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Websites, Social Media Catch The Travel Crowd

Next time you board a plane, don’t leave your bag on the seat next to you. In all likelihood, it’s taken.

Everyone is traveling these days. Business trips, family vacations, and even girlfriend getaways and “man-cations" are responsible for the uptick.

Orbitz
Source: orbitz.com
Orbitz

What's more, consumers are using the Internet more than ever to book trips, by visiting travel super sites, online agents, management companies, and the websites of airlines and hotels themselves.

In particular, social media — Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter — while just one of companies' many marketing tools, is responsible for campaigns that are reaching huge audiences and creating brand loyalty.

“Consumers have been through the wilderness and they’ve come to the clearing,” says Orbitz.com Brian Hoyt, adding that aMay 2011 Orbitz Insider Index revealed 81 percent of people are planning to take a summer vacation this year.

Jan Freitag, VP of global development?at Smith Travel Research, STR, agrees. Thus far in 2011, Freitag says demand for hotel rooms is up 6.7 percent. He expects July 2011 to be the best or second best month for room demand he's ever seen.

“I think with the economy recovering and the unemployment rate, if not getting better, at least not getting worse, we think that they overall mood of the traveler is that, yes, times may be tough, but at least we can now afford to go again,” says Freitag.

According to the US Travel Association, direct spending by domestic and international travelers on leisure travel totaled $489.7 billion in 2009, while business travel hit $214.7 billion.

According to the latest American Express Spending & Saving Tracker , families are vacationing together again. Almost 70 percent of folks with upcoming plans say they’ll travel with their immediate families, up from 45 percent in 2010. The same study showed girlfriend getaways and “man-cations" are also gaining traction compared to 2010 (15 percent as opposed to 10 percent).

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However, the bow on the travel industry’s bonnet is the fact that business travelers are back. Brian Hace, VP of client services at Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a firm that specializes in this market says, “Corporate travel trends with the overall economy, but it tends to vary twofold. If the economy grows 2 percent, we’ll likely see travel growing 4 percent or even a bit higher than that.”

Some of it is pent-up demand, and some of it is more work and activity, Hace adds. “A number of our accounts are consulting companies and they are now getting their workforce back out and generating more revenue for their organizations.”

What is different about this travel boom is the role that the Internet and social media are playing.

Dorothy Dowling, SVP of Marketing and Sales for Best Western, says more than half of the company's reservations now come through its website, while the company's customer rewards program is also effective.

“Best Western Rewards continues to be a popular way to reach our customers and help them fund their vacation travel.”

But Hoyt says social media is key.

Travel Dollars - A CNBC Special Report
Travel Dollars - A CNBC Special Report

"It is now table stakes to have a Twitter handle or a Facebook page, and you need to be constantly thinking about how you are going to work those two channels in particular to generate more followers though Twitter and more people who “Like” your brand on Facebook.”

This month Orbitz announced a new campaign called "Fastest Orbitz Facebook Fans Fly Free", offering 100 free round-trip flights to Las Vegas to the first fans each day that book a hotel room according to their guidelines. Something similar is in place on Twitter, where Orbitz gives away free airline tickets to go anywhere in the country, if one retweets a message that they put out.

Likewise, for their cheaptickets.com brand, Orbitz ran a YouTube contest for consumers to create their own 30-second ad.

“We promised we would run it on the travel channel at midnight or something funny like that, but it was a great way to engage people who are brand aficionados who have a connection to our Cheap Tickets brand.”

American Express, another social media leader, recently launched "Nextpedition", a program that involves taking an online quiz to determine your “Travel Sign” and budget, and then allowing the technology to book a mystery itinerary for you.

American Express Nextpedition
Source: American Express
American Express Nextpedition

Keeping with the high-tech theme, a specially programmed loaned Smartphone called a Travel Console arrives at the consumer’s home a few days before departure. The travel profiler even lives on Nextpedition.com and on the American Express Facebook page, so the user experience is seamless. American Express is relying on footage of actual trips on Google's YouTube, the viral nature of the Travel Signs on Facebook, and talking it up on Twitter.

One more online marketing practice is investing in the travel search terms that consumers use so that companies can display advertising.

“We are literally using math equations that help us understand the key words that going to deliver the highest ROI in terms of sending consumers through to our site and getting them to make a booking. There’s a real science behind it,” says Hoyt.

The kink in the online travel market, points out STR’s Freitag, is the myth of rate parity. What’s this? Any given hotel, for example, is supposed to offer the same prices as the online travel agents, it doesn’t matter where you go.

Turns out, that a study published in the Cornell Quarterly, the magazine of Cornell Hotel School, called "Selling Rooms: Hotels vs. Third-Party Websites," showed that online travel agents seem to have the cheaper rates when looking at the same property at the same period of time, says Freitag. Long-term, this can erode the trust that brands are working hard to create.

Meantime, become a Facebook fan of your favorite hotel, read a travel blog, or shop the deals on the travel super sites. They’re here to stay, so use them to make an informed choice when planning your next trip.