Social media is increasingly becoming an essential communication tool for the travel industry, 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.Social Media – The Not-So-New Kid On the Block
According to comScore's latest report on social networking activity in the Asia-Pacific region (excluding China) based on data from its World Metrix service, 50.8% of the total online population in the Asia-Pacific region visited a social networking site in February 2010, reaching a total of 240.3 million visitors.
Facebook.com ranked as the top social network site across the majority of individual markets in the region.
As of March 2010, Facebook had passed the 400 million
mark with Indonesia at the top of the Asia list boasting over 20.7 million users! Philippines followed behind with over 11.5 million users.
The next most popular social media tool, Twitter, commands over 105.7 million users in Asia alone.
It is an efficient and instantaneous way of interacting with customers and is used as both an adjunct to email marketing efforts and a customer communication tool. Tools like Twitter open the way for small businesses such as travel agencies with limited budget to propagate their content and promotions. There is even a company, uSocial, an Australian social media marketing outfit that tracks down Twitter followers for a fee and followers can be bought in blocks of 1,000 for about US$82.
Asians trust social media more than traditional media
and enjoy creating content in comparison to their US counterparts.
Worldwide, 58% of travellers are influenced by user reviews, 47% by product reviews and 99% are willing to pay an additional amount in fares after reading a positive user review.
According to a Lotame ID report on Travel Enthusiasts, they are likely to be influencers who are empowered to persuade travellers and others' opinions. Key findings from a PhoCus Wright paper on social media in the travel industry showed that 30% of online travellers who use social networks report soliciting travel advice from their networks
and those social networks are no longer just for teenagers or college campuses. Nearly 50% of online travellers aged 35-64 have participated in a social network as have 29% of seniors.
Mr Brett Henry, Vice President Marketing, Abacus International commented, "There is overwhelming evidence that travellers rely on social media for advice and to get feedback. Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) have this huge opportunity to aggressively connect with travellers and value-add by providing pre-trip information and advice. The people going to social networks are no longer just the younger generation. Granted that in Asia, there is still a market for the 50s and above who are less Internet savvy and prefer to book offline. But if you project ahead, in a decade or less, the internet and social media savvy Generation C would be ruling the world."
Half of all travellers in the same PhoCus Wright survey
said that OTAs are influential versus only one third on traveller review websites – to shop for and purchase travel.
In fact, OTAs such as Priceline are the largest producers of travellers' review as compared to online travel review sites such as TripAdvisor.
In 1H08 traveller reviews sites accounted for 51% of traveller reviews and OTAs for 47%; in 2H09, OTAs accounted for 74% of all traveller reviews (see chart below). Of all the general social networks, Facebook has been the primary driver behind the immense growth in immediate referrals.
Conversion rates on immediate referrals from Facebook far exceed those from traveller review sites to both hotels and OTAs. Who's Ahead in the Game
Let's take a look at some examples of how online travel players have leveraged social media and the online space:Travel Agencies:
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.
Ctrip provides user generated content and reviews as well as general news in China. A pioneer in China for leveraging social media, Ctrip has successfully engaged its customers to gain feedback and to also answer customer queries thorough Facebook and Twitter
Offbeat Guides create personalised up-to-date travel guides that cover over 30,000 travel destinations, using a combination of search technologies and curation by both amateur and professional travel experts.
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.Airlines:
Mr Bailey pointed out, "The Icelandic disaster highlighted the impact of social media as the communication tool to instantaneously disseminate updates to passengers. Most in the airline industry are engaged online to some extent. Although social media efforts may not directly affect the bottom line, airlines recognise it as an important marketing tool to increase brand loyalty and customer satisfaction. It can also be a double-edged sword as disgruntled customers use it to vent their dissatisfaction. On the flip side, airlines are better able to address customer services issues promptly and should view customers' feedback as a way to improve their service."
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.Hospitality
Similarly, in the hospitality industry, most hotels realise the benefits of implementing a social media strategy. For those who have embraced social media, they understand that user-generated content is important and is likely to have a strong influence on booking decisions. Before booking a hotel stay, potential guests check online sources such as Trip Advisor, Yapta and Travel Muse, to get feedback from other guests on the level of service and the conditions of the accommodations. According to Google, 33% of travel website readers change their plans based on reviews they have read.
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.
Mr Henry commented, "This is a clever way of engaging supporters in a fun game while giving out information on Starwood's properties in close to 100 countries. Members who played the game now have a frame of reference when they consider future accommodations, seeding the foundation to repeat business for the hotel. I would think most people who are satisfied with the overall experience would go back to the familiar than try an untested hotel."
