Thursday, May 5, 2011

Facebook, Twitter help travel companies connect with customers

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Imagine an airline contacting you through Facebook to rebook your flight following a cancellation; a hotel offering you a spa discount through your iPhone or a tweet telling you how to earn a free airline ticket by visiting a nearby restaurant. Any traveler who still sees Facebook or Twitter as a novelty or a marketing vehicle needs to check back in to the rapidly expanding world of social media.

  • Flight attendant Amanda Wood hands out promo codes for Virgin America's two-for-one ticket promotion on Aug. 31, which was fueled by social media and filled seven planes.

    By Dan MacMedan, USA TODAY

    Flight attendant Amanda Wood hands out promo codes for Virgin America's two-for-one ticket promotion on Aug. 31, which was fueled by social media and filled seven planes.

By Dan MacMedan, USA TODAY

Flight attendant Amanda Wood hands out promo codes for Virgin America's two-for-one ticket promotion on Aug. 31, which was fueled by social media and filled seven planes.

More than 200 million Twitter users send more than 140 million tweets daily, with another 500,000 new accounts opening every day. More than half of all people in the U.S. are now on Facebook and more travel suppliers are jumping into the social media game all the time. Over 230 representatives from various travel companies recently gathered in San Francisco for the 4th Annual Social Media Strategies for Travel Conference.

More than 180 airlines have a presence on Twitter, according to keynote speaker, Shashank Nigam, CEO of SimpliFlying. jetBlue alone has 17 staff dedicated to managing the airline's 1.6 million Twitter followers, according to Nigam.

Social media allows businesses to quickly and economically assemble a large audience for marketing promotions and communications. American Airlines' Facebook user base grew from 2,600 to 210,000 in 54 hours after launching a "Mystery Miles Journey" promotion where users earned 100 to 100,000 miles by simply entering their AAdvantage number on American Airlines' Facebook page.

Travel suppliers can cost-effectively drive sales through social media, too. Followers of jetBlue's "Cheeps" Twitter feed receive a weekly tweet containing sale fares, such as New York to Tampa for $69, Austin to San Francisco for $89 or Long Beach to Las Vegas for $29.

As more travelers access social media through mobile devices, some travel companies are deploying location-based marketing campaigns. Virgin America recently sponsored such a promotion for the airline's newest routes to Mexico. Mobile users in Los Angeles and San Francisco received a two-for-one ticket offer for visiting a nearby "taco truck" within a four hour period. That promotion produced the fifth highest revenue day in Virgin America's history and filled seven airplanes. Nearly 1,300 mobile users visited the San Francisco taco truck alone.

Social networking also allows vendors to customize offerings for individual travelers, as exemplified by a recent KLM Royal Dutch Airlines offer. The airline delivered small gifts to travelers who announced their presence at Amsterdam's Schipol Airport on Foursquare or Twitter. KLM tracked down these passengers at their departure gate with small gifts based on their social profiles. A soccer fan received a New York City guide with sports bars highlighted. A passenger celebrating a birthday received a glass of champagne and another passenger received a 15 Euro voucher for smartphone apps.

Hotels are also taking a keen interest in location-based marketing for mobile users. Kerry Kennedy, Vice President of e-Commerce for Omni Hotels, sees an opportunity to combine location and personalized customer data to continually market targeted ancillary services, such as discounted spa treatments, golf course fees or restaurant meals during that customer's hotel stay based on the guest's social profile.

Travel suppliers are also using social media for customer service. Air Asia used Twitter to diffuse a potentially damaging situation by contacting the airline's 122,000 Twitter followers to calm frayed nerves and quell additional fears after a jet skidded off a runway earlier this year, according to Nigam.

"The majority of our customer service takes place on Twitter," says Holly Burns, Manager of Social Media at Travelocity. Burns says Travelocity closed more than 70 customer service cases through social media in the last two months.

Delta Air Lines has nearly ten staff members managing customer service issues through the airline's 24 x 7 "@DeltaAssist" Twitter channel. The airline tweets 60 times per day to more than 18,000 Delta Assist Twitter followers, according to Nigam.

Nigam believes it is imperative for travel companies to designate enough staff to handle the volume of messages received through social networks. United Airlines receives an average of 164 tweets daily and 2/3rds are negative, but the airline only responds to 3.3 messages on average, said Nigam.

Even travel companies with excellent customer service reputations have failed to properly manage their social media presence: Emirates Airline's last tweet was sent in January, 2010, and Qatar Airways, hasn't tweeted since February, 2009.

Some travel suppliers use social media to engage customers in fun ways while still generating revenue. Travelers can follow the travel adventures or converse with the Roaming Gnome on Travelocity's Facebook page. Earlier this year, more than 20,000 Facebook users voted on a vacation destination for the gnome, while Travelocity's Facebook fan base grew by more than 300% and the promotion generated 10,000 additional bookings, according to Burns.

While social media is ideal for connecting businesses with customers, vendors may increase their reach exponentially by tapping into their customers' social networks. According to Nielsen data presented at the Social Media conference by Zuberance, 90% of people trust recommendations from people they know vs. only a 60% trust factor for traditional advertising. There is an opportunity for travel companies to convert social media users into brand enthusiasts and brand advocates who will broadcast their brand recommendations across their entire social network. There may already be 60 million social-media brand advocates in the U.S. today, according to Zuberance.

Beyond using social media for sales and marketing, Malaysia Airlines has come up with some unique functionality on its Facebook page. Passengers on the Asian carrier can now book flights, check-in, print boarding passes and select seats on Malaysia Airlines Facebook page and the airline will show you where your Facebook friends are seated, so you can choose to reserve a seat next to your friends, or avoid them if your sociability only goes so far.

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Send David your feedback: David Grossman is a veteran business traveler and former airline industry executive. He writes a column every other week on topics of interest and concern to business travelers. E-mail him at

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