Big online travel sites like Travelocity andExpedia, as well as user-review juggernautTripAdvisor, are relying on social networking to deliver travelers to their sites.
According to travel market research firm PhocusWright, social networking is one of the most powerful forces driving travel planning today. The firm found that social media use among travelers is growing far faster than the travel industry itself. Unique monthly visitors to social travel sites jumped 34 percent between the first half of 2008 and the last half of 2009.
Interestingly, the company found that Facebook users who are referred to travel booking sites are far more likely to book travel than those who are referred via search engines like Google.
That's the power of "wisdom of friends," which was a key factor behind TripAdvisor's new Trip Friend initiative. TripAdvisor, which attracts 34 million unique users a month and houses more than 35 million traveler reviews, worked very closely with Facebook to create the Trip Friends application.
Trip Friends harnesses the concept of Facebook's social graph to enable trip planners to get travel reviews and ask questions of trusted friends. The company reasoned that you'll pay a lot more attention to the advice of like-minded acquaintances than complete strangers.
When researching a trip to a particular city on TripAdvisor, you'll see a new option on the right side of the page titled "Get advice from your friends." This will display your Facebook friends who have visited or lived in that city, and let you to ask them for travel recommendations direct from TripAdvisor or Facebook.
It works by using the Facebook social graph to aggregate all available information—cities your friends have visited and places they have lived, for instance—and generate a list of friends with knowledge of a particular destination, said Adam Medros, vice president of product at TripAdvisor.
Your friends must have logged in using the Facebook Connect feature, however, for Trip Friends to work. Medros said that more than 500,000 people are now using Facebook Connect on TripAdvisor.
You can post travel questions to your Facebook wall and Trip Friend will organize the responses in your Trip Advisor account, making it easier to find and manage responses. You also can ask select friends about travel to a particular city, should you not want a specific person—your ex, for instance—to know you're visiting a particular city.
The Trip Friends feature is not yet available on TripAdvisor's newly revised iPhone app, although Medros said TripAdvisor is working to add it.
"We certainly see this combination of mobility and getting advice from friends growing," he said. "It will make an in-market travel experience really great. Users will be able to get information and immediately evolve their trip as it's ongoing. That's the direction we think the functionality will go."
The Incredibly Social Roaming Gnome
Travelocity, the second largest online travel agency (OTA), has targeted Facebook for polishing its brand and promoting travel deals. The company has an unusually charismatic spokesman for its social networking efforts: its popular Roaming Gnome mascot, which debuted in 2004 right before Facebook launched.
"We knew from early on that there was an opportunity because people wanted to interact with the gnome," said Dan Toporek, Travelocity's vice president of corporate communications. The Gnome's Facebook page now has almost 55,000 fans.
Travelocity recently launched a campaign that gives fans of the Roaming Gnome Facebook page exclusive discounts. For instance, the site currently offers $150 off a Virgin Atlantic flight-and-hotel package to London.
The Roaming Gnome's Facebook page also has a Travel Deals tab that plots hotel and flight promotions on a U.S. map, displaying specific packages from your home airport without leaving the Facebook site. If you decide to book a trip, you are directed to Travelocity's site.
Travelocity has leveraged Facebook to engage its fans to vote in contests to decide the most popular vacation spots—and promote air and hotel deals to those destinations. The company plans a similar program this summer, but could not yet discuss specific details.
Expedia, the world's largest OTA, is taking a more conservative tact for its social initiatives. "We are trying to stay with our brand voice, which isn't as whimsical as the [Travelocity gnome]," said Brooke Angles, manager of Expedia's social media strategy and execution. "It's about being a knowledgeable leader. That means we are not slinging coupons every day; rather, we're trying to build long-lasting relationships."
Expedia counts more than 11,400 fans on its Facebook fan page. The company sends followers deals every day and points users to its TripTips blog, written by Expedia staff. But it also uses Facebook to build a community of reader comments and feedback about travel opinions and tips.
Expedia uses Twitter, where it has more than 28,000 followers, to tweet travel deals that alert followers to nationally promoted sales. It also flags "hidden gems" that are hand-picked by company employees and may be overlooked by site visitors, who are intently focused on searching for components of a specific trip they are planning, Angles said.
The company gets a fair amount of click-through from Twitter but not a lot of sales. "Most people consume [Twitter] on mobile devices and then book from a computer," Angles said. "It's more a conversation driver for us."
Tweeting for Better Customer Service
Expedia and Travelocity also use social media as a means to improve their customer service. They have learned that a dissatisfied customer with thousands of Twitter followers can create a firestorm of negative press as his complaints ricochet around the Web.
Expedia, for instance, came under fire last year after a company agent advised a couple traveling to Russia for their honeymoon that they didn't need a visa to visit the country. Turns out, they did.
After getting stranded in Frankfurt and receiving no real assistance from Expedia, friends of the couple launched a campaign on Twitter and Facebook asking followers and friends to send emails to Expedia on their behalf. Half a day later, Expedia not only paid their travel costs and the expedited visa applications, but also gave the newlyweds a $3,000 credit for future travel.
Initially, Angles was the sole person responsible for addressing customer service issues on social sites. The company has since implemented a system in which an expanded social media team works hand in hand with customer service. It has created processes that determine what type of complaint is escalated to customer service and to ensure that standard policies are followed, no matter if complaints originate as tweets or telephone calls, Angles said.
Travelocity also uses Twitter to send out promotional codes for breaking travel deals, as well as for customer service initiatives, said Toporek. To make it more logical for travel products, the company has regional accounts that enable it to more effectively target the right destinations for users. Travelocity has more than 29,000 followers on Twitter; its Roaming Gnome has a separate group of 9,300 followers.
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