Last-minute hotel reservations on the rise

— -- Smartphones are empowering a segment of hotel customers often overlooked by the industry: last-minute buyers who aren't traveling.

Hoping to draw impulsive buyers addicted to daily coupon alerts, hotels and online travel agencies are introducing a flurry of new specials and features targeting those who book a room locally on the day of the stay.

They include couples celebrating anniversaries; long-distance commuters working late; people without electricity; travelers whose flights are canceled; and suburban deal seekers who can't resist a 30% discount at a fancy downtown hotel.

Orbitz, which launched its Orbitz-Hotels app for iPad in the summer, says 65% of its mobile bookings are same-day reservations (vs. 14% on desktop). Orbitz will also launch a redesigned mobile website next week that will include a new tonight-only deals feature.

Hotel Tonight, an app featuring daily deals from hotels cutting prices by at least 20% for the night, is one of the most popular travel apps, with more than 800,000 downloads.

Priceline launched its Tonight-Only Deals feature in October, selling discounted deals from hotels that disclose their names. (Priceline's name-your-price auction doesn't reveal hotel names.)

About 60% of mobile bookings are for the same day, says John Caine, Priceline's senior vice president of marketing. "There's a certain portion of travelers who don't like planning," he says.

"In Connecticut, more than half the people were without power for days and days" after an October snowstorm, says Priceline CEO Jeff Boyd. "We literally watched the hotel reservations light up on our mobile devices."

The hotel-tonight trend is part of a broader buy-now shift in the economy enabled by mobile technology. But hotels, especially independent properties, are willing to participate in this new sales channel because about 40% of rooms on average go unsold each night.

Hotels also like the feature because they don't have to commit a minimum number of rooms, says Sam Shank, CEO of Hotel Tonight.

"Technology is making it easier to fulfill the need that's been out there," says Andrew Kauffman, vice president of e-marketing at Marriott.

About half of Marriott's mobile bookings are same-day reservations, he says.

Large hotel chains are also concerned about any new technology that might detract from a hotel stay being "an amenity-driven, emotional experience," Kauffman says. "We don't want to make it solely about price. It's undermining all that we do that makes hotels great."