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Focus on Social Media:Missing the big picture


By Jamie BiesiadaAlthough travel is among the most visual of products, a surprisingly small number of agents are engaging with social media platforms built for photos and videos.

Facebook has become a place where many travel agents have successfully built a personal brand through posting photos of their travels and in many cases themselves. It has turned into a lead generator, often creating business or sparking a desire to travel in a past client, thanks to a well-placed destination photo or video.

But while their Facebook presence has grown, agents have largely been underutilizing other social media platforms, such as Instagram and YouTube, which because of their inherently visual nature lend themselves to travel products and could be powerful lead-generation tools.

Earlier this year, the travel search website Hipmunk released a study touching upon where millennials get their travel ideas. The data shows the potential of social media platforms other than Facebook: The study found that 44% of millennials get their travel inspiration from YouTube videos, 28% from Instagram.

"Overall, social media within the marketing media landscaping has officially arrived as a major opportunity for our industry for a few reasons," said Sam McCully, vice president of marketing at Avoya Travel.

Moreover, McCully said that potential opportunities are not limited to millennials, as more and more travelers in a wide range of ages are taking to social media throughout their entire vacation process, from the planning stage right through their return home.

"Is there an untapped opportunity?" McCully said. "I would say absolutely."

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Michael Nobiletti, director of education for Millennials in Travel, a trade group for agents born after 1975, said Instagram in particular should be drawing more agents than it does.

"Instagram is definitely being underutilized, which is really counterintuitive when you think about the very fabric of Instagram," he said. "Travel is one of the main types of content that's shared there."

Nobiletti said the industry has likely been slow on the uptake for two reasons: a lack of time and budget to invest in new platforms and the fact that platforms like Instagram cannot be shown to have a clear return on investment (ROI).

"Frankly, I feel like Instagram's the new travel brochure," he said. "People are going there to find travel inspiration. It's so inherently visual, inherently social. ... And yet, without that clear ROI, it gets overlooked."

Bruce Dierbeck, the director of social media at BVK, a Milwaukee-based advertising agency, pointed out that Instagram offers a value to agents in that when someone is viewing a post it is usually the only thing he or she can see, as it takes up nearly all of the user's mobile phone screen. BVK counts several industry groups, including Trisept Solutions, among its clients, and Dierbeck often posts on behalf of those clients.

"It isn't a direct-response platform, so that's why I think people use that space more for building their brand and building awareness and inspiring people to want to travel," he said. "I think that's really where [agents] can influence the travelers more and still move them along the decision-making process and move them through that purchase funnel."

Margie Jordan, an expert in the use of social media for travel marketing and vice president of membership services at CCRA International, said she is seeing more interest in Instagram from agents taking classes on the platform. Some millennial agents are jumping right in, as well, but Jordan said some agents struggle and "are not tech-savvy, and I think that's been a little bit of a barrier to Instagram."

"You need to get on there now and start posting and sharing and building your audience on there," she said.

Videos posted to sites such as YouTube and Vimeo are another potential lead generator that agents are underutilizing, said industry experts. However, the few who are posting video content say they are seeing some results.

Steve Gustafson, media director at Seven Lands and Seas Travel in Alexandria, Va., said his agency regularly gets leads from videos he posts on YouTube. Agents take the videos when they're on trips; for example, reviews of food on cruise ships or shore excursions.

In particular, Gustafson said he appreciates the videos' staying power, noting that they will continue to generate leads even after they have been posted for a year or more.

The content of videos is key, said Andy Ogg, sales and marketing director at Ogg Marketing Group. Travelers, he said, want to see "an unbiased, real look" at a destination or a cruise ship, and agents can provide that, whereas supplier videos might not be seen as being objective.

That idea was not lost on CruiseOne, Cruises Inc. and Dream Vacations. Franchise owners have access to a library of more than 100 videos made in-house about ships and destinations.

Rosemarie Reed, the group's vice president of marketing, said the videos were initially a hard sell in-house and to cruise lines, some of which offered their own commercially produced footage when the idea was pitched. But persistence paid off; Reed said agents now regularly send the videos to clients and post them to social media.

With so many social media platforms available, the question becomes which is most important for an agent to have a presence. There are two schools of thought on the subject: Agents should make themselves available on as many platforms as possible so they can maximize their shot at leads, or that they should identify which social media their target market uses and focus on that.

Vicky Garcia, co-owner of Cruise Planners, is of the first school of thought. "I think making yourself accessible and available in all mediums makes you more successful," she said.

Ogg agreed that there was value in being available on multiple platforms.

"There's so many social media outlets now, I hate to say that one's better than the other," he said. "I do think it's valuable to be present on all of them, but we also know how much time that can take up."

More targeted marketing is McCully's approach. For example, he said, agents selling larger brands such as Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International would be looking at a younger audience, so they might want to try more millennial-friendly channels outside of Facebook. But agents specializing in luxury cruises would have an audience that skews a little older, so Facebook would be appropriate there.

"My advice will continue to be, if you're running your own business, you really have to understand who your customers are, where they are, what they want from you and then really how to reach them," McCully said.

