(As seen on WZZM TV 13) As mobile device users increase, so does travelers’ reliance on apps and online resources for tourism and travel planning.
During the annual Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism, held in Detroit earlier this spring, Sarah Nicholls and Dan McCole, both assistant professors in tourism at Michigan State University, shared information about the growing importance of social media to the tourism industry.
The use of online resources has grown, with more travelers reading destination reviews and travel blogs as well as posting their own reviews. In addition, more travelers are searching for travel deals via social networking and viewing travel videos and photos online.
When it comes to mobile phone use for travel specifically, 53 percent of travelers are utilizing apps and 47 percent are utilizing their mobile web browser. That follows the overall trend of smartphone users — with 83 percent using apps and only 17 percent using their mobile web browser.
“We are seeing increased use of our mobile website every month and we are planning to make enhancements to the mobile site later this year,” said Janet Korn, Experience Grand Rapids’ vice president of marketing. “Mobile web usage is up 137 percent during the first quarter of 2013 compared to 2012.”
According to Nicholls and McCole, 29 percent of travelers have used mobile apps to search for flight deals and 30 percent have used mobile apps to find hotel deals. Additionally, 15 percent of travelers have downloaded apps specific to upcoming vacations.
Since 2011, practically every online resource has seen an increase in use by travelers.
Travel reviews have seen an increased readership of 5 percent from 2011 to 2012. In 2012, 9 percent of travelers reported reading a travel blog, up from 6 percent in 2011 and 5 percent in 2010. Fourteen percent of travelers reported learning about travel deals or events through social networking, an increase of 7 percent since 2011. Those posting their own travel reviews grew from 12 percent in 2011 to 25 percent in 2012.
Because of the increased use of the Internet and apps as a travel resource and as a way of showing off one’s trip, Nicholls and McCole said that earned online reputation in the form of reviews, blog mentions and social media are more important than ever to travelers’ purchase decisions.
While word of mouth has always been important in purchase decisions, including for travel, travelers are more likely than ever to take the advice or word-of-mouth recommendation of online strangers.
“We used to think that people most heavily relied on recommendations from people they knew,” Nicholls said. “But I think more and more people are willing to trust the opinions of people they don’t necessarily know, but they are reading their reviews online. … They are taking that as trustworthy information and making decisions based on that information. More and more people trust those kinds of recommendations and information than they do the more traditional sorts of marketing, like regular advertising.”
There are also a lot more people sharing information about their vacations on social media, some of them even posting hour-by-hour updates.
Nicholls and McCole reported that 72 percent of social media users post vacation photos while still on vacation, 46 percent check into a location using apps like Facebook and Foursquare while on vacation, 70 percent update their Facebook status while on vacation, 46 percent post a hotel review after their vacation, and 59 percent posted on Facebook about an upcoming vacation.
Despite all this online attention, Nicholls and McCole stated that if a tourism locale’s strategy were to only be followed online, it’d be better off trying a different strategy. That’s because only 7 percent of travelers followed a travel attraction or destination on social networks.
It is still important for attractions and destinations to be online, however.
“It pays off to try and establish relationships with consumers — rather than just posting stuff, establishing a two-way line of communication so consumers know that their opinions are welcome and that they are responded to,” Nicholls said.
“I think the hotels and the attractions that go in and respond to comments — thanking consumers for positive comments and responding very quickly to any complaints that they get, explaining what may have gone wrong and how they are going to address the complaint — I think that really establishes a better relationship between the site and consumers.”
She noted for larger entities that can afford it, it’s a good idea to monitor common travel sites and blogs for mentions and to engage with consumers there, too.
“The larger entities that can afford this, they have a full-time social media person, and that is what they do every day: go into all of these sites, reading the reviews and responding quickly to all of the reviews. Obviously, that is an ideal case scenario; it’s not feasible for everyone. But I really think it shows interest in and concern about consumers.”
Experience Grand Rapids said that its social media strategy involves all major social media channels: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, blogs and TripAdvisor.
“The strategy includes an editorial calendar, shared posting and monitoring responsibilities and measurement of activity,” Korn said. “We have a ‘posting team’ who meet regularly to review what is creating engagement and what isn't. We monitor our social channels seven days a week. Our goal is engagement with our fans and we strive to create content that is worth sharing.
“We are continually realigning our content strategy for social media to our audience demographics and engagement measurements. What we are finding is that photos tend to get the largest engagement and we are incorporating them with almost all posts. We are leveraging photos shared with us via Instagram tags #experiencegr to increase engagement.”