The travel industry’s next social revolution

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In 2014, KLM threw down the gauntlet. The Dutch airline promised it would respond within 30 minutes if anyone tweeted or Facebooked with it. 

That audacious claim of customer service via social media came literally out of an ordeal by fire. In 2010, a volcano eruption in Iceland stranded travelers. Faced with a “tsunami in communication,” that overwhelmed its call centers and websites, KLM began using Twitter and Facebook as a serious communication channel, rather than merely a marketing vehicle. 

Few have gone as far as KLM in embracing social media as a customer relationship management tool. Most travel companies have realized the necessity of employing social media as a communications channel even as the definition of social media has expanded to include messaging platforms like Snapchat, Facebook’s Messenger, and WhatsApp. 

Looking for an edge 

Since every travel brand (and pretty much every brand, period) is on Facebook and Twitter now, merely being on a platform is no longer novel. To get an edge over others in the segment, travel brands need to showcase some innovative thinking.

One recent example is the Swedish Tourist Association’s “The Swedish Number” campaign. Rather than merely tell consumers how great the country is, the STA offered a phone number. Call it and you get a random Swede who has agreed to talk up his or her country. That campaign was a step beyond what Visit Iceland had done in 2015. Consumers who used the hashtag #AskGudmundur on Facebook or Twitter received a reply from friendly Icelanders. That campaign was so successful that President Obama name-dropped it in a recent speech.

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While connecting consumers to actual residents is a winning approach, nothing beats a rapid response time. Besting KLM, Hyatt in 2015 averaged a 16-minute response time in social media in 2015. Hyatt also used those responses to stay true to its positioning as a hospitality brand. For instance, the brand delivered a “man care” basket to a guest’s room after the man had uploaded a pic of his unborn child to Instagram with the caption, “Having a great time at the hotel, but really missing not being with my wife today after she sent me this…” The basket included four different types of bacon, four different craft beers, a movie voucher, and a handwritten congrats card from the team at the hotel. 

New avenues for social 

As that example illustrates, Instagram is considered a necessity for travel brands, particularly because the visual format works well for such brands. But what about emerging social media channels, like Snapchat?

While brands as disparate as Bloomingdale’s, IHOP, and IBM are now on Snapchat, the travel industry has been a late adopter. Jeremy Jauncey, founder of Beautiful Destinations, a social media marketing agency, told Skift in 2015 that only the regulatory-bound financial services sector has been slower in its embrace of Snapchat. One exception is Marriott Hotels, which became one of the first travel brands to join Snapchat, in 2015.

As usual, as larger brands take their time, more nimble upstarts are using the lag to their advantage. WOW Air, a budget-friendly Icelandic airline, is offering all-expenses-paid trips this summer to consumers who are adept at Snapchat.

Meanwhile, social messaging is poised to become larger than social media in 2018 — and travel brands have latched on to the trend. KLM began experimenting with WhatsApp in 2015. Hyatt has also used WeChat in China to connect with customers there. 

WeChat, which Chinese consumers use to do pretty much everything, from booking tickets to hailing cabs, could serve as a template for the Facebook-owned Messenger and WhatsApp. David Marcus, VP-products at Facebook, hinted as much in an October 2015 interview with Wired, stating Messenger would let consumers “make a reservation, buy something, change shipping information…”

While that’s clearly the next step for social media communication among travel brands, the current trend is to use it as a mechanism to humanize brands and destinations. And with burgeoning channels for consumers to connect and communicate with travel brands, phoning up travel brands will soon go the way of the travel agent.

Todd Wasserman
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June 14, 2016
Todd Wasserman

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