Different paths for Instagram success


Most in the industry agree that travel agents are underutilizing Instagram as a potential lead generator, but there are a handful who excel at using the social media platform.

Whether they find the key to be engagement, clean images, hashtags or something else, they all have their own recipes for success.

Here's a look at four, all of whom have five-digit follower counts and generated plenty of leads from Instagram.

 

 

SmartFlyer (@thesmartflyer), a Virtuoso agency, has a popular Instagram account overseen by the agency's managing director, Erina Pindar. About a year ago, she started to ramp up the company's posts on Instagram and now boasts more than 12,000 followers.

Pindar said the account's success is simple: "It sounds so basic, but it's good-quality images. We're pretty hard-core about that."

Images that are grainy or don't garner engagement are removed. Pindar handles SmartFlyer's Instagram account, including what gets posted; she often reposts from accounts that hashtag #smartflyer.

"I like Instagram a lot because it's visual, and travel is visual," she said. She also appreciates the strong mobile presence of social media, "because everyone does everything on their phone."

Today, social media has become like any other channel for SmartFlyer (the agency is also on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat).

"It's not just a new channel anymore," she said. "It's very much established; it's not going away. So the sooner you figure it out, the better. If it's not for you, it's not for you. But you should at least be educated about it."



Carlos Melia started his Instagram (@carlosmeliablog) account as a way to promote his blog, posting a new photo and announcement whenever new posts went live.

"But then, the Instagram became an entity of itself, and is a completely separate outlet or medium for me to distribute things or promote," he said.

Melia, a Virtuoso agent, has more than 14,000 followers. He is also a luxury agent and focuses on posting his own travel experiences in the form of images and videos. He also manages his own account.

"It takes a lot of time, but you know what? It fits what I do as a travel agent, as well, because my clients want to see my reviews and my own experiences," he said. "So in a way it's part of the job of being a travel agent. That's why my clients trust me."

His follower count grew organically, Melia said. He attributed it to both partnering with other brands (mentioning them, and in return, having them mention him) as well as his use of multiple hashtags on each post.

"I use a lot of hashtags; I'm very well known for that," he said. "But it's working, so I'm not going to drop that anytime soon."



Samantha Murdock, an agent with CCRA International, said nearly all of her business comes from social media, mostly Instagram.

To brand herself as a luxury agent via social media, she skips sales pitches and instead portrays the type of travel she believes her clients want to buy.

"I never tell anyone, 'Book with me, book with me, book with me,'" she said. "But you will see me at a five-star hotel. You will see me eating at a certain hotel or certain restaurant. And then I'll say, 'Well, if you want to be here, also, you can.'"

Murdock handles her account (@samtravelchick), focusing on posting things attractive to her luxury clientele.

"If you're selling a certain type of thing," she said, "that's what you should post on your social media at all times."

Murdock has more than 13,500 followers, a base she attributes to being active on the platform, updating frequently and engaging with others on Instagram.

"It takes so much time," she said. "But I think it's the best way to do it, to grow organically."



Kelly Klassen (@kelly_klassen_tpi), a Travel Professionals International agent, focuses on destination weddings and family and group travel. She has built her account through engaging with others on Instagram.

"I do spend quite a bit of time on Instagram building relationships," she said.

"I comment on people's stuff. I like their stuff. I engage in people. To me, it's being able to build relationships with people, because that's how I get clients."

Klassen posts one or two times daily on her professional Instagram account. She started using it for work because she was already familiar with the platform, thanks to a personal account, and it paid off. She now has nearly 10,500 followers.

The photos she posts are a mix of destinations and Klassen enjoying herself in those places, which she said have been some of her most popular.

Klassen said the key to her success on Instagram is posting colorful, exciting photos that showcase her personality as well as engaging with others on the site. Showing an interest in others, she said, was "pivotal" to her success.

"I think those are really the main things that are going to help drive your business and get it to the point where people want to follow you, and you keep your followers," she said.

Snapchat could be the next frontier for social media


A plethora of existing social media platforms give travel agents access to wide audiences, and one could argue that almost any of the platforms could prove to be relevant to a given agent's marketing needs.

Classmates.com could connect an agent with fellow alumni who want to take a vacation. She or he could reach out to special interest groups on Reddit to organize some lucrative group travel. A Flickr account could feature destination photos and link prospects to the agent's website.

But the one social media platform that has the industry scratching its head is Snapchat, the smartphone app that enables users to send photos or short videos to one another or post them publicly to their "story." With the option to draw on the photos and videos as well as add filters, emojis and text, users can send a virtually limitless amount of content.

But then it disappears.

Evaporating content seems counterintuitive to marketing. Photos and videos appear for up to 10 seconds at a time (the creator picks how long if it's a photo). If they're sent to a friend, they can be replayed once immediately after being seen, but they disappear after that. If they're sent to a story, they are deleted after 24 hours.

And yet, the travel space is watching, with many waiting to see if Snapchat can help their brand and, in turn, bring in new clients.

"I don't know if there's anything there, per se," said Andy Ogg, sales and marketing director at Ogg Marketing Group. "I'm not sure yet."

