Competition is fierce for travel brands trying to reach consumers who fall within the 73% of adults online who use social networking sites. Competing against brands like Lufthansa, Four Seasons, Azamara Club Cruises, MSC Cruises or convention and visitors bureaus and destination marketing organizations might seem like a futile task if travel planners are measuring social media success by numbers of fans and followers.
However, savvy planners are figuring out ways to add value to conversations taking place between travel brands and consumers, in addition to using social media as a tool to get leads and close deals.
For this Focus on Social Media report, we turned to 15 experts from a variety of travel businesses on both the supplier and retail sides of the industry to assemble a primer of best practices in social media. The experts occasionally disagreed with one another on details or philosophy, but all of what they said was informative and useful.
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Expedia.com (@Expedia) has more than 204,000 followers on Twitter, 1.9 million likes on Facebook and 2.4 million followers on Google Plus. When it comes to quantity, those are some impressive stats.
Despite the volume of followers and fans, "quantity is only as important as the quality that holds it up," advised Spencer Spellman, organizer of the weekly #ExpediaChat Twitter event, editor-in-chief of the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writer and editor at TheTravelingPhilosopher.com.
Spellman said that the challenge for travel planners is that "they are used to picking up the phone and making an immediate sale." Unfortunately, he noted, "that doesn't work with social media if you're not a celebrity."
With regard to travel planners, he said, "One of the great things about being niche is that the audience can be engaged and loyal." Those are two crucial attributes because, as Spellman puts it, "It's not just your audience you want to reach but your audience's audience."
He pointed to the success of Jonathan Epstein, owner of Celebrated Experiences (www.celebratedexperiences.com), as an example of a travel planner who has achieved results from social media marketing.
Spellman remarked that Epstein "has a very niche lifestyle and career in luxury travel, one that a few years ago many people would've said was dying because of economic setbacks in the U.S. Jonathan built an audience by posting and engaging about luxury travel, coupled with #FriFotos," a Twitter event he co-founded with travel agent Stephanie Diehl, who is featured below.
Epstein said he simply enjoys sharing news. His company uses social media as a medium to keep clients informed, which he has found strengthens their relationships.
He said he loves tweeting live updates and sharing pictures on Instagram of his inspection tours of hotels in the U.K. and Ireland. He is a fan of using the 15-second Instagram video feature to showcase hotel rooms, gardens, historical sites and more.
Independent travel planner and owner of Travel Designed (www.traveldesigned.com), Stephanie Diehl uses social media to share information with her audience, which helps her maintain her reputation as an expert in her field. Diehl posts on her business and personal Facebook pages to stay top-of-mind among her clients and friends when it comes to bookings and referrals.
Diehl's strategy is to post each day on at least one social media site; her content consists of either information about travel or a video, a question or a photo.
An early adopter of social media, Diehl offers the following tips to travel planners: "If you do group travel [or] make an event or group page for your project," also "encourage your clients to share. It's an easy way to build enthusiasm."
Diehl cautioned, "Don't spend too much time. Social media can enhance your bottom line, but referral and repeat will always be your best business. Social media success doesn't come overnight. It's about developing relationships, which takes time."
She added that once a lead converts to a sale and that person experiences good service, the new client "won't hesitate to share what a wonderful time they had and who planned their travel with their friends -- especially online."
Jean Newman Glock, owner and president of JNG Worldwide (www.jeannewmanglock.com), revealed that her business model is based on using social media as the primary marketing tool to share both her travel expertise and her passion for travel with consumers and suppliers.
When asked about how she measures her return on investment on social media, Glock said, "How do you measure your ROI on the phone? Same concept. If my posts prompt travelers to reach out to another agent and book a trip, that is great. This is a great big world, and there are plenty of clients for all. All we all need to do is show what we can do for clients and inspire."
Margie Jordan, president and CEO of Jordan Executive Travel Service (www.jets-inc.com), is a travel planner who has mastered social media. She uses it daily and said, "Social media is a means to spread my brand, share pertinent information with my clients and stay top-of-mind for the moment they're thinking about traveling."
Jordan added: "Social media isn't an option any more. ... An average Facebook user spends 20 minutes per day on Facebook." It's her goal, she said, to be a part of that 20 minutes every day.
Caitlin Murphy, director of public relations at Cruise Planners-American Express Travel (www.cruiseplanners.com), uses social media to stay on top of trends, research what editors are writing about, engage with key influencers and keep the Cruise Planners-American Express Travel brand top of mind.
