The Travel Industry still depends on the fax machine?

hotel-tonightBooking a hotel room online using your smartphone isn’t as simple and pleasurable as it should be. Hotel Tonight is making a difference but it can’t be an easy job: I’ll tell you why.

It doesn’t matter if you’re booking through one of the Online Travel Agents (OTAs) (like Booking.com or LateRooms.com) or directly with an upmarket hotel: seldom do you see an online booking system that’s built for the smart phone.

Take my wife for instance: she often has to stay in London overnight at the last minute due to work pressure. Because it’s such a frustrating, fiddly and time-consuming experience, in the past, she has depended on me to book a hotel for her.

This onerous responsibility all changed for me when I did my usual early-adopter trial of Hotel Tonight (HT) hearing the CEO Sam Shank launch in the UK at Le Web London in 2011. Do try and watch this interview as it’s pretty interesting and Sam talks about the revelation of the fax machine.

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Member hotels were a bit thin on the ground at first, but as a loyal early adopter, I stuck around for a few months and started using HT to book overnight stays for my wife in London.

When I first downloaded the iOS app (it’s now available on Android too) it took a few brief and effortless minutes to setup my account storing my credit card details in a PCI compliant vault. After that it takes me less than 5 seconds to book a hotel on my iPhone. (I don’t have to enter my card details every time)

In fact, the real test was when I received an urgent text from my wife one afternoon asking me to book a hotel room for her. I was stuck in a pitch meeting with the BBC – a handful of us in the meeting room and I couldn’t afford to look rude or indiscreet fiddling with my iPhone. I held it below their eye-line and in less than 5 seconds flat, opened the Hotel Tonight App and booked a room for her- at a hotel I knew I could trust. Seriously, it took one scroll and two swipes and I had an email confirming the reservation. Nobody on the BBC panel noticed me doing it! Best of all, after discovering Hotel Tonight for herself, my wife now makes her own bookings.

Hotel Tonight users don’t only love the app for a blissfully simple online booking experience but they can also rely on HT to curate the quality of the hotels they sell within a range that I have grown to understand (and trust).

How does Hotel Tonight offer such blissful simplicity?

Here’s a surprise for you:

It’s easy to think that Hotel Tonight uses highly automated technology behind the scenes. Booking online with HT gives the guest the impression that things are calm, quick and efficient.

Before I fully appreciated the hotel industry’s antiquated technology I guessed that Hotel Tonight was merely a bank of cloud-servers talking to the hotels’ systems: seamlessly feeding my booking details into theirs. Not so, I am afraid.

Sadly, HT has to contend with a Travel/Hotel industry that has made little progress modernising their legacy systems. They’ve built their slick smart phone app around an industry that still depends on- and communicates by fax!

HT employs more people than they care to (or you could care to imagine) Every morning their Account Managers phone their member hotels to see if they have any availability. And, as a guest, when you book a room, Hotel Tonight is forced to (are you ready?) fax your details to the Hotel!

Despite the brilliant job Hotel Tonight does on the App’s front-end there’s not much they can do to avoid this kind of Anger:

It’s virtually impossible to avoid… The Hotel will always attempt to sell their availability directly to save commission (even though they’ve pushed that availability into Hotel Tonight’s channel). Since there’s little automation involved there’s a good chance that rooms end up being double booked.

The plot thickens when the fax Hotel Tonight sends doesn’t reach the hotel’s workflow. Worse case there’s someone already in your room and you’re turned away like Dustin Curtis was. This obviously enrages guests because they’ve shelled out their dollars and operate on the fair assumption that the room is waiting for them.

Hotel Tonight (backed by Battery Investments) is surely on a spending spree acquiring hotel technology providers who may help them bring a little more automation to this process. So that is a consolation but things won’t change overnight.

Hotel Tonight sets a solid example to me as co-founder of Inn Style – a booking system for Owner Managed accommodation providers. Over half the rooms we have sold to date are booked and paid for on mobile devices. Where we’re different is we know, definitively, what rooms are available to sell and if our clients are supplying to the OTA then there can be no risk of double booking. We’re proud of doing our little bit to help small accommodation providers leap-frog their bigger competitors and to cut out the expensive middle-men by using real-time technology.

Despite the pitfalls of the fax machine why not sign up to Hotel Tonight when you’re looking for a last minute room in a hotel? You’ll thank me for it as it’s slicker than slick.

If you use the invite code amelrose you’ll enjoy £15 off your first booking. Disclosure – I get a credit too if you book with them but that’s not the reason I wrote this blog post!