To prepare for> his latest business trip, Hickson Chen went through the usual routine: packed, checked his itinerary, confirmed his flight and sent his hotel a Twitter message about chicken-fried steak.
No, that last one isn t a mistake. During a recent stay at the Sheraton Austin, Chen, who uses Twitter for everything from looking for hotel deals to requesting upgrades, discovered a new use for the social-networking Web site. Upon learning that the hotel had axed his favorite steak, the Los Angeles hedge fund employee sent a sad note about the dish s demise to his Twitter followers. When one of the hotel employees saw the message, a few strings were pulled, and by dinnertime Chen was tucking into a custom-prepared plate of chicken-fried goodness. Now every time he visits the Sheraton, he sends them a heads-up and they have the steak waiting.
By now most people know using Twitter can be a good way to track down travel deals, but who knew the site could also be your ticket to personalized room service? For wired travelers everywhere, this social-media mammoth which has seen its number of unique visitors grow nearly 600 percent in the past year is increasingly becoming the go-to site for everything from getting hotel recommendations to sniffing out midtrip dinner companions.
And not surprisingly, many in the travel industry are not only poring over vacationers every tweet (that s a message, to you Luddites) but also busily cranking out plenty of bite-size missives of their own. Hyatt Hotels, for instance, recently began staffing its @HyattConcierge account 24-7, while the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas is experimenting with supersizing its Twitter feed on a giant billboard overlooking the strip. And with more than 1 million followers, JetBlue Airways is the 78th most popular Twitter user, beating out big names like tennis star Serena Williams and former General Electric CEO Jack Welch.
The travel industry, it seems, has good reason to home in on tweeters; while only about 46 percent of all Internet users report using social networks like Twitter, a recent survey by travel-research firm PhoCusWright found that the figure jumps to 60 percent when you count just people who buy travel online. With the economy still keeping many would-be vacationers at home, getting in front of so many proven travelers is a no-brainer for companies. What s more, Twitter gives providers a chance to spot unhappy customers and, ideally, to fix the problem before their griping has a chance to spread through cyberspace. (A full 90 percent of tweeting travelers say they ve written online reviews.)
And for companies left behind during travel s previous Web revolution think travel agents the site offers a fresh chance to take their business from old-school to Web 2.0. Travel agent Stacy Small (Twitter alias @EliteTravelGal), for one, says that tweeting about travel deals and the luxe trips she s been planning to places like Fiji and Greece have helped her score more than 25 new clients in the past six months.
But by all accounts, traveling by Twitter remains a bit buggy. To begin with, the technology is so new that travelers and companies alike are still working out the best ways to use it. Too many companies are missing the chance to engage travelers with tips or news, says PhoCusWright analyst Douglas Quinby, and instead are using the site only for self-promotion. Companies that overload people with sales pitches are going to find themselves losing their followers, he says.
For some consumers, companies careful attention to what travelers are tweeting about can also occasionally cross into Big Brother territory. And of course, travelers themselves can cause plenty of Twitter-fueled problems, especially when they succumb to the temptation to be the first one to pass along a hot travel tip regardless of how true it turns out to be. Below, we scroll through the travel Twitterverse.
The first thing that typically prompts travelers to take the Twitter leap is the promise of a deal. And no wonder; companies ranging from EconoLodge to the Four Seasons are now using Twitter to hype specials and promotions. Some, like the Roger Smith Hotel in New York City, even use the site s private-message option to send hush-hush rates to select travelers. And as companies get more sophisticated about the technology, more are going the extra mile to bring deals to people even those who aren t looking for them. Kim Toomey, a search-engine marketer from Portland, Ore., recently sent out a message asking for recommendations for her upcoming trip to San Francisco. She was contacted by the Hotel Frank, which she d never heard of, and offered a 25 percent discount and a chance to bring her canine companion for free. Toomey took them up on it. When she arrived, she found that the hotel had stocked the room with doggy treats and a handwritten note thanking her for her business.
For many travelers, deals are just the beginning of how they want to use the site. JetBlue learned this the hard way when it started on Twitter back in May 2007, mostly tweeting about fare sales and company news. The four people who were listening weren t really impressed, says Morgan Johnston, who oversees the account. So he began focusing instead on responding to traveler questions and complaints. (The company now has a separate Twitter account just for deals.)
Johnston quickly discovered that handling these inquiries in real time he aims to respond in two minutes to an hour, depending on the situation was more than a one-man job, and the company s Twitter team has grown to six people who staff the account from dawn until the last red-eye departs for the night. Along the way, JetBlue says, the company has been able to head off many problems before they happen; one Johnston is especially proud of is managing to hold a plane for a busload of 30 schoolchildren who were stuck in traffic on the way to New York s John F. Kennedy Airport.
But for now at least, JetBlue is the exception rather than the rule. Many travel companies are just starting to experiment with Twitter and have yet to drum up much excitement on the site. Safari stalwart Abercrombie & Kent, for instance, has just 48 followers, while active-travel outfitter Backroads has 62 and Thrifty Car Rental has 53 5,053 fewer than @ThrifyCarSucks, an account devoted to people who say they ve had bad experiences with the company. And it s not unusual to see companies like The Peninsula Hotels and Rosewood Hotels and Resorts, who aren t using the site at all. The Peninsula declined to comment, but a Rosewood spokesperson said the company is focusing its social-networking efforts on Facebook.
Just trying to respond to travelers tweets can be an adventure for some firms. On a recent stay at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., Dennis Lennox, for one, stirred up some Twitter turmoil after picking up some papers from the concierge desk that accidentally included a document listing some guest information and room numbers. Surprised by what he saw as a breach in security, the local politician from Topinabee, Mich., sent a tweet about the incident after which he found himself locked out of his room. The reason? According to Lennox, a very hostile front-desk employee informed him the lockout was because of the tweet. A hotel spokesperson says that several guests saw the tweet and expressed concern to the front desk and that Lennox was locked out after the staff was unable to reach him. Says Lennox, It was a fairly benign comment. It shouldn t have been an issue.
Experts say information on Twitter does tend to take on a life of its own and can spread through the Twitterverse like a game of telephone on speed. Karen Hartline, a San Francisco public relations executive, says that s exactly why she only follows trustworthy sources she knows. But that didn t stop her from getting a tweet in January stating that New York s Grand Central Terminal had been evacuated and was being swarmed by SWAT teams which turned out to be nothing more than a false rumor making the rounds. Still, she says even the specter of misinformation won t stop her from tweeting away on the road. I like that there are no rules, Hartline says.