While Ogg said he hasn't heard of a travel company successfully using Snapchat to attract customers, the one thing it does have going for it is user-generated content.

"There's nothing more powerful than that," Ogg said.

Social media success is largely based on demographics.

"It all goes back to what their niche is, what their specialty is and what kind of client they're looking to attract," he said.

Snapchat is undeniably popular with the younger set. According to the company 37 % of its U.S. users are between the ages of 18 and 24. Only 2% are 55 or older.

And considering that core user base of millennials, who studies have shown are most likely to use travel agents, it's a social media platform worth watching.

SmartFlyer, a Virtuoso agency, is dipping its toes into the Snapchat waters. "There is massive potential there," managing director Erina Pindar said.

The agency just started Snapchatting, she said, asking agents who are traveling and familiar with the app to post photos and videos from their trips.

"It's super-new, but we're getting pretty big views, so it's super-encouraging," she said.

SmartFlyer is focusing on showing room products, destinations and how the agents travel within a destination, Pindar said.

It's working on a guideline for how agents should post content while traveling. For example, on a recent weekend, agents were submitting photos and videos from Tokyo, Playa del Carmen in Mexico and Sydney, showcasing hotels and the cities.

Pindar said Snapchat hadn't yet brought in any leads, unlike SmartFlyer's other social media presences, but it has only been using the app for a few weeks.

Leaders share their #bestideas


We asked a few prominent Instagram-using travel advisers a set of questions about how they use the platform to their maximum advantage. Here are their responses.

Erina Pindar for SmartFlyer

Erina Pindar
Erina Pindar

Handle:  @thesmartflyer

Follower count: 12,400

Time on Instagram: More than three years.

Favorite hashtag: #SmartFlyer

Favorite filter: "We don't use the native Instagram filter."

Square, landscape or portrait orientation: "Always square."

Best post: "A shot of the Bulgari Resort in Bali."

Favorite place to photograph: "Anywhere with a good pool or amazing ocean view."

Most beneficial part of being on Instagram: "The inspiration and new discovery."

Best Instagram advice: "Figure out what works for you."

Carlos Melia

Carlos Melia
Carlos Melia

Handle:  @carlosmeliablog

Follower count: 14,100

Time on Instagram: More than three years.

Favorite hashtag: "I am known as the king of hashtags, but I would have to say my favorites are #LuxuryTravel, #Bonvivant, #Globetrotter and #Jetsetter."

Favorite filter: "None. I create my own mix using the editor."

Square, landscape or portrait orientation: "Portrait most of all."

Best post: "That changes constantly. If you ask me today, I would have to say my recent posts on my experience aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train from Venice to London."

Favorite place to photograph: "Nature overall. I love to bring the colors to life and inspire people [with] destinations they've never seen before."

Most beneficial part of being on Instagram: "Inspiring people and showing things very foreign or distant to many."

Best Instagram advice: "Find your identity, your voice. Quality over quantity. Don't worry so much about how many followers you have; worry about who those followers are and what they represent to you on a personal level, as an influencer and as a brand."

Samantha Murdock

Samantha Murdock
Samantha Murdock

Handle:  @samtravelchick

Follower count: 13,700

Time on Instagram: Four years.

Favorite hashtag: #travelagentlife

Favorite filter: "Valencia, because I like to brighten my pictures."

Square, landscape or portrait orientation: "Square."

Best post: "I have a few pictures of myself that have over 1,000 likes, but I personally think my food posts are the best."

Favorite place to photograph: "Hotel rooms."

Most beneficial part of being on Instagram: "It has helped me brand myself as a travel expert, and I have received a lot of business from it."

Best Instagram advice: "If you are using it to gain clients, don't be too salesy. You will gain clients if people start viewing you as an expert in your field, so post pictures while you are on fams, at seminars, meet and greets, etc."

Kelly Klassen

Kelly Klassen
Kelly Klassen

Handle:  @kelly_klassen_tpi

Follower count: 10,400

Time on Instagram: Since August 2014.

Favorite hashtag: "I utilize many of them, depending on what I am highlighting that day, whether it be #travelagentlife, #travelagent, #destinationwedding, #familytravel or #romanticdestination. It all depends on what my post is."

Favorite filter: "Again, it depends on my picture. I tend to use editing apps that are not on Instagram, or I just adjust the contrast and saturation of a photo instead of using a filter."

Square, landscape or portrait orientation: "Generally, my pictures are square."

Best post: "I don't think I have one post that is my best. Generally, the pictures of me really enjoying a destination get the most feedback."

Favorite place to photograph: "At destinations, of course. Anywhere I travel is a great place to photograph. I try to use interesting angles and objects for my pictures and change it up as often as I can."

Most beneficial part of being on Instagram: "Connecting with potential clients, hearing people talk about travel, their favorite destinations and travel experiences, seeing supplier pictures and posts so I can be inspired to travel to new resorts or destinations."

Best Instagram advice: "Interact with your followers as much as possible. Like and comment on their posts.... Make sure your photos are interesting and good quality. Try to infuse your personality onto your page. Have fun with it."