"With Cruise Planners-American Express Travel, we have our home office Facebook and Twitter pages." In addition, she said, "Each of our franchisees has their own brand page on Facebook. This is important since, as a franchisee, each one is building their personal contact list and brand, and social media is a great way for them to engage with current, potential and past travel clients.
"As a host or franchise company, we advise our travel agents all the time to engage on social media. At Cruise Planners, we help our agents with content, custom social media imagery and, most recently, Facebook ads to grow their small businesses."
Rich Tucker (@RichTucker), social media manager for Travel Leaders Leisure Group, which includes the brands of CruiseDeals.com, Cruise Holidays, Cruise Specialists, SinglesCruise.com and All Aboard Travel, uses social media on a daily basis to research and write blog posts, create Facebook posts, tweet and interact in the comments to his posts.
"If you are going to use social media for your business, you have to first understand it from a user's perspective," Tucker advised. "Do not just go out and start trying to sell travel on a social media platform without understanding how and why people use it."
For travel planners who are just getting started using social media, Tucker said, "The best value for their time would be guest blogging. There are tons of sites, from blogs to local news or radio stations, looking for high-quality content. Reach out to a site that you think would be a good fit, and see if they need a monthly travel writer. This way you do not have to build your own audience, which can take months."
Building an engaged audience is something travel suppliers excel at. A case in point is Azamara Club Cruises (www.azamaraclubcruises.com). Raul Parquet (@raulparquet), Azamara's social media strategist, focuses on creating engaging content through visual, audio, written and any other forms of communication that can be used to describe and promote the brand's products, programs and services, whether to trade, consumer or media.
He advised travel planners to "be authentic, transparent; educate, entertain, inform, provide relative information to your clients and don't try to sell them."
As for Azamara's approach, Parquet said, "We know what to post because we know how the brand would behave and what it is passionate about and what it seeks to accomplish. We are storytellers, writing about what the Azamara experience is all about."
Parquet's social media goals are simple. "The overall objective of our social content strategy is to increase conversions on the website."
As for the quality-vs.-quantity debate, he said, "We are not your typical cruise line. The industry unfortunately is brainwashed with who has the biggest, largest, newest, etc. We communicate our story through experiences -- bespoke, authentic, one-of-a-kind moments."
Azamara Club Cruises' social media footprint includes everyone from the top down, including CEO Larry Pimentel and staff on the line's two ships.
"No other cruise brand has their CEO as engaged as us, and no other cruise brand has opened a Twitter account for each of their ships to communicate live experiences," Parquet said.
Parquet said that working with Pimentel (@LarryPimentel) on Twitter "has allowed the brand to have a platform to share his many ideas, insights and knowledge with trade, journalists and consumers."
Azamara's overall mission, he said, is to "always push for innovative ways to connect with our guests and travel seekers."
Felicia Yukich, manager of global social media marketing at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts (www.fourseasons.com), leads the brand's social media strategy and integrated marketing campaigns worldwide.
"Modern luxury travelers have an insatiable curiosity for new experiences and value technology, identity, design and adventure," Yukich said. "We work to interact with these travelers in an authentic way. We constantly evolve digital strategies to suit the ways guests communicate and put forth a strong social media presence that facilitates engagement, drives e-commerce and encourages loyalty."
Yukich said that in addition to monitoring social media channels for promotional news and announcements, travel planners can connect with the recently introduced Pin.Pack.Go program on Pinterest, available through the 80-plus local Four Seasons properties' Pinterest pages.
"Travel agents can use this virtual concierge program, which enables guests to connect with local experts via Pinterest before they arrive at the property, to create a collaborative pinboard, featuring destination highlights and personalized recommendations to create a customized itinerary," she said. "This is a unique way that travel agents can work directly with Four Seasons as they plan trips for their clients."
When brands are willing to involve travel planners in their social media marketing, everyone wins: The planners get exposure and recognition from the brands, and consumers get additional access to experts.
Lufthansa is an example of a brand that consistently encourages engagement with travel agents online. "We're quite chatty," said Alison Russo, a member of the social-media marketing team at Lufthansa USA (@Lufthansa_USA).
In fact, Russo encouraged travel agents to "tweet at us, tag us, like or comment on our Facebook and Instagram posts and share your experiences with us. We value the opinions and expertise of our partners in the travel industry. All of our social channels -- Facebook, Twitter and Instagram -- place a high emphasis on adding value through engagement, offers, information, trivia, contests, and quotes. We do it all. ...
