The Frequent Traveler: Travel Buyers Attempt To Ride Social Media Wave - Business Travel News

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The Frequent Traveler: Travel Buyers Attempt To Ride Social Media Wave

November 05, 2012 - 06:25 PM ET

By Michael B. Baker

Travel buyers are stepping up efforts to communicate with their travelers, but those incorporating strategies without social media elements might find themselves behind the crest.

More than 60 percent of buyers surveyed by Business Travel News said that within the past year they had done more to communicate policies to travelers. About half bolstered efforts to provide information about preferred suppliers and new tools and services, while fewer increased communication about travel emergencies.

[Please click here to view the digital edition of The Frequent Traveler: Finding A Balance, featuring all charted data, downloadable as a pdf.]  

Frequent travelers, meanwhile, gave their companies passing—though not stellar—marks for the effectiveness of those communications. Average scores on an ascending six-point scale ranged from 4.1 to 4.5, with the highest for communicating travel policy and the lowest for providing such location information as restaurant recommendations.

Successful communication programs follow the adage "know your audience," according to buyers. There has been much talk, for example, about how the generational divide determines how travelers prefer to receive information.

Hewlett-Packard last year conducted a massive survey of its travelers and learned that Gen-X and Millennial travelers prefer to receive policy information in sound bites, text messages and other succinct methods rather than the four-page newsletter the company had been producing.

Many buyers today endorse a scattershot approach to communication, using various channels so travelers can get information about new policies or programs in the way they choose. AstraZeneca global commercial leader of business travel management Caroline Strachan, speaking last month at a Global Business Travel Association Europe conference in Budapest, said she used that strategy when the pharmaceutical company launched a new program.

"We'll do it in 10 different ways," said Strachan. "We'll communicate through our dedicated social media for travel. We'll do in-person sessions for the warm and fluffy types who like to be able to touch and feel. We'll do email. We'll do the whole gamut."

During an initiative to solicit traveler feedback, the company's travel department "took over every communication channel in AstraZeneca for a week," she said. The team collected responses through its social media portal, provided postcards for responses and set up in-person meetings. Information was posted in company cafes, mailboxes, stands and just about everywhere else to give travelers little excuse for declining to offer feedback.

At enterprise software supplier Deltek, the travel program's communication strategy moved from a company intranet to a travel-specific blog that allowed a more direct feed, said global travel procurement director Karoline Mayr. Now, it is migrating to its own enterprise social network, Kona.

While Deltek's travelers might have different communication preferences, Mayr emphasized that she tries to keep the message constant regardless of channel.

"We aren't putting out different messages or different types of information," she said. "What we try to do speaks to our culture."

The Digital Natives Are Coming 

Although their program sizes and corporate cultures are quite different, Strachan and Mayr agreed that social media has a growing presence within travel programs, and travel managers ignore that at their own peril.

BTN's survey showed that nearly 60 percent of travelers use social media to enhance their traveling experience. Its most-cited use was for the communication area in which companies scored lowest in effectiveness: location-specific recommendations on restaurants, hotels and ground transportation.

As many might expect, the survey also showed a sharp generational disparity in social media use. Almost 80 percent of travelers younger than 35 said they used social media while traveling, and that age group was far more likely than any other to use it to connect with other travelers going to the same location. Two-thirds of travelers 55 and older said they do not use social media during business travel at all.

Some expect that the divide will become even more pronounced. Max Keegan, a 17-year-old U.K. student, delivered a keynote speech at GBTA Europe's Budapest conference and gave buyers an idea of how deeply engrained social media is in his everyday activities. "Much of my life is highly influenced and highly improved by social media," said Keegan, identified as a "digital native"—someone born after the introduction of digital technology. "My social calendar is organized almost solely through Facebook. Much of my schoolwork is influenced by the group chats each of my classes collectively hold over the issue of our most recent homework."

The issue is more than generational, however. The proliferation of mobile technology will change expectations of older travelers—digital immigrants, as they were—to be more in line with their younger peers.

"It isn't necessarily age-related, but it is technology-driven, and smartphones are a huge driver of that," said Travelport chief marketing officer Gillian Gibson. "There will be a lot of shifts, and we need to make sure the next generation of technology that we're building for the industry takes care of that. Between now and five to eight years' time, there will be a bigger shift than we have seen already."

It's also a specious assumption that younger travelers will want social media-based platforms at work to mirror what they use in their daily lives.

