Not long ago, central reservation centers (CRCs) brought in the most sales for the hotel and lodging industry, but people now plan trips online and use online travel agents (OTAs) such as Expedia and Priceline.

Many hotels have developed enhanced e-commerce sites and guaranteed travelers they could find the best deals on the hotel websites, but hotels are not winning any consumers from OTAs. What is the problem? What can hotels do to get more direct sales?

In my opinion, hotels fail to compete with OTAs in the most important battleground — mobile devices. According to TripAdvisor, 85 percent of U.S. travelers bring smartphones with them on vacation. In the U.S., 23 percent of travelers use smartphones to look for hotels, and 18 percent use tablet computers; 31 percent use smartphones to read reviews, and 44 percent use smartphones to look for restaurants.

In order to gain more direct sales from travelers, hotels must embrace the mobile technology by developing a customer-centric app and transforming CRCs into MSCs — mobile service centers — to support the mobile app.

Unlike most mobile apps for OTAs, which are strictly designed to screen deals in one single platform, hotels have different apps for various purposes. For example, a hotel group may have one app for the company, another app for the reward program, a few more apps for different hotel brands and services (e.g., a concierge app) and/or many more apps for individual properties.

No wonder travelers get lost in the sea of hotel apps.

Hotels need to develop one "giant" mobile app that can provide travelers complete and exceptional guest service experience. Here are some examples of what this giant mobile app can do for travelers (and a hotel):

  • Sync travelers' information with reward program profiles: Travelers must log into the mobile app with the same credentials they use in the hotel's reward program. For security reasons, a valid ID of the traveler must be kept on file. Once signed in, an app is allowed to remain active on one smartphone only at any given time.
  • Search and browse available rooms: Travelers can browse different hotel brands under the same hotel group in a specific location and sort the results by a set criterion, such as best available rate and distance to a local address.
  • Make reservations: Travelers may make reservations, with or without a code, and with an option of checking their preferences (e.g., feather pillows, accessible room, etc.) or applying their preferences that have been recorded in the reward program.
  • Set up reminders: Travelers may set up a reminder for their trip(s).
  • Check in and enter the room: Travelers may "skip" the front desk by checking in with the mobile app. In addition, they may use this app as a room key to enter the guest room.
  • Make requests and orders: Travelers may make requests for additional amenities, room service, wake-up calls, and other services with this app.
  • Check out: Travelers may review/verify the bills and check out the hotel using this app.
  • Provide customer feedback: Travelers may fill out and submit an evaluation form with this app.
  • Promote sales and build customer relationships: When travelers are not using the mobile app for their hotel stays, they may opt in to receive regular but customized updates about new promotions or other news they choose, such as the hotel's commitment to the environment. Travelers are also allowed to share the content on other social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter.
  • Provide immediate assistance: During any time when travelers are using this app, they may also choose to chat with a real staff member for further assistance
  • Understand consumer behavior: The mobile app will also allow hotels to record and analyze consumer behavior with "rich" data. New marketing strategies and/or new lodging products may also be developed.
This giant mobile app will allow hotels to engage travelers before, during and after their stay in one single platform. With such a high level of engagement, travelers are more likely to develop a habit of checking this app often and, hopefully, use this app for travel planning.

To ensure this giant mobile app runs smoothly and customers' expectations are met, however, hotels must closely monitor the process. They also need to maintain immediate and effective communication between the app and the service staff in the property level.

There is a need for mobile service centers, which can be used to replace CRCs.