Some hotels have adopted Foursquare (foursquare.com), a new social networking location-based application (app) accessed only via mobile. It allows users to connect with friends and update their location. Foursquare has a list of locations worldwide that registered foursquare users' check-in via GPRS to get dining, leisure, shopping and other information. To make it more engaging, points are awarded for "checking in" at member venues and users who check-in very frequently stand a chance at being crowned "Mayor" of that venue/s. There are close to one million users as of April 2010. The Evolution That Mobile Devices Bring
The emergence of the smartphone has propelled the proliferation of social media even further with the convenience of anytime, anywhere connectivity. There is a mobile application created for almost every facet of our lives. According to a comScore study on social networking access via mobile phones, 30.8% of smart phone users accessed social networking sites via their mobile browser in January 2010, up 8.3 points from 22.5% one year ago. Access to Facebook via the mobile browser grew 112% in the past year, while Twitter experienced a 347% jump.
Consumers are used to getting almost instantaneous information. Likewise, travellers expect to be able obtain travel information whenever and wherever they are. With that in mind, innovative companies should look to the mobile device not as an extension of a desktop or laptop but rather as a portable, location aware, communication (data and voice) and display device with the added capability of video capture. 85% of travellers take their phones with them when they travel and it is the number one accessory that travellers have with them, ahead of iPods/MP3 players and even cameras.
Mr Henry added, "This is an opportunity for travel players to reduce personal interaction while maintaining customer service by offering flight details on-the-go, destination information such as weather, shopping, entertainment and local attractions facts and ways to get around the city. The possibilities are only limited by imagination." 40% - 50% of inbound calls to TAs are around travel itinerary, ticketing, flight details and weather.
TripCase, a post-booking product, equips the travel agencies (TAs) with a full suite of intelligent mobile traveller tools and services, pre-populated with Abacus booking information. TAs will be able to offer real time alerts and notifications to its customers, flight status updates, security wait times, flight departure and arrival status, gate changes, baggage claims and check in locations, car rental and hotel availability.
With automatic syncing and updates on itinerary details, travellers will be informed while in transit. TAs will also be able to push out information on alternative flights on the same as well as other carriers should the traveller need to make flight changes. Beyond the convenience of having current travel details on hand, reminder messages for airport and hotel check-ins, travellers will also be able to stay connected with their friends and family keeping them updated on their travel plans and to share their vacation progress with photos taken while on the road. Ultimately, TAs are enhancing their customers' travel experience and in turn building customer loyalty.Augmented Reality Enriches the Journey
The increasing use of mobile web by travellers has seen growing sophistication in mobile apps developed for travellers' use such as augmented reality (AR) covering 3D maps and 3D virtual tours, and location-based services providing real time data and real time search capabilities.
Augmented reality and location-based services are about linking and enhancing the real world with computer generated imagery and information. OTAs could partner with restaurants on an AR service that allows travellers to point their mobile device at a restaurant and get reviews and menus. In addition, travellers could also get a bar code pushed to their phones which gets them a discount when they show the barcode to the restaurant.
As a value added service, airlines or OTAs could make available a link that travellers download that allows their mobile devices to be used to triangulate their position via GPS. Together with a video link, travellers get directions to the nearest bus stop or driving instructions, as well as Wikipedia information over pictures of real-world locations. Travellers just have to point and shoot.
Mr Henry suggested, "Tourism boards or even the Singapore National Heritage Board could develop an AR app that maps out the heritage trails in the country. Following the trail on their mobile devices, tourists can visit highlighted landmarks. Once on location, they simply use their mobile devices to point at a national landmark and the history of the landmark will appear on their mobile device. To add a sense of reality, superimpose a 3D image of a famous personality, talking about the significance of the landmark." The available advanced technology is able to create incredible surreal images and environments that the tourist feels that he is transported back in time.Gazing Ahead
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."
 comScore, Social Networking Habits Vary Considerably Across Asia-Pacific Markets, April 2010
 TNS/Media Magazine, Asia's Top Digital Brands, Jan 2009
 Forrester Research, Asia Social Technographics, March 2009
 VibeAgent Inc
 PhoCus Wright's Social Media in Travel: Traffic and Activity
 PhoCus Wright's Social Media in Travel: Traffic and Activity
 Ernest & Young, Top Ten Thoughts for the Hospitality Industry
 comScore, Facebook and Twitter Access via mobile browser grows by triple-digits in the past year, March 2010
 Travel Buddy, Mobile in Travel, April 2009
 Booz & Co, The Rise of Generation C, Implications for the World of 2020, March 2010About Abacus International
Singapore -based Abacus International is Asia's leading provider of travel solutions and services with offices across all markets in the region. With over 22 years of experience in fusing international best practices with local expertise, Abacus provides end-to-end technologies and services driven by in-market insights. We believe in building rewarding and long-term relationships with our customers and partners to enhance their business operations and market competitiveness.Abacus International is owned by Sabre and a consortium of Asia's leading airlines including All Nippon Airways, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, EVA Airways, Garuda Indonesia, Dragon air, Philippine Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Royal Brunei Airlines, Silk Air and Singapore Airlines. Sabre is the global leader in the electronic distribution of travel and travel related services.
More information on Abacus can be found at www.abacus.com.sg