Travel rental companies are a niche sub-segment within the travel services businesses. The power of mobility has touched almost every industry vertical, and the travel industry is not one to be left out.
The industry is awash with a multitude of off-the-shelf travel apps that target both the end-user, as well as online travel agencies (OTAs). For the end-user, such general purpose mobile apps provide interesting features such as trip details, itineraries, travel guides, offline maps, trip journals, etc. While such apps have taken off amongst users, the reality is not the same with apps developed for travel agencies, more so for automobile rental companies.
Travel rental apps from developed by general purpose mobile application development company suffer from a common design flaw: they are typically designed more as reservation engines, and not as a vehicle for engaging with their customers. The outcome of this flaw is evident when we look at the ratings of these apps: they are all overwhelmingly negative, with customers commenting that they have limited functionality.
While a reservation engine is a fundamental building block to developing a travel rental app, it needs to do more than just enable reservations. For instance, National Car wanted to create a ‘rental tracker’ for its top customers identified based on their volume of rental usage. It brought together what it called its ‘Emerald Club’ of customers, and displayed mock-ups of its mobile app, which enabled them to:
(a) Make a reservation and check it online through their app
(b) Get directions to the rental lot
(c) View a ‘virtual aisle’ of available rental inventory in a given location
Once customers have chosen their rental vehicle using this app, it morphs into in-rental mode. In this mode, it enables users to view their rewards balance, available discounts and payment information. Users also get a reminder with directions back to the rental lot a day before their cars are due back. The app also includes common features like roadside assistance.
The benefits of custom app development are quite revealing to National Car. The outcomes for another player in the rental car industry, ZipCar, which operates around a completely different business model are equally revealing.
ZipCar is a pioneer in the rent-by-the-hour, pay-as-you-go car sharing business model. They allow customers to book rentals through their mobiles, and return the vehicles to a home spot, which is typically a side street in a particular neighbourhood. This is in contrast to bigger car rental companies which expect users to return the cars to a central rental parking lot. At their fleet control centers, operators can keep track of vehicle demand, driver reservations, and car maintenance schedules using home-grown software.
Zipcar’s app for the iPhone has been downloaded by 400,000 people, who use it to locate the nearest available car and even honk its horn. That has made it much easier for customers to find cars wherever and whenever they want one. Now the company has expanded to 55 cities and 225 college campuses in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.
What the two examples of National Car and ZipCar show is that in the automobile rental business, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits all approach that could address their mobile app development needs. The functionality of the mobile app needs to mirror the business model as closely as possible, while still making use of common frameworks. In both the examples above, the apps included a reservation engine (even the reservation engine had subtle variations), but once reservations were done, how the apps engaged with their customers was completely different. This difference in functionality could be achieved only with custom app development.