The line weaves around the corner; the din of whiney passengers is more raucous than a swarm of teenage girls queueing for a Justin Bieber concert. The electronic boards are bright red with the long list of canceled flights.
Expert road warriors know exactly how to handle such a situation. There is no lounge for my airline here, and the 1-800 number offers nothing but endlessly looping on-hold Muzak. So naturally I turn where more and more travelers these days are looking for solutions: I take to social media. Within minutes, my itinerary for tomorrow’s travel is rectified.
Wandering through the terminal, I notice a Centurion Lounge from American Express. Since I am not a Platinum cardholder, I bemoan the fact I must wait by the gate and take to Twitter to voice my frustration. A minute later, my phone buzzes with a reply; someone in the lounge offers to guest me in since I have a long wait. Score!
Everyone and their grandmother seems to be connected via social media these days. We live in a mobile society, one in which the lack of being looped into the universe via a smartphone can almost be painful. So it comes as no surprise that travel companies have embraced the trend to find ways to connect and engage with customers – both past and potential.
There is no guidebook for how travel companies should connect with consumers. It all comes down to internal resources and know-how. The most active brands invest in a dedicated staff focused on connecting with consumers online and ‘socializing the brand.’
“Social media forms a core part of how travel companies build and sustain brand images and customer relationships,” according to Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group. Harteveldt says travel brands that succeed on social media find their own way to be creative, relevant, responsive and, most importantly, authentic.
The way the consumer experiences and understands a brand is the result of its online communication, which can lead to increased revenue down the road.
It’s Not Just for Millennials
There’s no doubt that social media efforts are geared toward the Millennial crowd, which will become the bread and butter of many a travel provider in the next decade. But that doesn’t mean everyone else gets ignored.
To the contrary, Millennial trends are fueling the behavior of other travelers, as witnessed by the almost universal grasp of technology like airport kiosk check-in and mobile boarding passes. It’s even crossing over to hotels, with many offering the option to bypass the front desk and use a smartphone to unlock the guest room door. Travelers across the board are taking to these new modes.
Take for example the Aloft Liverpool, which followed the lead of its Manhattan sibling to introduce a room service menu known as Aloft TiGi, derived entirely from emojis. The acronym means “text it, get it,” (get it?). Guests simply text the dedicated TiGi number with the pre-set specialty menus (bangers and mash anyone?), which is confirmed back via text. No need to even touch the in-room phone.
“We’re always looking for ways to shake up the hotel stay,” says Brian McGuinness, global brand leader of Starwood’s Specialty Select Brands. “We look to consumer behavior and think about how to integrate these trends into the Aloft experience. The rise of emojis was a logical next step, the perfect new wave of guest communications.”
Hyatt has launched a program that allows guests to Facebook message a hotel to make a request (perhaps to arrange a late check-in) or ask a question (nearby restaurant reservations, for example). A speedy response is assured thanks to the brand’s “global control room.” Many travel brands rely on a multi-person team (for Hyatt that means 60 people in three locations) to monitor and address social media concerns and requests at all hours.
Uber is testing a plan that allows people to request a ride via Facebook Messenger. Chat apps like Facebook and WeChat (used mostly overseas) are catching on with consumers and providing a more direct communication link.
Companies should tread carefully, however, to avoid bombarding followers on social media with advertising messages. Online connections should feel genuine and create a sense of goodwill, otherwise it runs the risk of crossing over into advertising.
Travel brands should carefully navigate that fine line and remain authentic, as Harteveldt suggests. Social media is just that: Media. It plays a role, just as offline advertising, online advertising, search engine marketing, and other types of media play roles for a travel brand in its various marketing communications. It’s important for brands to respect that boundary if they want to succeed.
Finding the Right Mix Is Tough
Beyond simply responding to traveler requests and suggestions, brands need to build a genuine strategy. Hotels that invest in the resources to have a committed team member to spur existing and new business online are destined to win in this new, more connected environment.
Gautam Lulla, president of Travel Tripper, is an expert on integrating technology into hotels and believes that using social media is excellent for efficiency as it allows one staff member to interact simultaneously with multiple customers (versus over the phone, for example).
Like many hotels, Hacienda Encantada Resort in Los Cabos is committed to winning hearts online by having a dedicated staff person that creates online content, interacts with guests, and responds to social media postings in real time. It creates a sense of connectivity and interest from the hotel, which becomes a part of the guest’s overall experience before, during and after a visit.
Some brands choose to use experienced social media influencers to educate internal staff. The Luxury Collection recently announced a partnership with one of Instagram’s biggest travel influencers, Beautiful Destinations, which has more than 7.5 million followers. The popular account is known for its jaw-dropping photos of the world’s most spectacular scenes.
Beautiful Destinations was tasked with educating the relevant staff at each Luxury Collection hotel about how to create unique content to engage and inspire guests. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just about throwing up random pictures or commenting on photos. It takes judicious decision making to curate just the right message that won’t be seen as too promotional.
