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Tech - Communications

 June 10, 2010
Next Frontier In The Travel Industry: Social Media

 Social media is increasingly becoming an essential communication tool for the travel industry says Abacus International, Asia's leading provider of travel solutions and services. The recent Icelandic volcanic eruption demonstrated the power and reach of social media tools such as Twitter.

During the six-day calamity, travellers who were stuck in airports tweeted about their predicament to their friends and family and turned to social media to find alternate ways to get home. "getmehome" and "roadsharing" are examples of key tags used to unite travellers' alternative ways to get where they needed to be. Airlines used Twitter to keep their passengers updated in real time and to instruct them on how to change their booked seats. United Airlines and British Airways employed Twitter to resolve customer issues while German carrier posted updates such as "Lufthansa will resume its flights tonight." The Changi Airport Group used its Facebook and Twitter accounts to enlist help from its fan base to offer hospitality to stranded passengers.

Mr. Robert Bailey, President & Chief Executive Officer of Abacus International said, "In a crisis situation like this, social media becomes an invaluable communications tool. It allows people to share information, provide real-time updates and provides an exchange platform for those seeking a way home and those who had a solution to get home. "What the airlines did well was to use Twitter to communicate that they were doing their best to handle a situation that was basically out of their hands. The result was a more forgiving group of passengers," added Mr Bailey.

He continued, "As a marketing tool, social media has changed passive communication and selling to active customer engagement, setting the stage for not only how we communicate with our customers, partners and suppliers but also the way in which we interact and market ourselves, our products and our services. In its simplest form, it is used to push out promotions and offers via Facebook and Twitter. More sophisticated travel players are offering augmented reality services that push the boundaries of reality, enhancing the traveller's experience."

"Travel players who recognise the magnitude of opportunities that social media opens up for them to market their products and services, actively engage their customers as well as enrich their customer's travel experiences, are set to ride the social media wave into the next frontier of travel," added Mr Bailey.

Here's some examples of how online travel players have leveraged social media and the online space:

- Zuji Singapore, an OTA, frequently uses Facebook and Twitter to disseminate information and to offer promotions and contests as a way to maintain members' engagement. Recently, Zuji came up with an ingenious reverse auction promotion. Every Monday to Friday, from 12 noon onwards, ZUJI puts up airfares and hotels for reverse auction. Prices fall 1 to 5 cents per second. Bidders can watch real time, the airfares, hotels and holidays prices drop by the second. When they feel that the price is right, they bid for the ticket. The excitement comes in anticipation of a competing bidder snagging the bid before they do.

- Tourism Australia first captured world-wide attention with the smart campaign "The Best Job in the World". Super creative, the campaign generated massive amounts of coverage and awareness for Australia. Just recently, Tourism Australia launched its virtual road trip game. Opened to all, players choose a destination in Australia where they would like to take a virtual road trip. Players are given a fixed budget and gasoline for their choice of transportation. They earn points based on how well they fare on their budget and gasoline, and are able to earn additional points by sending postcards to friends and family during the road trip. This is also a clever way for the Tourism Board and its local travel agency partner, Chan Brothers, to build a database with the personal details on the postcard. Should the player be bowled over by the beautiful scenic images and vivid destinations descriptions available during the road trip, s/he can click on a url to find out more from an "Aussie Travel Specialist", which once again leads back to the Tourism Australia's local travel agency partner. This is an ingenious mutually beneficial tie up between a Tourism Board and a travel agency.

- JetBlue is an example of an airline using social media as a marketing tool to increase brand loyalty and customer satisfaction. It became a part of the online conversation and pays close attention to customer's feedback and addresses customer services issues promptly. In addition, JetBlue uses Twitter to promote fare sales to its more than 1.4 million followers which has been extremely successfully. Just recently, JetBlue offered last minutes sales where it tweeted a sale on Monday for travel on Tuesday and Wednesday. This tactic seems to be doing well, especially with summer around the corner. This is another example of twitter triumphing email as an instantaneous communication tool.

- Sabre Airlines Solutions found that its global community members wanted a way to connect and interact with members of their own organisation, other customers and its staff worldwide, beyond the standard emails, telephone calls, teleconferences, council meetings and not to be confined by time zones, geographical locations or budget. Sabre Airlines Solutions developed a unique online business networking tool, Sabre Community Portal hub. It has features similar to Facebook and LinkedIn and enables users to share and collaborate in a virtual online community 24/7.

- Others have used social media as a way to engage preferred guests and reward them for their loyalty. Starwood Hotels & Resorts organised a global social media scavenger hunt, which got its Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) members to "visit" various Starwood's properties for a chance to win free weekend stays. Starwood leveraged its presence on Facebook and Twitter pages to direct members to where they could find clues that will lead them to one of the Starwood properties to claim their prize.

Social media brings forth boundless opportunities. Mr Bailey stressed, "Social media is an excellent platform for travel players to enhance their customers' travel experience and to build loyalty, which improves the likelihood of repeat and even new business through word-of-mouth and positive reviews. Social media is an open invitation to stay engaged with your partners and customers. It allows prompt feedback, on which the players can build on the positive comments, to leverage on the less positive feedback by addressing problems raised in order to improve, and to provide service recovery to further build brand loyalty and customer satisfaction."

Today, social media goes beyond reputation management in protecting brand reputation. It must be used to also identity and sustain travel product differentiation. A negative tweet can be instantaneously multiplied into thousands of views. To reap the best benefits from social media, travel companies need to accept that they cannot control the conversation," added Mr Bailey.

Consumers will not engage unless it is a genuine conversation. Travel companies should be an active listener and pay particular attention to influencers. Monitor online conversations - step in only to correct factual errors. Also a prompt response to an issue could prevent lasting damage. Listening in to your online conversation bubble is a great way to find out how your customers view the company, its services and/or products and the level of customer service and satisfaction. According to a Forester research, by 2010, 82% of all companies will be using social media and the biggest barrier to success in this medium is a lack of knowledge.

According to the Abacus Travel Sentiment Index Survey (Feb 2010), to date, only 28% of travel agencies in Asia Pacific are engaged in social media. Those who are using social media are primarily using Facebook to connect with their online customers. China is ahead of the pack in Asia with almost 70% of agents saying that they would consider using social media this year. Of the 72% who are not using social media, almost all have no plans to do so in 2010.

Mr Bailey concluded, "The lack of knowledge should not be a reason for not capitalising on social media. The reality is that people are going to talk about your products, services or organisation whether you like it or not and you have little control over it. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, be a part of YOUR conversation. Leverage on the opportunities to strengthen customer bonds and improve the travel experience through value added services to stay ahead of the game. At the very least, start with monitoring your brand by listening in to the conversations to find out how your brand is perceived. But you have to start NOW."