As AstraZeneca introduced social media platforms for its travelers, Strachan was surprised to find that many travelers in their 50s and 60s were eager to interact through social media. Some other employees who were recent graduates, however, never used them. "I asked them why they didn't want to interact with us," she said. "They said, 'That's for my personal life. I don't see that as my work life.' "

Deltek's Mayr noticed resistance when she floated the idea of moving travel communications onto a Facebook page. Her travelers saw Facebook as a site for personal activity, she said, not work activity.

Enterprise Platforms 

To supply a social media communications program for travelers separate from their personal platforms, many buyers are turning to such enterprise platforms as Microsoft's Yammer, Salesforce's Chatter and Jive Software.

Often, travel buyers can start programs on these platforms with a leg up; companies use them for other functions, so travelers already are accustomed to using them.

BCD Travel senior vice president April Bridgeman last month at The Beat Live travel business conference in Nashville said that if buyers are not familiar with the platforms their companies use to communicate, they should ask.

"It's very important to be where your customers are already, in terms of how you market and communicate," Bridgeman said. "It's such a huge opportunity instead of having one-to-one conversations with people who have issues to have one-to-many and eventually many-to-many conversations with your travelers. You get to debunk myths, promote certain initiatives and talk about the value proposition for the program."

AstraZeneca uses Yammer with a stream dedicated for travel. Since its introduction, it has become one of the most-visited streams on the site, said Strachan. While the stream is useful for delivering hard information about the travel program and policy, it also is important to use it for softer information, she said. For example, she'll send out tips on staying healthy while flying, or open-ended questions soliciting humorous responses: "You know you're traveling too much when …"

"It's a way to get engagement so they don't just see us as the travel police telling them what to do," Strachan said.

At Unilever, procurement manager for global travel services Yvonne Moya said the company created special groups within Yammer where travelers can detail experiences and offer tips on cities they have visited. Travelers also use it to convey experiences with suppliers—in addition to comments via the company travel portal and a hotel rating system embedded in the company's online booking tool. Unilever's travel team can follow up with preferred hotels that receive negative reports, Moya said.

Deltek's Mayr said she had been using Yammer prior to Kona. Traveler communication within Kona currently is in beta and open to the company's global travel council. The next step likely will be inviting everyone with a corporate card.

When tapping into such tools, travel buyers need to ensure they are not merely adding another communication channel, said Steven Mandelbaum, vice president of information systems for the Advisory Board Co.

"In order to make social networks work," he said, "you need to think about a shift, as opposed to one more inbox they have to check or one more alert popping up on their phone."

Social Media's Future Role 

Some buyers foresee even deeper integration of social media and travel in the next few years.

On the traveler side, although no major enterprise social media platform has been developed specifically for corporate travel, cooperation is emerging. About a year ago, for instance, TripIt began allowing users to share itineraries, sans sensitive details, through Yammer and Salesforce Chatter.

Mayr said she is looking forward to experimenting with a Kona feature that allows feedback from groups outside the company. She said there may be benefits to bringing certain suppliers into certain conversations with travelers.

"We could create groups within groups—let's say United Airlines or Hertz—and could enter a landscape where people could exchange information," she said. "We could test that with particular suppliers who might be able to help with this."

After all, travelers already use social media to directly communicate with suppliers. Savvy Twitter users with a significant number of followers have learned that an acidic tweet about a perceived service failure might draw a more meaningful response than scolding a flight attendant or hotel desk clerk. One buyer noted to BTN how one employee's photo of a moldy coffee filter at her hotel quickly went viral on Chatter and ultimately elicited a response from the hotel manager.

BCD Travel's Bridgeman said a client asked about having travelers engage with agents via its enterprise social media tool, but the concept seems to be a little ahead of the technology, she said.

"To date, most of the tools we want to interact with are a little bit clunky in terms of adding non-employee members to an enterprise environment," Bridgeman explained. "The barrier is not the willingness or interest, it's the mechanics around the user administration."

As technology evolves, Bridgeman said buyers should brainstorm ways to take advantage of social media for their own purposes. A buyer who needs to shave a certain amount off a hotel program budget, for example, could launch a social media campaign, complete with a meter that keeps tabs on how close travelers are to achieving that goal.

"How do you use your own social environment to engage differently with that population?" Bridgeman asked. "I would try to get creative in ways to engage them so that you can use that enthusiasm they have to help you achieve goals that may have been a little more difficult to achieve otherwise."

This report originally appeared in the Oct. 22, 2012, edition of Business Travel News. 

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