depending on the need for the client, I think the most important thing is integration with the information that you are trying to get across.” says Trunau. “From Whistler Blackcomb’s perspective we chose RTP because they have such an in-depth integration with our e-commerce and our mobile ticketing already; we went with them because we had that groundwork already laid.”
 
“Don’t build a mobile app thinking that it just will be produced one time; there will be a need to maintain it,” says Gross, whose hotel partnered with Buuteeq for its app. “Look for a solution that will allow you to update content frequently to the app, and a developer who will be keeping the app up-to-date with the latest changes in the phone’s operating systems and capabilities.
 
5. Web integration
One of the biggest challenges facing operators is how to integrate their mobile application with existing systems. For those working with a third-party developer, the majority of that work is managed by the developer or through a chosen system. To ensure that the content being posted to its mobile application matches that which appears on its Web site, including room rates and special promotional packages, Garden Court Hotel manages content through its Buuteeq platform. “The Buuteeq product gives us total control,” says Gross. “Instead of having to depend upon our vendors to get back to us to change a rate or to change some information or to introduce a package,” that is managed in-house.
 
The Grand Traverse’s online booking vendor, TravelClick, worked directly with MacroView Labs to integrate live inventory into the hotel’s application. “What you see in our phone, in our app, is actually real-time inventory and real-time rates,” says Timmer. 
 
6. Measuring success
How do you measure the success of your app? “It comes down to downloads,” says Timmer. “If nobody downloads and uses our app it’s not a success. The number one metric that we check every day is downloads. From there we just study the content: what are our people most interested in, what is getting them to engage with the app?” Timmer notes that exclusive offers or opportunities that the public is not exposed to are the most accessed features. “Don’t ignore it. It is a marathon not a sprint—you have to always add content to it to keep it fresh.” 

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