Does Social Media Influence Travel Decisions?

Travel & Social Media

A recent tweet by Nathan Kam, a PR executive on behalf of a tourism organization, asked whether social media played any part in the decision making process of determining where people stay, visit or what they do on their next vacation. My response? Yes, social media absolutely plays a big role in how people make their travel plans.

It’s called TripAdvisor.

TripAdvisor.comHaving spent the past few years working in the heart of convention & visitors bureaus doing online marketing, I’m well aware as to the power behind TripAdvisor.com. I had the chance to speak with them during my travels to the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) TravelCon event in 2007. If you’re not fully aware, TripAdvisor is partially a user-generated content website. It has some paid editors and writers who put together content about various hotels, places, attractions, etc., but there are certain parts that are also contributed from destinations, hoteliers, attractions, etc. and then some by the general public. These are the reviews that many people have come to find informative…hopefully.

The point here is that when you’re looking for, say, things to do at a destination, there are probably at least two places where you’d begin your search. First would be the “official” website of their tourism bureau which you will think is all fluff, but may offer you some good deals and at least tell you what’s good around the area. The second is probably TripAdvisor.com. It’s partially a Travel & Leisure Magazine telling you about the good stuff about a destination, location, activity, restaurant, transit system, etc and then also some not-so-good things (e.g. security, places to avoid, food, customs, etc.). People tend to read these and judging by what they read from other people’s reviews, it’s the perfect area to gain a understanding about whether to book that next travel package.

Reviews can make or break a destination.

Have you ever gone on vacation to a foreign place (when I say foreign, I mean a place you’ve never been to before, not across the world) and wonder where the best place to eat is, what hotel is clean and others…not so clean? Social media has opened up a new area for destinations to combat. It’s the world of reviews where customers have a voice that will be heard. No longer will hotels stiff customers on towels and think that nothing can be done. Vacationers will now be able to instantly tweet, email, post on review sites, capture video to post on YouTube, or even blog about their experiences and it will be shared quickly to their audience thereby creating a negative impression of a hotel. Is that what hoteliers and destinations want?

When I go traveling, I’m interested to know the reviews of restaurants. If it’s less than 3 stars, I become weary of the place, but at the same time am looking forward to the reviews because it will tell me whether the service I receive is worthy of my time and money. Without anything positive, I know that I’ll move on, no matter how “world famous” the cuisine and food is. This is where sites like OpenTable, Yelp and Thummit come into play. You indicate cost, location, the ability to reserve a table and the menu, the restaurants may tend to do more business or at least provide enough information to eat at your establishment.

If you’re traveling for business, you need to obviously do some planning ahead of time. When traveling for a conference or event, you’ll typically have a “host hotel” that most everyone stays at. But what if you look on Google and see that another hotel is nearby and TripAdvisor or reviews of Google indicate that it has free wireless access while the “host hotel” does not and is of similar price. As a customer, you might be more interested in free wireless rather than paying for it. Jeremiah Owyang makes a point in his article about how hotels should not charge for Internet service. This is probably the most important travel resource and you can bet that most review sites will promote free wireless service for nearby hoteliers. So you bet that social media will affect which hotels are stayed at.

Crowdsourcing your research.

So Much More Hawaii Social Media CampaignI’ve been planning several trips over the past year and all the time that I needed to research what I’m going to be doing or where I should be going, I usually ping the fine folks on Twitter and ask them their thoughts. Across my Twitter spectrum, I have people spanning across the United States and also the world. So it’s no wonder why I’d want to interact with them. I’m not interested in seeing all the tourist stuff (don’t get me wrong, I’d love to), but I’m also interested in seeing the real destination that I’m going to.

Take for example the latest exploits that the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) did with a bunch of social media bloggers and videographers: As part of the So Much More Hawaii initiative,  the tourism authority brought in several bloggers or influencers from around the country to go from island to island to experience Hawaii. It wasn’t all travel bloggers, but they spanned different industries and had at least one thing in common: they all used social media actively. One of these bloggers, Jim Turner (@genuine) decided to crowdsource his daily activities for each island that he visited. He gave the public the voice in what he should experience on this paradise excursion…from kayaking to snorkeling to riding an A/V through the Ko’olau mountain valley and whatever the public chose, he did it.

Now granted there have been some controversy about the HTA’s ethical practice around this whole initiative, but that notwithstanding, the point about how these social media providers have promoted the island should hopefully sway at least a few more people about visiting the islands sometime soon. And I’m sure that these types of efforts will help other destinations as well.

Traditional means isn’t cutting it anymore.

If you’re thinking that you’re not interested in delving into social media, you are missing the boat unfortunately. Simply having a website, doing online advertising on Google, Bing & Yahoo, or even email marketing is outdated these days. Focus on where people are talking about you and interact with them. Sure, you can still push out your marketing information and hope people are interested and you might, in fact, attract someone to look into booking their ticket to your destination, make a reservation or whatever call-to-action you want. BUT that’s only the first step. The point is that you’re going to have customers interested start doing their research. Where do people go to do their researc? Not the library or the encyclopedia. It’s all online. Google a destination, hotel, cruise, establishment, etc and you’ll get websites, blogs, and other things that may intrigue you and may sway your decision about whether to proceed about your vacation/trip.

Head the reviews off at the pass and talk to them. Look at what bloggers are saying about you. Monitor your mentions using Google Alerts, look on Twitter Search for mentions (is your brand even on Twitter?), check out pings to Technorati, Del.icio.us or subscribe to a monitoring tool like MightyBrand or ScoutLabs.

People are talking about you. If you’re dependant on tourism to your venue or company, you might want to get on board and check it out. Or you can just wave and say Bon Voyage to any business going to your competitor.

NOTE: Check out this list by Nathan Kam on which tourism bureaus and destinations are on Twitter that have begun the listening & interaction process.

By Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung is a journalist fascinated with the stories of the tech industry and internet culture. He's currently the Technology Editor at Flipboard, where he observes what's happening in the space while also identifying new topics of interest. In addition, he co-hosts the weekly internet show "The Created Economy," which focuses on what's happening to creators and influencers. Previously, he was a reporter for VentureBeat and The Next Web, covering tech startups, the industry's innovations and funding. Ken also has a newsletter you should also subscribe to called "Filed."