The Social EDGE
Meet a new class of travel provider – The Digital Elites
It’s official. A new class of travel provider has emerged: The Digital Elite. Catering to, and frequently ahead of, their überconnected, socially savvy customers, these best-in-social-media class airlines, hotels, car rental companies and other travel suppliers are the champions of the digital democracy that is upon us.
While for business travelers, personal connectivity represents a new power in travel management, for suppliers, it’s pure gold. Social media is opening up possibilities to transform ho-hum business trips into a data-rich chances for connections and relationships. The business travel experience need no longer be solo, on the fly, left to luck. There are upgrades to snag, reviews to consider before booking, problems to be solved and new contacts and colleagues to find.
Because travelers can share all phases of their trip through such apps as Foursquare, call out on Facebook or Twitter for restaurant recommendations and find last minute deals and upgrades through connections with their preferred airline or hotel, top tier suppliers among the Digital Elites have become that much more creative to cut through the noise and get their customers to listen and take action.
“People trust people, not brands and this is especially true of Millennials,” says Joshua Sloser, vice president digital marketing and e-commerce for Hilton Worldwide.“They aren’t interested in a brand’s advertising or marketing efforts. To reach them, you have to be authentic, relevant and real-time.”
An Ear is Near
Engaging the socially connected traveler requires plenty of creativity and moxie. These social media giants are distinguishing themselves by employing some very basic principles: appeal to what the customer wants and keep them returning for more.
As the Digital Elites foster authenticity and relevance, their social media departments have graduated from being simply marketing arms to embrace a meaningful – and very personal – relationship with customers. Now the goal is to engage with customers to create a memorable and value-filled experience with the brand rather than simply providing them with information.
Airlines such as American have been busy ratcheting up their“influence” quotient. The carrier recently conducted a promotion entirely online with the help of Klout.com (a company that determines social influence based on social media activity). In the social media campaign, travelers with high Klout scores were automatically granted a one-day pass to the Admiral’s Club at some 40 airports when signing in to the American Airlines site with Klout. Then once that segment was identified, the carrier launched an intensified contest offering a yearlong pass to the traveler who amassed the highest Klout score based on active social engagement about the airline during the length of the contest.
“The contest was a new approach for us and the impressions alone were amazing. It became a bragging rights contest by the contestants – and these were major influencers – bringing in 19,000 registrants and tens of millions of impressions,” says Jon Bird, creative manager of social marketing for American Airlines.
Bird’s department aggressively measures activity, especially on Twitter where 70 percent of the mentions tend to be service based. And there is a team that handles those comments that are actionable around the clock, aiming for a response time within 15 minutes of posting.
“That is a good time to engage our customers and turn the situation around – whether it is a flight change or an upgrade
or rebooking – our response is‘how can we help?’” Bird notes that, as far as what American is measuring, the idea that only young people are in social media is a myth. “Our average follower is 38 years old. We see Executive Platinum members in our followers and those who are more engaged tend to be more engaged with AAdvantage (American’s frequent flyer program) and partners. It’s not just the kids – although those who are engaging us through social media may skew younger than the total customer base.”
Over at Virgin Atlantic, a little effort goes a long way. Founder Sir Richard Branson tweets and blogs round the clock in a sort of intimate but public dance with his 303,000 Facebook fans and 228,000 followers on Twitter. Employees watch and listen to these social media circuits, are able to respond swiftly where response is required, and can monitor the competition effectively.
Word of Mouse
Turkish Airlines is another of the Digital Elite champs that plays into this dynamic and emerging audience with sustained success.
When it comes to Facebook popularity, Turkish Airlines dominates the list. The carrier owns five of the ten most popular airline pages on Facebook with a combined 17.6 million “Likes.” (Only KLM and Southwest registered more and also post more often than Turkish, which averages two posts a day).
