Responsive Web Design, Demystified.
By Max Starkov
Friday, 1st February 2013
The explosion of the mobile and social media channels and the emergence of the new tablet channel present a major challenge to hotel marketers: Creating and managing digital content across three distinct distribution and marketing channels (desktop, mobile, tablet), as well as publishing the hotel's latest special offers and promotions on the hotel's social media profiles.

Over the past few years, industry experts have projected staggering growth rates in leisure and unmanaged business travel bookings via the mobile channel: from $753 million in 2011 to $1,368 million in 2012 (PhoCusWright), and have advised hoteliers repeatedly to embrace the mobile channel.

And yet, a careful analysis of industry statistics and projections reveals a very interesting picture that not all hoteliers fully understand: The majority of "mobile" bookings, room nights and revenue are generated by tablet devices such as the iPad, Samsung Galaxy and Google Nexus, not by "pure" mobile devices like the iPhone and Android- and Windows Mobile-based smartphones.

According to Google's data, 7% of all searches now come from tablets, vs. 14% from mobile devices and 79% via desktops (2012). Google projects hotel queries from tablets will increase this year by more than 180%, while queries from mobile devices will jump by 68% and desktop searches will decline by 4%.

Online travel consumers and Internet users in general exhibit a variety of behavioral patterns when browsing the Internet. For all practical purposes, the desktop, mobile device and tablet address different needs at different times of the day and week. According to Google, users searching Google utilize:
  • Desktop during the day (office)
  • Mobile during lunch break + happy hour
  • Tablet later in the evening when lounging, i.e., the tablet is a "lounging" device
The New Multi-Device World Requires New Solutions

In this multi-channel, multi-device world in which we live, hoteliers are overwhelmed by the variety of marketing and distribution channels and devices on which they need to establish and maintain a presence. It is difficult for many properties to keep their "old fashioned" desktop website up-to-date, let alone  the three different versions of the property website necessary today to accommodate the unique usability and content requirements in each of the three distinct device categories: desktop, mobile (smartphone) and tablet. This is why some hoteliers are becoming receptive to the "one site fits all" solution promoted by some web design vendors.

Many web development vendors with no experience in hospitality have been promoting Responsive Web Design (RWD) as the recommended approach to provide optimal viewing experiences across a wide range of devices, from desktop to smartphones. Coined by author and web designer Ethan Marcotte back in 2010, RWD has become a favorite sales pitch topic in the industry of late.

In my view, for content-rich and revenue-focused websites like the hotel website, fitting the desktop website into different screen sizes, achieved via traditional Responsive Web Design (RWD), is not good enough.  Just imagine using simple responsive design and trying to fit Marriott's desktop website (Marriott.com) and all of its 22,700,000 pages indexed by Google onto the iPhone 4S' 640×960 screen, or even into the iPhone 5's 640×1136 screen. Or fitting all of NewYorkPalace.com's 22,200 pages into a Samsung Galaxy S' 480×600 screen. Obviously, this is an unmanageable task.

Hotels should serve the correct website content for each device category (desktop, mobile, tablet) while ensuring the maximum user experience, relevancy of information and conversions. This is achieved via RESS (Responsive Design on Server Side), the next generation of RWD. This is why here at HeBS Digital, we do not use simple RWD capability for content-rich, revenue-driven hotel websites. We recommend the use of RESS instead.


The main difference between RWD and RESS is the type of web content served in the different devices: desktop, mobile (smartphones) and tablet. The traditional responsive design (RWD) will serve the desktop website across all devices while attempting to optimize the "viewing" experience. This may work for some small, non-revenue focused websites.

Responsive design on the serve side (RESS) will serve different content on different devices thus addressing not only the viewing experience, but also the critically important issues of relevancy and type of information presented to the user, and the visual presentation of the hotel product; while achieving maximum user experience, conversions and website revenue in the process.

4Hoteliers Image Library

Further analysis of online travel consumers and the unique characteristics of each of the "three screens" explains the need for specialized content on each device, and why fitting the desktop website into the smartphone screen or the hi-res touch screen iPad is not a smart idea after all:

Desktop users: The traditional "desktop" travel consumers need as much information as possible, including a minimum of 25-50 content pages per property and another 50-100 specialized marketing and landing pages featuring special packages, promotions, and events. Desktop users also place high value on visual galleries with photos and videos, customer reviews, and other in-depth information.

Mobile Users: The always-on-the-go mobile traveler requires short, slimmed-down content with an emphasis on property location, area maps and directions, real time "smart rates" and availability, an easy-to-use mobile booking engine, and a click-to-call property reservation number. Due to usability and security issues, six of every ten mobile bookings actually happen via the voice channel. Very few people are comfortable entering their credit card information into their iPhone in a public place. Very few hotel mobile websites provide an alternative to guaranteeing your booking without entering your credit card.

Tablet users require deep, visually enhanced content about the property and its destination. A well-structured, highly visual hotel tablet-optimized website can generate conversion rates several times higher than those of mobile devices. In contrast, tablet users have no issues booking a hotel via their device. A well-structured, highly visual hotel tablet-optimized website can generate conversion rates several times higher than those of mobile devices.

Across HeBS Digital's hotel client portfolio, tablets generate 200% more room nights and 430% more revenue than the "pure" mobile devices:

4Hoteliers Image Library

Apple's iPad rules the tablet world: More than 91% of tablet visitors, 96% of tablet bookings and 98% of tablet revenue come from iPad devices.


The desktop, mobile and tablet devices and their respective marketing and distribution channels should be treated as separate device categories. Three distinct device categories constitute the "Three Screens" to which hoteliers should pay special attention in 2013: desktop, mobile and tablet.

In 2013, upgrade your website technology to the next generation of Content Management System (CMS) to enable:
  • Management of desktop, mobile and tablet website content (copy, photos, special offers, events and happenings) via a single centralized dashboard.
  • Adopt Responsive Design on the Server Side (RESS), which enables specialized/different content to be served on different devices – addressing not only the viewing experience, but also the critically important relevancy of information and visual appeal of the hotel product, and achieving maximum user experience and conversions in the process.
  • Use analytics tools such as Adobe Omniture SiteCatalyst to determine contributions from and the dynamics of each of the three channels.
Of course, all three device channels must be integrated in the hotel's multi-channel marketing strategy.

About the Author and HeBS Digital

Max Starkov is President & CEO of HeBS Digital (Hospitality eBusiness Strategies), the hospitality industry's leading full-service digital marketing and direct online channel strategy firm based in New York City ( www.HeBSdigital.com ).

HeBS Digital has pioneered many of the best practices in hotel Internet marketing, social and mobile marketing, and direct online channel distribution. The firm has won over 230 prestigious industry awards for its digital marketing and website design services, including numerous Adrian Awards, Davey Awards, W3 Awards, WebAwards, Magellan Awards, Summit International Awards, Interactive Media Awards, IAC Awards, etc.

A diverse client portfolio of top-tier major hotel brands, luxury and boutique hotel brands, resorts and casinos, hotel management companies, franchisees and independents, and CVBs are benefiting from HeBS Digital's direct online channel strategy and digital marketing expertise. Contact HeBS Digital's consultants at (212) 752-8186 or success@hebsdigital.com

The article is Max Starkov's latest contribution to the "Successful eMarketing" blog on HOTELS magazine's website.
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