"Above all, social media makes us more accessible to our customers. Your trip doesn't start and finish with the flight; it's a whole travel experience, and we want to be there for all of it."
Jean Fawcett, media relations manager for Abercrombie & Kent USA (www.abercrombiekent.com), which includes public relations and social media for North and South America, has been involved in A&K's social media efforts since 2009. Since then, the brand has built a following on Facebook (40,000-plus), Twitter (15,000-plus) and YouTube, in addition to newer channels such as Pinterest, Instagram, Google Plus and Vimeo.
Fawcett said A&K's social media efforts are all about sharing the company's passion for travel, along with news from 50 offices around the world with travel planners, past A&K travelers, and prospects.
Fawcett noted that A&K uses social media in different ways, depending on the channel, but she added, "It's all about sharing information, from destination news, special offers and new journeys, to guest experiences and photos. ... These firsthand testimonials are so valuable for our followers and for travel agents to share, especially for challenging destinations, like Egypt."
Travel planners who follow A&K's social media streams will often find authentic experiences reflecting the brand's product.
"The immediate nature of social media," she said, "means we can quickly and easily post a photo that our managing director in Kenya snapped on his phone of a lion in a tree that he saw on his way into the office."
In addition to photo dispatches from the field, the brand's founders are getting in on the action.
"Social media has also captured the attention of ... Geoffrey Kent, who shares photos, stories and recommendations from his travels," she said. "A&K Philanthropy founder Jorie Butler Kent posts updates about each of the AKP projects she visits."
Our experts also pointed out that there are serious sales opportunities to be realized.
Ken Muskat, senior vice president for sales and marketing at MSC Cruises USA (www.msccruisesusa.com), uses social media to connect with agent partners on the MSC True Partnerships Facebook page (www.facebook.com/MSCTruePartnerships), where he posts exclusive content to the trade. He also uses Twitter to make connections with travel planners and the trade.
On a daily basis, Muskat uses social media, especially Twitter, to communicate and connect with the trade, sending any new offers and behind-the-scenes photos or updates when relevant and sharing content from the @MSCCruisesUSA Twitter feed.
"It is important for me to build a personal relationship with the trade," Muskat said, "which is why I like using social media as much as possible, because it shows one's personality and builds credibility."
For reluctant agents, Muskat advises, "It is not scary, so learn how to use it. Any travel agent not engaged in social media to some extent these days is not only missing out on the latest and greatest news and offers but also missing out on serious sales opportunities."
Jack Ferguson, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.discoverphl.com), said that "businesses, particularly small businesses, that are not using this tool are arguably at a disadvantage when it comes to reaching customers."
He said that the increasingly visual nature of content shared online can be an advantage for travel agents.
"In recent years, there has been a shift to more visual platforms," he said, "which is great for the travel industry, as compelling images are proven to increase engagement and generate interest. By sharing attractive photography in creative ways -- for example, running contests for users to guess the location in which a photo was taken -- travel planners can target an audience that might be otherwise unreachable via traditional marketing channels."
More and more brands are providing content for agents to share with their audiences. In fact, Ferguson said, his group creates and curates content -- articles, graphics, statistics, photography and video -- that can be used by anyone to promote Philadelphia.
"Video should also not be counted out as way to generate interaction and ultimately business leads," Ferguson said. "With the proliferation of video platforms like Vine, Instagram video and YouTube, exploring the [return on investment] of using these channels should be a priority for any travel agency. "
With instant access to consumers, what is the future of the travel professional?
Visit Philadelphia, the region's official destination marketing organization, represents a segment of the travel population competing for attention with consumers.
Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia, said her organization "makes it easy for visitors to find fun things to do, hotels to book and places to eat. ... Whether people like to connect on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn, they can easily stay in touch with Philadelphia."
Caroline Bean, Visit Philadelphia's director of social media, said, "We share all the content -- words, pictures, videos, blog posts and Web pages -- that the Visit Philadelphia team creates directly with potential visitors. Then I get to engage with these visitors about Philadelphia to help them plan their trips."
Bean asserted, "Social media is not just sending tweets out into the void. Social media works -- it gets visitors to act. In a recent survey of our social media fans and followers, 77% said they attended an event or attraction that they learned about through one of our social-media posts, [and] 43% of our out-of-town visitors actually planned a trip to Philadelphia based on something they read about from one of our social media posts."