Travel and the changing social landscape

Simon Harrington

Some months ago, my luggage was lost on an international flight to Namibia. I endured a 10-day adventure travel excursion with little more than the (incredibly unsuitable) clothes I was wearing, all the while inflicting a barrage of futile phone calls and pointless emails in an attempt to reconnect with my wandering baggage. After numerous “it’s not my department” and “we don’t have this on record” responses, I decided to take to social media. And it worked.

One Facebook message, publicly calling out the company on their shoddy customer service, achieved more than any number of seemingly eternal email exchanges and I had my case back within a week.

Such is the power of social media. By taking to a platform as broad, immediate and public as Facebook, I, the complaining customer, was empowered. And this is a trend that has not gone unnoticed by the vast majority of high-end travel brands.

Established luxury companies carrying significant brand weight are most at risk by leaving unanswered complains floating around the social digital space. This has resulted in heavy investment in social resource management in a bid to respond to every public query and complaint, better serving the customer and ultimately limiting brand damage.

Is the investment worth it? Definitely. When the capacity for viral spread online is underestimated, things can quickly turn nasty.

Take the case of disgruntled passenger Hasan Syed, for instance. This frequent flyer took to Twitter in spectacular fashion last year to complain about his lost luggage. To ensure his message was heard, Syed spent more than US $1,000 promoting his tweet, which was subsequently retweeted thousands of times before stories began to spread through trusted media outlets worldwide, creating a PR nightmare.

Similarly, when musician Dave Carroll’s plea for compensation was ignored after a US-based airline broke his guitar in 2009, he created a parody song on YouTube entitled ‘United Breaks Guitars’. To date, the video has had over 13 million views and has been partially credited for the 10 percent drop in stock (valued at around $180 million) that the company has since suffered.

So, if customers are getting creative, shouldn’t the travel industry, too? The short answer is yes. And some are.

Social media isn’t always about damage limitation; being proactive in this area can do just as much to raise a company or destination’s profile as it does to protect it from harm. When it comes to attracting an audience, Tourism Victoria is perhaps the best example of social media done right. Last year, the tourism board invested $3.6 million in an award-winning campaign, dubbed the ‘Remote Control Tourists’, in which four Melbourne locals equipped with headcams streaming live footage visited various sites around their city based on Twitter and Facebook suggestions over a five-day period.

Part of the immensely successful “Jigsaw Campaign”, the remote control tourists are just one cog in Tourism Victoria’s interactive marketing wheel, which has seen Melbourne become Australia’s most visited city since the inception of its branding initiative in 1993.

In a similar twist of innovation, Four Seasons set up @FSBridal in 2012. This Twitter page is dedicated entirely to brides-to-be, offering personal tips and inspiring ideas that are linked directly to the brand. As a result, Four Seasons has intelligently raised the profile of its bridal portfolio, while increasing direct interaction with potential customers.

The last 12 months have also seen many hotels move towards creating an entirely immersive social experience. The 1888 Hotel in Sydney has been dubbed the world’s first ‘Instagram hotel’, tempting snap-happy guests with prime photo opportunities, while offering Instagrammers with more than 10,000 followers a free stay. Meanwhile, Meliá’s Sol Hotel Wavehouse Mallorca, the world’s first “Tweet Experience” resort, encourages visitors to use the hashtag #SocialWave to meet other guests and contact the concierge, building social interaction into the very fabric of the building.

The social landscape is changing. As travel professionals, you’re more than aware of just how competitive your industry is. That’s why it’s more important than ever to keep up-to-date with the latest innovations and to change with them.

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