Tickets and Concerts are next….
Booking a flight? Go on Facebook
. Running late to the hotel? Send a tweet.
Hotels, airlines and other segments of the multibillion-dollar travel industry are aggressively tapping into social media, ramping up their use of online sites such as Facebook and Twitter to build loyalty to their brands.
Airlines are maintaining a presence on YouTube and offering deals through social-mapping networks such as Loopt. Hotels are promoting their properties through bloggers, and they’re using social-networking sites to gather feedback, monitor trends and provide concierge services.
"I definitely think that social media is about to change the way we do things entirely," says Jill Fletcher, social media and communications manager for Virgin America. “We’re able to admit over social media if we’ve made a mistake or if there’s a weather delay. So we’re able to communicate much faster and more effectively.”
Social media are being incorporated at a rapid rate into every part of a journey, from making the reservation to finding out where to eat. For instance:
•As of August, Delta passengers can buy tickets on Delta’s Facebook page.
•Southwest has three staffers dedicated to monitoring and responding to queries made through social-media channels.
•Marriott is launching its Marriott Courtyard Facebook page Tuesday to issue messages about the chain and related information that might interest customers.
•Hyatt Hotels launched a Twitter account last year to serve as a virtual concierge. Staffers, based in Omaha, Australia and Mumbai, are instructed to respond to requests and questions within an hour, and are fielding queries ranging from where to find good sushi to alerts that a guest will be checking in late. The account has 12,000 followers. Hilton has a similar Twitter account.
Compared with other industries, the travel and hospitality sector is ahead of the curve in engaging social media, says Carl Howe, a director with the Yankee Group, a telecommunication market research firm.
It’s “mainly because there is so much concern about consumer perception,” he says. “There are a lot more choices for hotels than there are for cable providers, and the same is true for airlines.”
Seeking return visitors
A key goal of staking a claim in the social-media space is to build a base of devoted followers who will keep coming back.
"Most travel organizations are actually looking for something more than a transaction," Howe says. "They’re looking for loyalty, and that means a long-term engagement."
Still, deals, incentives and freebies offered on social-media channels are a way airlines and hotels cultivate new customers.
United, for instance, has “twares,” fare specials offered exclusively through Twitter, the micro-messaging channel. In July, AirTran introduced its “Facebook Friday Fares,” which give its Facebook fans unique deals.
Joe Palma, a chef at Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert at The Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., uses Twitter to send messages about specials, restaurant news and holiday hours, and to ask fans what they would like to see on the seasonal menu. Last year, he held a contest to select a new fall dessert menu item, and the winner received dinner for two.
LuxuryLink.com and FamilyGetaway.com, which sell hotel packages, have launched “mystery auctions,” in which customers bid for hotel packages at discounted rates without knowing the property’s identity. To increase followers, the sites began issuing clues about the hotels only through their Facebook and Twitter pages.
Travel businesses are seeking out social-media mavens and bloggers to sing their praises.
As Country Inns & Suites By Carlson prepared to open its 500th hotel in College Station, Texas, earlier this year, it offered free seven-day trips to three bloggers active in social-media sites.
Aurora Toth, vice president of marketing for Carlson Hotels, says the bloggers and their families were assigned to drive to College Station in vehicles with Country Inn decals, stop in seven states, blog and post messages on Facebook and Twitter along the way. Country Inn received local news coverage, and the bloggers helped spread word of the new hotel to their followers. “We learned the power of what we can do,” Toth says.
Marriott is launching a campaign in October that will invite loyalty program members with large Facebook and Twitter followings to help spread the word about its SpringHill Suites chain. They’ll get free stays and other incentives in return for positive messages sent to followers.
To replace convention business that shrank during the recession, Westin St. Maarten is contacting wedding bloggers and offering their readers a sweepstakes drawing for a ceremony or honeymoon at the resort. “We couldn’t have found those people any other simpler way,” says Karen Gee-McAuley, whose public relations firm Blaze helped the hotel develop the strategy.
Social networking and mobile technology are a new advertising frontier, and it makes sense for the travel industry to jump on board, some say.
"We’re a traditional advertising company, and looking at venturing out into social media and mobile phone applications wasn’t really something that we were considering," says Toby Sturek, president of Clear Channel Airports. “But with the needs of the traveler, we felt we needed to continue to innovate.”