A YouTube triumph can be seen in the airline’s latest ad campaign, “Selfie Shootout, ”in which NBA player Kobe Bryant and Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi compete in a match of speed and
wits taking “selfies” from global locations that Turkish Airlines serves. In the month since it launched in December the campaign pulled in an estimated 138.3 million views – more viewers than Super Bowl XLVIII. The follow up, too, has been wildly successful with a new smartphone app called “Selfshot” that invites people to place themselves in situational selfies similar to those photos featured in the Kobe vs. Messi video campaign. People who download the app are encouraged to share selfies on social media for a chance to win a roundtrip flight ticket.
“One of the measurements we use to track the campaign is through the #KobeVsMessi hashtag, ”says Ali Genç, SVP media relations for Turkish Airlines. “The Turkish Airlines Selfshot App is another recent iteration of how we have taken campaign to the next level by letting our fans and followers create their own #KobeVsMessi selfie challenge.”
And while Turkish Airlines is constantly engaging flyers through sweepstakes campaigns and discounts, it is also targeting the business traveler in active ways through Linkedin. For example the airline’s “Invest on Board” service allows travelers to view pitches from selected start-ups around the world during their flight, and possibly discover the next big idea they will want to invest in – all from the comfort of their seat.
“Audiences are fragmented across media platforms and we understand that we need to be there where our customers are. While this is one of many channels we leverage, social media enables current and future customers to learn more about our airline’s culture, personality and travel philosophy,” says Genç.
But who are the travelers the Digital Elites are working so hard to woo? A recent survey released in August by MMGY Global/Harrison Group found that today’s travelers are active users of digital devices, using at least two digital devices (a smartphone and tablet) to plan and purchase travel services. The segment has grown from five percent of all active travelers in 2011 to fully one third (33 percent) jump in two today years. – a staggering 600 percent
Reaching out to this digitally armed public has been the focus of travel companies. Consider these numbers from cloud-based marketing software provider Monetate:
40 percent of travelers plan their trips via smartphones and tablets.
32 percent of usiness travelers under 30 years old use smartphones to book their travel arrangements.
7.5 percent of allonline travel bookings come from tablets.
74 percent of travel consumers who use tablets are under 45 years old. Another recent study released from 4hoteliers.com looked at that group of Millennial-aged business travelers to determine trends in style and travel habits. According to the study’s author TeresaY. Lee, this group tends to:
Spend more per business trip tan non-Millennials.
Accont for approximately one-third of US business travelers, but expect to increase to 50 percent by 2020, while Baby Boomers will drop to 11 percent.
Take more trips related to training recruiting and conferences than client site visits or client relations.
Are 0 percent more likely to upgrade their seat to another with more legroom and spend more on in-flight entertainment (and paying 13 percent more for airfare than non-Millennials). They are more likely to order room service, four times more likely to pay for WiFi onboard and twice as likely to download and watch in flight entertainment. meals (42 percent, compared to 26 percent of non-Millennials). Another finding: Millennials are not loyal to travel brands…yet.
“As millennial business travelers, they are just now becoming road warriors, their loyalty is up for grabs,”says Lee in her study. “Millennials are less loyal towards travel brands than non-Millennials and more willing to switch to another airline or hotel brand if they believe that loyalty program has a better product or global alliance network or is willing to match
their elite status.” However, Lee adds, “Millennials are generally three times more brand loyal in other industries and are willing to take action on social media on behalf of brands.”
But social media usage is no longer strictly the quarry of the young. Rather, it spreads through all age groups with Millennials being the heaviest users (90 percent), Gen Xers using it at rates of 78 percent and Boomers coming in at 65 percent, according to Pew Internet Project. It spans evenly over all income brackets and education levels. And it’s all being driven to intensive growth through the rise of mobile connection to the web.
Embassy Suites Hotels’ fifth annual business travel survey released in 2013 found that 85 percent of those questioned admitted to using social media to follow their preferred travel brands. Nearly twothirds (61 percent) said these platforms helped them access travel deals. Some 29 percent used social media to learn about other travelers’ experiences, especially with a particular brand. And a good 28 percent said they engage brands through social media just to keep up with news and promotions.
