How The Virtual 'Check-In' Could Impact Travel.
By Steven Gong for WIT 2010
Thursday, 6th May 2010
Steven Gong of Circos Brand Karma writes about how location-based social networks such as Foursquare could influence the hospitality industry.

Location-based social networks are currently the hottest topic in tech industry, with the first wave of early adopters already beginning to influence the rest of us to join in on the action.

Location-based social networks enable users to share where they are in terms of their location by "checking-in" to specific venues including buildings, offices, hotels, restaurants, bars and everywhere else, usually through an application on a mobile device (iPhones, Blackberrys, Android phones, etc).

This space has exploded in the last year with services including Foursquare, Gowalla, Whrrl, BrightKite and Loopt, who now due to their rising popularity face the social networking giants Facebook and Twitter who are also introducing location-based functionality that will let users tell their friends and followers where they are. Last month Twitter launched geo-location for tweets on it's website (live through it's API since late last year) and rumors are that Facebook will launch location-based functionality shortly.

While this is still a growing space (FourSquare who is considered to be the current leader in the space is said to have over 700,000 users – a very small fraction compared to Facebook's user base of over 400 million), all indications are that it's the next big thing in mobile, the web and social media, and many new business models and ideas around location-based social networking are set to emerge into what still is relatively uncharted waters.

What are the implications for the Travel industry?

Plenty – in terms of a new way to engage consumers and next-generation customer service, particularly for the hospitality industry.

As a hotel for example, your best sales people are your guests who tell their friends, family and other connections about how fantastic the stay at your property was and how they should stay there too when they are in that destination. When guests actually check-in to your property (physically not virtually), imagine them telling all of their social contacts about it. Then perhaps they will have lunch at your hotel restaurant and let their social universe know about it. Then your hotel spa – another "check-in", potentially making their group of contacts itchy to check it out for themselves. This brings a whole new dimension to traveler reviews and the social recommendation engine.

On FourSquare if you are the person who "checks-in" to a particular venue the most, you are labelled as the "mayor" of that venue. Some hotels and quite a few restaurants around the world have already started to reward their most loyal FourSquare customer with everything from discounts and special offers to free beer. How would you reward your most loyal customer or most frequent flyer who constantly shares to the world that they are a loyal customer of yours?

With FourSquare you are also able to earn badges if you achieve a certain milestone. Check-in to 25 different venues and you earn "The Explorer" badge, check-in 4 nights in a row and earn "The Bender" badge. This is an interesting concept for brands to explore. If you are a hotel chain for example and a user virtually checks-in to a pre-defined number of your properties around the world, you could stamp them as a loyal customer with a branded badge.

Not only would this create better brand engagement even through it's simplicity, but all their friends will know that they are a loyal Starwood member for example. Similarly for the airline industry, if a user reaches a set milestone of "check-ins" to your lounge, you could stamp them as a loyal frequent flyer.

Will this be the new highly sought after milestone that people like George Clooney's character in Up In The Air will aim for in the future? Will he/she who dies with the most badges win? Only time will tell as this kind of functionality is not completely offered to brands as yet but the opportunities for brand engagement is set to grow rapidly as this would be how these services can monetize.

FourSquare also allows you to share tips with the entire FourSquare community. If your guests are "checked-in" to your hotel, they can write a review about your property, recommend areas of the hotel that others should explore, or anything else that is one their mind.

This opens up yet another social media channel that hotels should be listening and tapping into – leveraging customer reviews and opinions to improve their guest satisfaction and loyalty. Also, think about this from the perspective of your concierge service. If you know exactly where your guests are in your destination, imagine being able to drop in with some local tips of where they should go, what they should do based on where they are right now. This kind of service should be opt-in however as to not be creepy.

This is only scratching the surface in terms of the ideas the travel industry can explore. This new technology will enable brands to get even closer to their customers and engage in ways that were previously not possible. Welcome to the new world – where everyone knows who you are and now they also know where you are.

Social media continues to open doors for brands to connect with people and it is critical for brands to engage, encourage and be part of the conversation or risk being lost and forgotten in the ever-growing online social universe.

WIT 2010 - WebinTravel - takes place in Singapore from Oct 19th till 22nd


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