The splintered picture in travel and social media

The splintered picture in travel and social media

I work with social media in travel every day. Nose down to the grindstone, I don’t sniff the air often enough to always gauge what others are doing. But this week was different: events landed in my lap –  and my observations were that travel is more fractured than ever in its embracing of the medium.

To start at the top: An acquaintance told me he was working as part of a team responding to social media on Malaysian Airlines’ crash in Ukraine. He said they already had had 35,000 direct contacts on social from families, friends or media looking for information and help. That is a colossal workload but one that is now expected, and needed, to be in place in such extreme events.

On the same day, I learn that KLM – the masters of aviation and social media – have now started connecting with customers on Linked-in. It will offer a 24/7 service so that customers can approach KLM with general and flight-related queries on topics such as seat reservations, rebooking a ticket or making arrangements for extra baggage.

“After Facebook, Twitter and VKontakte, adding service via LinkedIn is in line with KLM’s strategy to be where our customers are. LinkedIn attracts business people worldwide, many of whom regularly travel by air. This makes it an interesting platform for KLM,” says Martijn van der Zee, Senior Vice President E-Commerce at Air France/KLM.

That is also a colossal workload, but one that KLM is willing to absorb to connect with its 70,000 followers on Linked-in. After all, KLM already has 10m fans or followers on social media – and now employs 130 staff speaking 10 languages to talk to them. They are the airline masters in connecting with customers in this new social media world.

So, two important points. One: you need social media big time to help cope with a crisis and the resultant flood of fury and questions. And secondly, in ‘peace time,’ you need social big time to help connect with your customers who expect to get answers in a variety of communication channels. It’s good marketing.

To move to the other end of the scale: I had to deal with a small social media crisis relating to a safari company and a contracted bus driver who had knocked down and killed an animal. Small beer compared to Malaysian Airlines but no less important – it’s just about scale. A photo was taken of the dead animal in the road and put on Facebook – so from nowhere, the company involved had to respond to furious FB’ers demanding to know what the company involved would do with its supplier and the driver.

We did, but it took the weekend to gather facts, responses and respond corporately and individually to the complainants. The result was, I believe, respect for how it was handled and the outcome (the driver will be prosecuted). But if left untackled, the social rage would still be ongoing and the brand would have appeared to be impotent.

On the same day, I was approached to talk to travel agents in Italy on their use of social, with an unworkable brief as to how travel agents worldwide are, or should, be mounting social media campaigns. The conference organisers were wildly optimistic that this is happening. It isn’t – travel agents are retailers and passive (by and large) and don’t use social (unless you can prove me wrong – examples willingly accepted!).

The point being that, as with Malaysian and the safari company, you HAVE to be out there and responding. Or with KLM and Italian travel agents, you DON’T have to be – but if you are, then excellent. But the airlines are, travel agents have yet to get started.

More realistically, I also had an email that day from the Czech Tourism Office simply asking me to speak in Prague on how their travel trade can work with social media. It was an open brief which is fine, because that’s where we all are – all over the place. From airlines coping with catastrophes, to airlines using social media for marketing and a travel industry widely disparate in how it is coping/playing, or should be coping/playing with social and digital media.

As I have said for the last five years, it’s the Wild West out there and it will take another five years before accepted and best practise is understood. Fear not if you haven’t started in the marketing and data capture game: you still have time to learn and get it right. But do fear if you don’t have a crisis strategy in place – it could hit you any time, and you need to be ready.

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Steve Keenan has been a travel journalist for 25 years. He started at a Reed paper, news editing at Travel News in London - now Travel Weekly - having spent a decade reporting general news in the UK and abroad. He also taught English in Peru, delivered cars in the USA, ran the Sydney desk at AAP and took the train home from Hong Kong. He left Travel News in 1990 to freelance for several publications, including The Times of London, which he later joined as deputy travel editor. In December 2004, he became the first national digital travel editor in the UK, running the combined travel website of The Times and Sunday Times. The introduction of a paywall at the papers in 2010 persuaded him that the connected world might continue outside of Wapping and he left to co-found Travel Perspective. The company runs the social media seminars at World Travel Market London, and works with Reed Expos and others in helping the travel and tourism industry best communicate stories in all forms of publishing.

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