Moving the Needle
Leading brands in the hospitality industry are also rising to the top among the Digital Elite, rapidly embracing the power of social media, initially by all manner of active tweeting and promoting, and, of late, sniffing out even more engaging ways to captivate the social traveler.
“We strive to create a holistic experience that gives our guest the ultimate choice and control in how and when to engage with us, which we believe resonates with
our business guests. Given those interactions are tailored to that guest; we believe the strategy works across demographics and genders,” says Hilton’s Sloser. “Our @HiltonSuggests team is made up of local experts around the globe and reaches out to travelers in need – many times business travelers experiencing a strange layover or they are stuck in a city with time to kill between meetings,” Sloser says.“The team listens to Twitter in realtime, finds travelers looking for, say, a place to eat, or something to do, and offers help. The response is tremendous. People are not only impressed we are listening and reaching out – but they are impressed we aren’t trying to sell them.”
Four Seasons recently launched “Pin, Pack, Go” making the hotel chain an early adopter of the new Pinterest feature, Place Pins. The pin board allows guests to actively manage their trip planning more dynamically by inviting hotel concierge teams in various locations to share tips and recommendations according to what Pinterest users are seeking.
“Innovation has always been part of Four Seasons brand DNA, and social media is no exception, ”says company spokesman Sorya Gaulin. “Pin. Pack. Go connects guests with Four Seasons local experts worldwide through collaborative boards on Pinterest.”
Starwood Hotels, too, have been working with social media throughout its various brands to acquire and then keep customers interested. In fact, one could almost say that 2011 was about brand awareness and acquiring fans, 2012 focused on engagement and becoming a force in various online communities, and 2013 has been about keeping fans and followers interested via great deals. They launched the Facebook page Starwood Hotels Travel Exclusives and had 250,000 fans within a few months.
And while this concept was not necessarily earthshaking or new at its core, it was smart. The intel shows that Facebook fans of a product or brand tend to spend up to 14 times more than non-fans. The fans of Travel Exclusives become fans specifically because they wanted to get deals from Starwood, In fact, according to Starwood, the company netted an increase of $2 million in added room nights on offers that had been promoted through the Facebook page.
“Social media platforms offer a new way to foster those personal relationships and interact with guests in real-time,” says Abbey Reider, Starwood’s director of global social strategy. ”Using the power of social media, we’ve been able to confirm a guest’s hotel reservation mid-flight within five minutes. We have even been able to quickly rescue and deliver a care-package to a guest who had locked himself on his balcony at a Le Meridien in Italy.”
Most recently, Starwood turned to Instagram and Pinterest with a campaign launched last December that integrates content from Instagram on all of its web sites spanning more than 1,500 properties worldwide. The Instagram photos and videos are geo-tagged by guests and appear in new Guest Galleries throughout the nine Starwood brands.
“Instagram has been an extremely popular platform among Starwood’s tech-savvy guests. Before launching Guest Galleries from Instagram in December, guests were already posting approximately 40,000 geo-tagged photos at our hotels and resorts each month,” Reider adds.
Instagram and Pinterest are underutilized and have the most growth potential. Numbers from a Pew Research survey of some 1,000 adults showed 12 percent using Instagram and 12 percent using Pinterest. By contrast, the number for Twitter was 16 percent.
For hotels and airlines more interested in brand impressions, engagement and customer loyalty over specific ROI, social media provides the perfect solution. And when it comes to ROI, performance isn’t lacking.
“What we really want to look at going forward is taking all the data and matching it up with what we have in customer info – what our customers’ preferences are, their car rental choices, where they fly – if we can put all that together for when the customer wants these things, that’s where the gold is,” explains Jon Bird of American Airlines. “We’re looking at packages, initiatives, programs we can target to our customers – mapping the data – and seeing where it goes.” BT