AWEISSMANN100x135Twitter flitted through Travel Weekly's Summer Deals and Family Travel Virtual Conference and Trade Show last week, alighting almost everywhere. It was discussed by travel agents in the lounge. It was praised by speakers in sessions on both days of the conference. It was mentioned in chats on the trade show floor.

And in turn, the conference itself was discussed in the Twittersphere, in 24 separate tweets. (OK, I posted three of them.)

What's remarkable about this is that two months ago, at our previous virtual conference, it was mentioned only once, in passing. And no one tweeted about that conference.

Which begs the question posed by one of our speakers, tech guru Scott Klososky: Is it fad, trend or truth?

Klososky concludes it's truth. (He defines truth as something that is on the far side of a one-way threshold. For example, once a person begins storing contacts digitally, there's no going back to a physical Rolodex.) Klososky's track record on sorting truth from fad is pretty good. In fact, I heard him predict the rise of Twitter in a speech 11 months ago.

(If you missed Klososky's speech last week, or any other presentation from the show, you can listen to it on demand. Aafter you've registered, click on the Auditorium and choose "Trends, Technology and Taking the Lead.")

I had announced in my column on March 16 that I would begin to Twitter, and it has been an interesting four weeks. On one hand, I can't possibly keep up every day with the tweets from the 350 or so people who are following me. There are some very prolific tweeters out there. But I do check in with them regularly, and I'm beginning to sort out whom among them I might want to follow more diligently.

Thanks to Twitter, I've come across some items of interest. A good example is an internal memo describing United Airlines' new, "slimmer" seats, which the company is testing for installation on domestic 757s.

But to get to that which interests me, I must skim through a lot that interests me less. It's not that I'm bothered by descriptions of strangers' states of mind, hunger and exhaustion (particularly if they're well described), but skimming them takes time. I'm fairly tolerant of travel-related messages that have obvious commercial purpose, but those pushing, for example, dietary weight-loss supplements, get deleted upon first offense (United's slimmer seats notwithstanding).

However, another speaker at our conference presented data that made me think differently about the value of Twitter. In a session titled "Top Industry Researchers Track Trends" (also available on demand), Stanley Plog of BestTripChoices.com, who has been conducting travel research for more than 40 years, told attendees that the number of days Americans say they have free for vacation has dropped dramatically in the past decade. In 1999, there were 34 days available, of which 15 nights were spent away from home. But by 2008, consumers reported only 16 days available, with 12 nights spent away from home, a 53% drop of available days.

That, Plog later told me, is "scary." Note that while the number of days free and nights away from home have both declined, the number of nights away from home as a percentage of free days has risen dramatically (rising from 44% to 75%). In other words, Americans are struggling to hold on to their travel days, but there's not much more they can do.

What has caused such a dramatic change in people's perception of the time they have for travel? The research did not address that specifically, but I suspect technology might be the culprit. Technology, as researcher Peter Yesawich has reminded us, was supposed to bring us the four-day workweek but instead impinges on our available time. I don't know if my experience is typical, but if I don't get in a couple of hours of email each day while I'm on vacation, I worry what my inbox will look like when I return.

So far, I'm finding that to get full value from Twitter takes about 30 minutes a day. Excluding weekends and holidays, that comes to about 15½ work days per year. In most circumstances, if I were to choose to take on extra work that would require two-plus weeks of my time annually (about the length of the average person's available vacation), I think I'd do a thorough investigation of the return on investment on that task. And I'm not sure Twitter would pass muster.

I do realize that there are people for whom the ROI on Twitter could be terrific. Many of the people who are following me (and whom I now follow) work for public relations firms or are freelance writers. Should they tweet something that interests me, and as a result their story appears in Travel Weekly, then their time on Twitter could be time well spent.

So I accept that Twitter has proven its utility. It is, as Klososky states, truth. I'm just not yet sure that, in this case, the truth will set me free.

Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/awtravelweekly.

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