The So­cial EDGE

Meet a new class of travel provider – The Dig­i­tal Elites

Business Traveler (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Lark Gould

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.

Elite Com­pany

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

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