Airlines are using the tools and channels to try to ease travel, enabling passengers to book trips and find out if there is a delay without picking up a phone.
Instead of going to Delta.com, where 19 million domestic tickets are booked a year, passengers can make reservations on the airline’s Facebook page. The carrier will also let passengers peruse other websites and still be able to buy tickets by clicking on a Delta banner ad.
"Our strategy is, in channels where our customers are engaging, we want to be there for them and with them," says Bob Kupbens, Delta’s vice president of e-commerce.
The airline’s website and traditional e-mail continue to be key, he says. But, he says, “these other channels are opportunities to be where the site isn’t. You’re not standing in line in security with your laptop open. But you are there with your mobile phone.”
A social-media presence has become essential for any company that wants to bond with a younger generation that will hopefully remain loyal for years.
"For most of the people in that 18-to-24 (year-old) demographic, e-mail is old school," says Howe. "That’s something that their parents do. If you want to reach them, you have to communicate in the ways they feel most comfortable, and that’s mostly Facebook and texting."
AirTran’s “AirTran U” program, which allows 18-to-24-year-olds to fly standby for a discounted fare, has its own Facebook page. One of its promotions, “AirTran U Creeper,” flashes photos submitted by users at midnight. The first person to spot his or her picture and alert the airline wins a prize.
"It does help build the brand," says AirTran spokesman Christopher White. "We know some people will read our website. Some people will read the newspaper. But this is a unique channel. And the 18-to-24 crowd really is not tuning into the radio ad. They’re living their lives via social media, and if you’re not in that space getting your message out where they can hear it, they’re simply not hearing it."
Last week, some mobile users who downloaded an iPhone app from the social-mapping network Loopt found out about a special offer from Virgin America promoting its new service to Mexico. If they made their way to the airport in San Francisco or Los Angeles, or to a local taco truck, they had the chance to get two tickets for the price of one to Los Cabos or Cancun.
Jamie Swartz, 29, who is getting married in Cancun in February, says that it’s been tough for some of her guests to find direct flights. When she heard about the Loopt Star download, she sent a message to everyone she knew and headed to a taco truck on Hollywood Boulevard. She and a bridesmaid each snagged the two-for-one deal.
"I totally missed the big Twitter boom," says Swartz, a marketing associate in West Hollywood. "I was late to join Facebook."
But she says she was impressed enough by the creativity of the Loopt promotion to keep Virgin America in mind for future trips. “I think it (was) a great idea,” she said.
Where are you?
Hotels are seeking ways to take advantage of the latest twist in the social-media sphere: location-based service software which uses the GPS in smartphones to provide hotels information about their customers’ whereabouts.
InterContinental is working with start-up company Topguest. People who sign up at Topguest’s website can walk into any hotel, restaurant or bar operated by InterContinental and receive a small allowance of the hotel company’s loyalty points. To receive the points, they must alert their “friends” on Foursquare or Facebook Places, two of the most popular location-based social-networking tools.
For hotels, it’s a way to promote their loyalty programs, increase sales during off hours and learn more about which of their customers are the “most influential” members in social-media circles, says Geoff Lewis, CEO of Topguest.
Virgin America’s Loopt promotion helped the airline see its fifth-highest-grossing sales day this year. Hotel executives say it’s too early to tell if their social-media efforts are beefing up the bottom line. But some report encouraging signs.
Vero Beach Hotel & Spa, run by Kimpton, began occasionally issuing codes last summer for a 15% discount on its best available rates. In measuring their redemptions, the hotel learned that the codes generated 270 more room nights this year. “It’s still too early for return-on-investment (analysis). But we’ve seen some benefits here and there,” says Niki Leondakis, president of Kimpton Hotels.
For all the merits of social media, some industry watchers warn that the industry shouldn’t forget about the older generations that aren’t tech savvy and still need to be engaged.
"The Boomer generation … we’re the ones that are going to travel and will have the money to travel, and we’re probably not going to be the ones on Twitter and Facebook," says Terry Trippler, founder of airline information website RulesToKnow.com.
Jim Black, 58, a data network engineer in Ventura, Calif., who’s on the road about 30 weeks a year, says technology can never replace another person’s input.
"Twitter creates the appearance of human contact but it lacks the actual human touch," says Black, who barely updates his Facebook page and isn’t interested in any special deals offered via Twitter. "To substitute social media for human contact is incrementally a step down in customer service."