Forget the touch of a button; the tap of a finger can get you a hotel reservation or information on attractions along the Grand Strand.
More consumers are tapping away at their smartphones or tablet computers for information, and multiple Grand Strand businesses are trying to harness that trend to get travel information to vacationers.
Organizations including the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce are reporting a rapid increase in the amount of web traffic coming from mobile devices. Hotels and attractions are making moves to accommodate mobile users by launching mobile websites or applications. Some businesses have sprung up purely based on making money on Myrtle Beach travel applications that can be downloaded to smartphones.
"We just need to provide more ways to access," said Bill Golden, president and CEO of marketing group Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, which launched a mobile site last year. "[Consumers] are dictating how they're consuming information, and we have to make sure the information is there for them to consume."
Business officials say that mobile technology will only become more interactive, possibly intermingling with social media or syncing up with traditional print ads.
A search last week on an iPhone found roughly 20 downloadable applications that deliver information on Myrtle Beach. A destination such as Orlando yields hundreds. Several Myrtle Beach-related applications that launched last year have already been downloaded thousands of times.
People - especially vacationers separated from their computers - are turning toward mobile devices whether businesses have prepared a special website or accommodation for them or not.
"You cannot go back to turn on the computer," said Ran Wei, a journalism professor at the University of South Carolina. "They're on vacation, they're armed with iPad and phone and that's where they go first."
Mobile takes off
Apple Inc. began driving mobile Internet trends in 2007 with the introduction of the iPhone, Wei said.
"The iPhone really transformed the user experience," he said. "The perception of a phone is less like a phone, more like a minicomputer in your hand."
Mobile applications, more commonly known as apps, caught on as a result, Wei said, and are now a mainstay of most mobile devices. The apps allow a user to perform one simple task, he said, such as play a game or look up a weather forecast. Apps are also used on phones such as those that run Google's Android operating system.
The quick and easy nature of apps attracted mobile phone users and can be somewhat addictive, Wei said.
"I use some myself and, the more I use it, the more I like it because it's so simple, so easy," he said.
Apps are slower to catch on in South Carolina than the rest of the country, but that'sstarting to change, said David Barry, a Myrtle Beach resident who founded Android app developer Open Raider in February.
"We used to joke when you move to South Carolina, I'm stepping back in tech 10 to 20 years, and we're behind the times," said Barry, originally from Los Angeles. "We've got a lot of tourists that come here that aren't behind the times."
In about two months in business, Barry has already developed two apps for companies, two game apps and has five more apps in development. He's now learning how to program iPhone apps, he said.
Mobile websites versus apps
The 20 Myrtle Beach-related iPhone apps and roughly 23 Android apps vary widely in scope.
The Hampton Inn & Suites Oceanfront has an app that shows a live video feed of the beach shot from the hotel. One app simply gives maps of the area.
Apps like Myrtle Beach Mobile aim to be a more complete vacation guide, giving information in categories such as accommodations and restaurants.
Grand Strand organizations like the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce and Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday have gone a different route, tailoring their existing websites to mobile devices.
Mobile users could access the chamber's normal website in the past, but the mobile website that launched Jan. 1 ensures the site will be compatible with certain devices, Scott Schult, the chamber's executive vice president of marketing, said around the time of the launch. Mobile-optimized websites differ from apps in that they must be accessed through a phone's Internet browser, similar to how a person would access a website on a normal computer.
The number of unique visitors who used mobile phones to access the Myrtle Beach Area chamber's website rose 55 percent for 2011 year-to-date compared to 2010. That's almost 100,000 visitors and accounts for about 7 percent of all of the chamber's web traffic, Schult said in an interview last week.
The chamber isn't likely to develop its own app because it doesn't see a clear advantage to doing so, but that could change, he said.
Myrtle Beach-based Fuel Interactive, a venture between The Brandon Agency and MyrtleBeach.com owner Intellistrand, developed software that allows consumers to book rooms through a mobile version of hotels' websites. Nearly 20 hotel properties were using the service by February, the company said in a news release early last month.
To pay or not to pay
Apps also differ from mobile websites because they can choose to charge for their content. Myrtle Beach iPhone apps range in price from free to $3.99. For Google Android apps, prices top off at about $1.
Liz Mitchell, who produces content for the Myrtle Beach's Best app with her husband Charlie Mitchell, decided to charge $2.99 for the iPhone app, the price her publisher recommended. Mitchell and her husband also authored a pair of travel books for Hilton Head Island and Myrtle Beach last year before producing the app-based travel guides for the destinations.
"It's fairly standard belief that you get what you pay for," Mitchell said. "A lot of people understand if they get something free that might be exactly what it's worth."
Jackie Miller, president and owner of Myrtle Beach Mobile, said she decided not to charge for her app to get the widest audience possible. The travel guide app, launched on iPhones in December and Android phones in February, is paid for with advertising and businesses can pay to add more to their listing beyond basic information, she said.
"We figure the more eyeballs we get then that makes it an app that advertisers will benefit from being on," Miller said. "I know that the tendency is you always go with the free app first."
Myrtle Beach Mobile has been downloaded roughly 5,500 times as of last week, Miller said. Mitchell said Myrtle Beach's Best app has been downloaded hundreds of times, but did not know the exact number.
Whether it's better to charge or not depends on the type of app, Wei said.
"If you're targeting general use, free is better, but if you're marketing something unique and you can't get it everywhere putting a price to it makes sense," he said.
Mobile meet social
Mobile media will be mixed with social and traditional media campaigns and the level of interactivity through mobile devices will only increase, those who work with mobile apps and websites say.
Schult said he sees opportunities to incorporate social media with its existing mobile efforts. Visitors to Myrtle Beach have the potential to make videos and use social media to expose and possibly attract vacationers who have never been to the Strand, he said. The chamber is looking at ways to incorporate more social media and may announce plans to that effect in the next two or three months, Schult said.
"Mobile and social are perfect for one another," he said. "People are already and have been and will continue to use their mobile devices to create content and distribute content through the many social channels that are out there."
Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday has had a 167 percent increase in traffic to its mobile website so far this year compared to 2010, when the site launched, Golden said.
The marketing group is considering building on that by using quick response codes in magazine ads that a consumer could scan or photograph with their mobile phone, Golden said. Scanning the black and white checkered boxes of the QR codes would bring up a video or a certain page on Golf Holiday's website, he said.
Barry has already used QR codes to put on fliers at a veterinary clinic that he developed an app for. If a customer scans the code, it automatically downloads the clinic's app, he said.
PARC Management, operator of NASCAR SpeedPark, launched an app last summer that gives information on the park, including directions for potential visitors and descriptions of each of the SpeedPark's tracks. The company may begin to sell tickets through the app as long as the focus of the app is on guest experience, said Krishelle Hancock, PARC's vice president of market development.
She predicts the app will become more interactive in the future with the addition of more audio and video components.
"There's lots of opportunities to have people going through the properties and hearing what they're going through, seeing what they're going to experience," Hancock said.