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Tourism and social networking, Part 3
Zinc survey shows growing influence of social networks in "vacation planning 2.0"

As every retailer knows, online price-comparisons have been a game-changer. Change is in the wind once again, in the tourism industry, and no doubt many others - and it's social networks that are making the difference.

Vacation planners are relying more and more on their social network connections, whether through their personal contacts or via sites like YouTube or commercial Facebook fan pages, to help them choose their vacation destinations and activities.

Traditional decision influencers - notably word-of-mouth, search engines and websites - are still far more prevalent (as was the case in the use of social media as a source of planning information, which we featured in our Part 2 article in this series). Nevertheless, as shown in the chart below, they are becoming a factor worthy of the attention of tourism operators and marketers.


On the advice of friends (and strangers)
While bargain hunting remains a top research priority, for a growing number of vacation shoppers, price alone is not enough to clinch the deal. They want a level of feedback, insight and interaction - from other shoppers and customer - that the typical price-based sites cannot provide.

The table below shows which sites respondents used more, or less, than they did a year earlier for vacation-planning purposes. The two highest increases were in the use of Facebook fan pages (up 20%) and Trip Advisor (up 17%). At the same time, there was a noticeable decline among vacation planners in the use of two well-established auction sites - Hotwire (down 1%) and Priceline (down 9%).



Annual Shift in Sites Used for Vacation Planning
"Have you used these sites for vacation planning more, less, or about the same in the past year?"
 
  USED LESS USED MORE
GAP +/-
Mobile phone airline app
(n=25/same=32%)
31% 37% +6%
Facebook fan page
(n=25/same=32%)
13% 37% +20%
Trip Advisor
(n=25/same=32%)
10% 27% +17%
Urban Spoon
(n=25/same=32%)
19% 25% +6%
Hotwire
(n=25/same=32%)
20% 19% -1%
Priceline
(n=25/same=32%)
26% 17% -9%

Why the shift? What's the connection? The bottom line is that when it comes to vacation planning research, there's more at stake than the bottom line. And most of the questions that the travel auction and discount sites leave unanswered can be found on social networks - in the form of unbiased third-party reviews, ratings, and the shared experiences of other customers and patrons.

How can tourism operators benefit from this trend? Here are some of the factors that they should take into account in implementing a social netorking presence within their marketing mix:

Windows of opportunity: By monitoring various social networking and travel-specific sites - and, better yet, by visibly and actively participating in them - tourism operators can see what their customers are saying abut them, and they can respond accordingly.

Transparency: Like the reader review and commentary sections of sites like Trip Advisor, Facebook fan pages provide insights on what fans (i.e., previous customers) like best - or least - about the products or services being offered. Prospective buyers also get to decide if they like the way that a business operator deals with problems or negative issues.

Engagement: Facebook fan pages enable direct interaction between tourism operators and their prospects. For sellers, this is a great opportunity to provide additional information or incentives, and to respond proactively to would-be buyers' needs and interests.

* * *

Social media channels can significantly affect vacation planning decisions, and that's just the beginning. Other articles in this series look at the impacts and opportunities posed by social media both during and after the vacation experience. For more on the tourism series, and to see articles dealing with other social networking trends and impacts, click here.

For further information on this and other omnibus research initiatives, contact Zinc Research president Brian F. Singh.