Travel companies need to embrace social media

Companies have much to gain from embarking on social media projects to engage today's tech-savvy consumers but many unsure over management and legal issues.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Social media is an increasingly important platform for consumers to learn about travel brands and resolve problems but the global travel industry, in general, is barely meeting the social media needs of today's Internet-savvy generation of jetsetters, said one observer.

Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco, U.S., said the social media phenomenon is global and it is not "just used by American teenagers and young adults". This is why businesses in the travel sector should realize the social platform is an increasingly important for consumers to learn about companies' branding and problem resolution, he told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail.

However, most companies are "still in the 'crawl' stage of the crawl-walk-run continuum" in catering to this social demand, the analyst said. This is because they, particularly their legal departments, are struggling to figure out where and how social media should be managed, he explained.

Harteveldt said there are exceptions--such as such as Marriott Hotels, online travel agent Expedia and budget carrier AirAsia--which he identified to be doing a "terrific job" using social media to serve many of their customers' needs such as marketing, promotions and customer service through social channels, he pointed out.

Travel industry's social initiatives
Industry players ZDNet Asia spoke to agreed that the importance of using social media, the Internet and mobile platforms to forge close connections with customers and increase their presence in a fiercely competitive sector cannot be overstated.

Malaysian Airlines, for one, allowed customers to book their flights and check-in online on Facebook with MHbuddy. According to Amin Khan, executive vice president of commercial strategy at Malaysia Airlines, the MHbuddy app functions as its "ticket office on social media", giving users greater convenience when booking flights and sharing their plans with online friends.

He said in an e-mail travelers are increasingly more tech-savvy and the industry needs to go where the customers are or be left behind. "In doing so, travel players can gain an advantage over their competitors and stand to profit in terms of brand reputation and financially."

Simone Pregellio, corporate communications manager for Jetstar, agreed that social media initiatives that can translate customer interest to sales are "the order of the day" for the budget carrier, and the industry as a whole.

Jetstar uses Facebook and Twitter to engage directly with consumers, taking an open, proactive approach by initiating conversations as well as push promotions and contests and field customer enquiries, she said.

Travel-related media companies have also caught on to the social trend. Shawn Low, a Melbourne-based editor at Lonely Planet, said people today are looking to alternative sources of information online, and social media is a "bonafide and quick way to share information and engage".

According to him, Lonely Planet has dedicated community staff who participates in the social chatter by retweeting stories and sharing tips via Facebook.

"The responses have been great, and the huge number of followers and engagement [on social platforms] are proof we are catering to a need in the market," Low added.

It is not just big companies that need to engage customers through social media. Smaller establishments are also getting in on the act as they see the necessity of doing so, said Deanna Morauski, owner of The Old Hen Bed & Breakfast (B&B) in Washington. She said B&B establishments such as hers need to have a social media presence because "online is where people are looking now".

Another B&B owner, Karen Thorpe of Hopton House in Shropshire, U.K., concurred, saying she has been using Twitter for several years, and it has proved effective.

"It's been a slow burn, but we're seeing a steady increase in the number of people who have come to us via Twitters," she said in an e-mail.

Integrate social with other communication channels
Abhiram Chowdhry, marketing director of Hotels.com Asia-Pacific, said social media, together with other communication channels such as mobile, are playing a bigger role in determining how travelers plan for their trips.

People are becoming highly dependent and influence by the information and recommendations given by friends and other travelers, which makes social media a critical part of the "pre-trip influence stage". This is the stage, he noted, when people make their purchasing decisions.

As such, companies in the industry need to embrace these new communication channels in an integrative approach to stay ahead of the game, Chowdhry urged.

Hotels.com, which is owned by Expedia, not only has a Facebook page but has also developed mobile apps to capitalize on the growing trend of mobile-based travel bookings, he noted. Currently available on iPhone, iPad and Android devices, these apps act as an extension of the company's Web site, allowing users to easily research accommodations, browse reviews, and make bookings via their mobile devices, he said.

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