The value of now: Mobile surges as a last-minute emergency channel

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many residents were unprepared for the sheer scope and devastation faced by their communities. For those who did not heed evacuation warnings, or who were never told to evacuate, there was the near-term disruption of the storm’s destruction.

Most who have never been through hurricanes don’t understand that the problem is not necessarily the storm – that’s often the fun part. It’s the aftermath that is the most painful – days and weeks without electricity, the empty aisles at grocery stores, the endless search for more ice, the smell of trash not being picked up for days, the general slow re-boot of an entire region’s infrastructure.

Oftentimes, those who hunker down make it through the storm only to quickly discover that life after the storm is dreadful – and they quickly start looking for alternative accomodation.

This writer had the same experience after Hurricane Isaac slowly limped through New Orleans this past August. After 5 days in sweltering humidity, Hotel Tonight became the savior for ending immediate misery.

Of course, many do not even have landlines these days, so mobile becomes the immediate outlet for much of this last-minute emergency searching. Especially with a limited inventory of available rooms, mobile is even more critical as a quick path to accessing room inventory. has released a very compelling dataset demonstrating just how much a natural disaster can increase last-minute bookings – something to consider for brands just now embracing some form of the “book for tonight” model.

John Caine, Priceline’s Chief Product Officer, points out just how vital mobile can be:

Finding accommodations in a weather emergency is usually a race for a limited number of rooms.  A phone book and a telephone can be a time-consuming recipe for disaster.

Of course, cellular networks are quickly overwhelmed after natural disasters, so a back-up plan including a landline and a phone book might not be a bad idea.

Nonetheless, prepared citizens should generally secure a MiFi card from a different network provider as their cell phone for the best chances of a functioning signal – and thus boosting their chances of securing one of the area’s limited hotel rooms during, and after, a natural disaster.

Caine continues:

“The Hurricane Sandy data indicates that mobile devices and apps are emerging as the ‘go-to’ solutions for consumers when emergency weather-related travel is required. They are using these apps to help them be first in line for travel services.

And it now appears that, unlike the typical last-minute booking activity we see among mobile travelers, these customers are most definitely not waiting around to make their bookings.  In fact, our mobile customers may have been days ahead of the heaviest reservation request activity seen by area hotels.”

The Priceline statistics are compelling:

Looking at the combined booking activity for all three affected states, it was clear that speed in getting a room was important with Hurricane Sandy fast approaching.  On October 26th, bookings at hotels located within 5 miles of customers were running 67% higher than normal (Hurricane Sandy was still 3 days away).  By Sunday the 28th (the day before Sandy’s landfall), those bookings were 129% above normal levels.

Demand for rooms was keenest in the affected parts of New York State, where bookings at hotels within 5 miles of customers were running 132% above normal on October 28th, and 142% above normal on the 31st.  Also on the 28th, bookings at Connecticut hotels within 5 miles of customers were 109% above normal, and 108% above normal further south in New Jersey. 

As nearby hotel availability dwindled, customers broadened their search, despite deteriorating travel conditions.  On Friday the 25th, average bookings in the 3-state area at hotels between 5 and 35 miles away from customers were up only 22% above normal.  By Sunday the 28th, the more distant bookings were approximately 78% above normal.

In addition to the added miles, consumers were broadening their hotel star preferences in an attempt to secure rooms.  On October 24th, before the spike, the average star level requested by app customers was a 3.  By October 27th, it had averaged down to 2.91, then down to 2.61 on October 31st.

Take note of these trends, and be prepared to start searching for hotel accommodations as quickly as possible when facing a regional natural disaster. As mobile continues to grow as a booking channel, and storms begin to affect larger swaths of populated areas, hotel scarcity during natural disasters will increase exponentially.

NB: Fire extinguisher image courtesy Shutterstock.

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Nick Vivion

About the Writer :: Nick Vivion

Nick helps brands blog better at Ghost Works, a boutique blog management service. Nick was previously the Director of Content for tnooz, where he oversaw the editorial and commercial content as well as producing/hosting tnoozLIVE.



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