Book A Cruise On Your Phone: Viator Wants To Be Your Realtime Travel Booking Solution

When you plan a vacation, you likely have a destination in mind. Location plays a considerable role in our travel plans, but really what makes or breaks a good vacation is what you do when you get there. Your trip to Hawaii last summer was enjoyable simply because you were in Hawaii and not at the office, but really what you remember is the scuba diving — and backpacking through volcanoes. These “travel activities” are essential to every travel experience and, perhaps unsurprisingly, have become a sizable business.

According to PhoCusWright report “When They Get There (and Why They Go)”, the U.S. travel activities market totalled $27 billion in 2009. Not only that, but more than $7 billion in activities were booked online in 2009, and the study predicts that, by 2012, the percentage of activities that will be arranged online will double.

Now, historically, the people and agencies that act as your travel concierge have been small operations, and few had websites — or rather, few had websites worth mentioning — nor were there global distribution systems that condensed all your globe-trotting discovery and booking options into a single resource. Thanks to companies like Viator, a one-stop-shop for researching, planning and booking tours and activities all over the globe (and countless others), agents now have central resources to consult — and bookings through their sites are commissionable.

But the real game-changer for a travel business is not just having an online resource, it’s having an activities planner, with a serious mobile presence, that allows travel agents to upload itineraries instantly and enables users to book activities in realtime. That’s the golden ticket.

Today, Viator is introducing two free apps for the iPad and iPhone that enable travelers to find and book activities anytime, anywhere — whether they’re planning ahead from their living room or standing in a hotel lobby just looking for something nearby to do for the next few hours. Each app gives the user access to Viator’s tour and activity portfolio, which lists activities like, for example, a private, after-hours tour of the Vatican and Sistine Chapel, or surfing lessons in Sydney, or a desert safari in Dubai, and so on. Users can check out Viator’s 260K traveler reviews and photos to get a little taste of some crowdsourced info so that they can better decide which scuba outlet to patronize.

As part of the new Viator mobile experience, the company has developed a backend proprietary system (essentially an extranet) that enables tour operators to upload inventory in realtime. This means that vacationers can book 80 percent of the available activities within 48 hours and that you can check out what’s being listed now, tomorrow, or six months from now. The new backend also allows users’ search results to be filtered more easily, allowing you to search by activity category, such as ‘family friendly,’ ‘tours & sightseeing,’ and ‘shows, concerts & tickets’ or date, time and even by hotel pick-up locations.

The company has also made an effort not to simply port its website directly into iPhone and iPad apps, which I like to hear. It’s important for companies to customize their services for the mobile experience — and for different devices. For example, while Viator’s iPhone app uses GPS to detect where you are and allows you to check out top destinations in your proximity, while booking in-app, the company’s iPad app is geared more towards inspiration. It’s designed for people who haven’t yet decided on a destination.

As such, the iPad app allows users to navigate top destinations via a rotating a 3D globe and to browse city guides, which feature content from experts as well as related images.

So, while Viator offers a bit of the mobile Foursquare experience with its realtime discovery of cool activities to pursue while in a new location, it’s also serving up a bit of Groupon by allowing users to scan exclusive deals in each local market. And, what’s more, prices are shown in the traveler’s currency choice and reveals percent savings off original price.

All in all, using Viator can be faster and cheaper than booking travel activities through a concierge service or your hotel, and since users can pay from within iPhone using a credit card, it’s pretty convenient.

Viator has raised more than $15 million to date and is currently profitable. The company currently provides the tours and activities for more than 2,000 affiliates, including major travel brands like Priceline, Virgin Blue, Lonely Planet, AAA, British Airways, Air France, American Airlines Vacations.

Also worth noting: All mobile bookings through May 31st will be eligible for additional 10 percent discount. The company also tells me that Android apps are on the way.