June 22, 2010: Virgin Atlantic Airways passengers are trapped for nearly five hours on a hot, dark plane after their trans-Atlantic flight is delayed, then diverted. The incident turns into PR hell for Virgin Atlantic as disembarking passengers relate tales of frustration and panic to news teams waiting on the tarmac.
With the emergence of Hotels.com, Expedia, Priceline and others, the travel industry has gone grassroots – offering a sometimes baffling array of choices and discounts.
But now, airlines and others are cutting through the clutter, turning to interpersonal sites such as Facebook and Twitter to build brand loyalty. One major impact may come in averting ill will in potentially controversial situations.
Virgin Atlantic officials, clearly frustrated by media coverage of the June 22 incident, defended their actions by pointing to the time needed to bring in personnel to handle the overseas flight: “Being an international flight, it’s not like you can let people wander aimlessly … It was a situation that was beyond our control.”
That point was largely lost to the mainstream media, however – precisely why airlines are trying to regain that control by going one-on-one via channels opened by loyalty programs.
A recent article in USA Today points out that airlines are maintaining a presence on YouTube and offering deals through social-mapping networks such as Loopt, while hotels utilize bloggers and gather feedback, monitor trends and provide concierge services online.
“We’re able to admit over social media if we’ve made a mistake or if there’s a weather delay. So we’re able to communicate much faster and more effectively,” says Jill Fletcher, social media and communications manager for Virgin America.
Carl Howe, a director with the Yankee Group, a telecommunication market research firm, says the travel and hospitality sector is ahead of the curve in engaging social media, “mainly because there is so much concern about consumer perception. … There are a lot more choices for hotels than there are for cable providers, and the same is true for airlines.”
What are some of the actionable ideas out there?
- United Airlines created “twares” – reduced fare offered exclusively through Twitter. AirTran recently introduced its “Facebook Friday Fares,” giving unique deals to its Facebook fans.
- LuxuryLink.com and FamilyGetaway.com have launched “mystery auctions,” in which customers bid for hotel packages at discounted rates without knowing the property’s identity – issuing clues about the hotels only through their Facebook and Twitter pages.
- Country Inns & Suites By Carlson earlier this year offered free seven-day trips to bloggers active in social-media sites.
- To replace convention business that shrank during the recession, Westin-St. Maarten is working through wedding bloggers to enter their readers in a sweepstakes for a ceremony or honeymoon at the resort.
- Delta passengers now can buy tickets on its Facebook page. Southwest has three full-time staffers monitoring and responding to queries made through social-media channels.
Despite the buzz, analysts warn that social media will be far more effective – at least for now – among twenty-somethings. Baby Boomers remain skeptical, and brand managers should be careful not to replace one communications hub-bub with another:
“Twitter creates the appearance of human contact but it lacks the actual human touch,” says Jim Black, 58, a frequent flyer from Ventura, Calif. Technology can never replace another person’s input, argues Black, who rarely updates his Facebook page and claims indifference to special deals offered via Twitter.
“To substitute social media for human contact is incrementally a step down in customer service.” Instead, social media should be considered as another channel to connect with customer as part of a company’s integrated communication plan.