Imagine a means of selling travel that turns traditional marketing on its head. It uses conversations, not sales pitches. It takes place within a forum of diverse voices, rather than a basic one-on-one interaction. It’s proven to work—and it’s free.
That’s exactly what you’ll find on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter—sites that more and more travel sellers are using to their advantage. Though many are quick to dismiss social media, claiming the sites are boring or too revealing, many more sign up for Facebook and Twitter accounts every day, using them as a way to stay connected to what’s happening in the world. That’s a broad base of consumers lying in wait.
“We really wanted to stay with the times,” says Tina Gilmore, director of marketing and airline relations at Balboa Travel Management, which launched Facebook and Twitter accounts earlier this year. “A lot of our hotel vendors and airlines have gone there as well, as a venue for customers to be able to become fans and reach out to those venues.” Agents can use social media in much the same way as hotels and airlines, she points out—as a tool for providing information and even solving customer service issues.
Steve Langley, director of sales and marketing at Hawaii.com, maintains the site’s Twitter account and also launched its Facebook page in May of this year. “We felt that with the situation in the economy these days, having a Facebook page and a Twitter account is low in cost, and yet it has a broad reach,” he explains. “We felt it was time to delve into the viral social networking piece of the business, so we looked at all of the different networks out there and those were the two that were easiest to get up and running.”
Of course, there’s more to it than simply signing up. Clients won’t know about your venture into this new area of marketing unless you tell them about it. Gilmore says she alerted her entire list of clients when Balboa’s Facebook and Twitter pages launched, with newsletters, e-mail blasts and more. Hawaii.com did the same with its e-mail list, and earned nearly 4,000 fans on Facebook in just three months.
Your number of followers is important, because it fosters conversation—the foundation of successful social media. Fans can interact with other fans, turning social media sites into a working example of word-of-mouth marketing. Ishwar Persad, marketing manager at the Montserrat Tourist Board, says that, “The good thing about [Facebook] is that fans there can share their vacation experiences and connections to the island if they’ve visited. They can upload their photos, videos and so on. We get a lot of questions through the site asking about accommodations and coming to the island, and it provides a good forum for us to provide advice, but other people in the fan base respond with their suggestions as well.”
soft sell The trick to social media marketing, Gilmore, Langley and Persad agree, is to engage your fans in lively discussions about travel, rather than simply pitching them vacation deals. “There’s a fine line between selling and becoming a resource,” Gilmore says. “I don’t think individuals follow someone on Facebook or Twitter for [sales pitches].”
“You cannot look at it as a heavy selling opportunity,” Langley emphasizes. “It’s a building relationships situation. You will lose people the minute you start trying to make the sale.” After all, users of social media don’t sign up to be bombarded with ads; they want to connect with loved ones and discover like-minded people in the online community. Your job is to build a relationship with them, to engage them in discussions about travel and encourage them to share their stories. Langley frequently starts friendly debates among Hawaii.com’s fans by asking them about their favorite restaurant in Hawaii, or which island is best for a first-time visitor. Gilmore passes on info about bargain-basement deals, but balances it with other company information. And Persad posts enticing news clips about Montserrat, which garner comments from travelers and locals alike—giving clients the unique opportunity to speak directly with locals about what it’s like on the island.
getting started Travel agents are particularly well-suited to start marketing via Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, Langley says, because they “have a database with customers, so that’s where they’ll start.” A simple e-mail blast asking clients to become your fan will often garner surprisingly high results. “That builds virally, and you end up adding new fans every day,” Langley explains.