In the past decade, the rise of online communities, forums and social networks has fundamentally changed our travel habits. A decade ago, a lot of my trips started with a visit to the AAA office and the library to collect AAA Trip Tiks, guidebooks, maps and other destination information. Fast forward to today, and our travel plans usually start with an Internet search.

In December, as my family discussed destinations that involved a beach or an amusement park, my first-grader quipped that he wanted to go to see Santa Elena Canyon. There was a moment of silence as the rest of the family looked blankly at each other, wondering where this place was. A Google search returned the result that Santa Elena Canyon was in Big Bend National Park in Texas. A tweet to my followers connected me with Beth Nobles, executive director at Texas Mountain Trail, a nonprofit organization that promotes visitors to the six westernmost counties of Texas — an area as big as West Virginia. She provided me with information about places to see and activities in Big Bend National Park. Members of TripAdvisor helped me with information on other destinations on the trip, such as Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands Desert in New Mexico. The trip was a great success, and a lot of credit goes to several social channels.

Here are five ways social media is transforming travel:

  • Communities and forums: Sites such as FlyerTalk and TripAdvisor predate today’s leading social networks and are filled with discussions from travelers who are experts on their experience with travel and destination. They are a good spot to search for the experience of other travelers with business and destinations. With the advent of social media, you can see whether you are connected with the reviewers, which may add to the credibility of the review.
  • Social status updates: You can poll your Facebook or Twitter friends about places or get some specific information again about restaurants, travel tips. On Facebook, using Social Graph Search, you can find out who in your network or “friends of friends” have been to the places you want to visit. I used this feature on a recent visit to Warsaw, Poland, and got some great tips from my friend David Berkowitz, who had recently visited Warsaw.
  • Social local mobile (SoLoMo): When you travel to a new place on a business trip and have the evening to yourself, social networks such as Yelp and Foursquare can help you find nearby places of interest. Yelp has an augmented-reality feature in its mobile application called Monocle, which will tell you about the places around you as you sweep your mobile phone around you. Foursquare users usually leave tips that you can choose to use or in case of conferences you can find where your connections are hanging out.
  • Social recommendations: Travel websites and businesses use social sharing tools to allow their customers engage with them. When you look at a hotel or a restaurant website and a widget on the business’ page tells you that your friends have liked that page on a social network, you may be more likely to spend money with that business.
  • Reviews and the wisdom of strangers: Reviews are a very important factor when choosing travel and many reviewers write reviews to be helpful and altruistic. There have been controversies about slanted reviews or unduly harsh ones. I think most visitors on review sites can decide which reviews are well-written and credible and make their own decisions. Remember that in the service business things can always go wrong. If you come across a review with a bad experience, look at how the business reacted to this experience.

When you search for a business you are likely to see the search results page include not only the business website but also several of the social media sites and review sites. If you are a business owner, you should pay attention to your reviews especially the ones that are in included in the top results.

This guest post is by Shashi Bellamkonda, vice president of digital marketing at Bozzuto.com, a company that aspires to be the Best Real Estate Company in America — the community calls him Social Media Swami. He is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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