If followers perceive a travel company’s online accounts as pure PR, then the positive goodwill of being connected via social media begins to wane.
Navigating Online Reviews
Travelers are turning to social media in greater numbers to gather information on their destination and travel plans. They rely on feedback from other travelers, but also on the online personality of a travel brand.
A new hotel search engine, dubbed Hotel Insider, fancies itself like match.com, only for travel, pairing guests with hotels that cater to their unique interests and needs. Each user creates a dynamic personality profile using a selection of archetypes (ranging from Traditionalist to Bon Vivant to Spa Seeker) that will result in curated travel suggestions.
Travel companies have learned to embrace social sites like TripAdvisor, which allows users to write personal experiences from visits to hotels, restaurants, and other providers.
Best Western was one of the first brands to integrate reviews directly into its own website. The bold move put (often fiercely honest) user-generated content front and center for potential guests to browse before making a reservation.
“We knew the customer was going to look for hotel reviews, so we wanted to keep it in our own marketing channel,” explains Dorothy Dowling, chief marketing officer of Best Western. “At the time it was a high-risk move, but we knew what consumers wanted and usually that is where businesses move, so better to be on the front end and author the experience on our own website.”
Harteveldt agrees, “Hotels that incorporate reviews from sites such as TripAdvisor are able to offer fresh, credible consumer perspectives to prospective guests. Hotels tell me that adding reviews to their websites encourages shoppers to spend more time on the website and can increase the people who book rooms.”
Social Makes a Difference
Data from Atmosphere Research Group shows that 81 percent of US hotel guests who read a positive review, and 83 percent who read a negative review, used that to influence their hotel choice. Positive reviews are, of course, preferred by hotel brands, but according to Harteveldt, “Showing negative reviews adds credibility to the hotel. Guests know the hotel isn’t ‘sugar coating’ anything.”
Starwood believes so strongly in the power of social media and user-generated reviews that it is putting its money where its mouth is – or travelers’ mouths, at least. Recently, Starwood teamed up with TripAdvisor to go beyond integrating review content to add instant booking capability for many of its hotels directly through the site. Reservations can be made via TripAdvisor by clicking a “Book Now” button, although Starwood maintains that it will keep control over guest interaction and communication to ensure a consistent experience with guests who book through its own channels.
According to Julie Atkinson, senior vice president of global digital for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, “It allows us to deepen our touch-points with TripAdvisor’s global community of travelers while maintaining a consistent connection with guests before, during and after their stay at a Starwood hotel.”
Destinations are well-aware of the importance of social media, too. Visit San Antonio, which receives more than half of its web traffic from mobile devices, is a perfect example of converting online interest to actual visitors. The goal is to find innovative ways to cut through the clutter and gain qualified attention through user engagement and online promotions.
“Our communication strategy is to show people there is so much to do in San Antonio beyond the well-known River Walk and the Alamo,” says Casandra Matej, executive director of the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Social media lends itself to this strategy, as people are driven by the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).”
Social tools are also an affordable opportunity to create buzz. Agencies like Tourism Montreal take advantage of the unique ability to connect with a worldwide audience online. The agency developed its own hashtag #MTLMOMENTS, which has become wildly popular online and used by both visitors and locals.
Montreal, recently named by Guide du Routard as one of the 50 cities to visit a lifetime, continues to see growth in international visitors due to the favorable exchange rate. The agency incorporated social media by setting up life-size golden frames around town where visitors can snap selfies to upload using the hashtag.
What’s In It for Me?
Why would travelers even take time to interact with a hotel, airline, or destination online? Don’t people have enough to do already?
Howie Rappaport of RewardSmith.com believes that it can pay off especially when you need assistance immediately. “Companies empower social media staff to get things done,” he says. “Such a speedy response makes me feel like they actually care about me as a traveler. We occasionally reach out to a hotel via Instagram or Twitter to let them know about our plans, like when we took a trip with our dog recently. Kimpton made notes in our reservation and remembered the name of our dog. It made a great impression.”
While travel brands pay attention to online conversation, they also use social media to research what is important and interesting to consumers. The results can be used to generate buzz around a new campaign or feature.
For example, when the JW Marriott San Antonio wanted to name the two new waterslides it recently completed for its family-friendly Hill Country water park, it took to social media. Through a Facebook contest app, the hotel asked its fans for naming suggestions with the winner receiving a two-night stay.
The hotel also encourages guests to snap a photo of a meal enjoyed at the resort with the hashtag #TasteTravels for a chance to win a Marriott-branded gift card. A new campaign known as “Wish You Were Here” features digital postcards with photos of the resort plus adds space for users to upload their own photos and share on social media.
Travel blogger Johnny Jet points out the value that travelers can tap into with certain brands through the special discounts offered on social media. He recalls the time he flew between New York and Los Angeles on jetBlue for $29 thanks to a Twitter-only special promotional deal.
Today when travelers shop, it’s no longer just about price or even information. Now more than ever, it’s also about the relationships that are available with the swipe of a finger.
By Ramsey Qubein