Who Needs a Travel Agent?

From booking airfares to finding hotels, if you’re part of a social network, you’re good to go

Liz Tascio reports 

When it comes to travel, perhaps more so than any other industry, word-of-mouth is king. Travelers make decisions on where to stay, where to eat, and what to do based on recommendations from friends.

No surprise, then, that many of today’s niche social networking sites are built around travel: WAYN, TravelPod, TripAdvisor, IGoUGo, SideStep (thanks to the recent acquisition of TripUp), FlyerTalk — the list is tremendous.

“It’s built off the fact that travel research and travel bookings are growing online,” says Rohit Bhargava, the writer behind Influential Marketing Blog. “People like to share their expertise and experiences when it comes to travel, whether that’s finding the best deal or telling people where not to go.” 

Travel marketers have responded by advertising on general and niche networks, building their own networks, and collecting feedback consumers leave on other sites.

Travelocity, for example, maintains a MySpace page for its Roaming Gnome; friends get e-mail alerts about travel deals, and the company tracks hits and bookings generated from the page.

The online travel agent first opened its pages to user reviews in 2000. “I think when the hotel reviews first came on, there was a certain amount of skepticism,” says Joel Frey, a Travelocity spokesman. “Whenever there are negative things being said about a particular hotel, it’s going to cause people to bristle a little bit.”

There may be no hotel more famous for this than Starwood’s Aloft, which debuted on Second Life in October 2006, well before its scheduled May 2008 unveiling. The company invited Second Lifers to events at the virtual hotel, solicited feedback and made changes in the real-life prototype based on hundreds of suggestions, including color scheme and bathroom accessories.

Starwood now plans to give its Second Life real estate to a good cause and return in a new space after the first hotels actually open.

“I think when we get back into Second Life, we’ll have a good fan base,” who will be eager to give the real thing a try, says Brian McGuinness, Starwood’s vice president of Aloft hotels. “I believe we’ll get them as lifelong customers.”


Travel 2.0

In a survey this year, Yahoo Travel found that 61 percent of people now go online for vacation recommendations, says Fiona Lake Waslander, the company’s director of product management. “Travel 1.0, when travel planning moved online, was really all about prices,” Waslander says. “No longer are you looking for a hotel just based on a price, but you’re looking at user reviews and user ratings and photos.”

In addition to its primary social media product, Trip Planner, Yahoo recently added Yahoo Messenger Flight Planner, which allows users to research and book flights collaboratively.

Those services are just a few examples of how travel marketers are responding to consumers’ desire for new social applications. SideStep’s Trips was one of the original applications to launch on Facebook Platform in May.  The application lets users invite friends on a trip, search friends’ travel plans, and see trips friends are taking as they happen in real time.

SideStep jumped at the chance to work with Facebook. A social network devoted to travel is certainly finely targeted, but not as active — people don’t update their travel plans every day of the year, says Sam Shank, vice president of SideStep.

“If you can layer [your application] on top of a social graph that is existing and you’re updating for a variety of reasons, that is powerful,” Shank says. “What we end up with is an application that really mirrors how people plan trips.”

Aligning a niche network with a general one can make both more appealing for brands, since travel networks make room for input of detailed, well-organized information that a general network may not.

That extreme targeting of travel social networks benefits marketers, says Peter Germonpre, founder of CityTherapy, a niche social networking site for people who like to explore European cities. The site launched in June; Germonpre hopes to have 150,000 members by the end of the year.

For example, he says the Eurostar train service might be interested in knowing which members plan to travel from London to Paris.

“These guys are looking for a whole bunch of partnerships to get their message across to take the train rather than the flight,” Germonpre says. “We go to them and say we know which people are traveling from this point to that point, and we know that they’re still looking into how they arrange transport.”

Airlines haven’t been as successful as other travel marketers in the social networking space, perhaps because they haven’t prioritized it amid financial pressures, Bhargava says.

One airline, KLM Royal Dutch, has launched its own social networks — Club Africa, Club China, and the Flying Blue Golf Club — for business travelers. The networks cater to a lucrative sector of the airlines’ base, and offer extra value to business travelers, who want to connect and network (in the traditional sense of the word) while traveling.

Bhargava applauds the move, but he wants to see even more improvement in travel social networking sites. “A big thing that’s missing in the travel industry world online is the community sites that we’re talking about are very separate from the booking sites, and if someone was smart, they would try to put those closer together.”

When it comes to ensuring a great travel experience, consumers will continue to seek advice from each other, both from sites like TripAdvisor, which boasts 10 million traveler reviews, and in more intimate ways, like SideStep’s collaboration with Facebook. Those are the recommendations which may ultimately wield the most power.

“At the end of the day, you don’t need to read 100 reviews,” says SideStep’s Shank. “You need to read one review from your best friend.”

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