On a recent Monday afternoon, executives at online travel agency Expedia invited 16 bloggers for lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Seattle’s trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood. The steak burritos and green chile enchiladas were richly aromatic, but the bloggers had caught a whiff of something even more tantalizing: money.
The lunch, along with meetings with top executives at the company’s suburban headquarters and a corporate suite at that night’s Seattle Seahawks football game, was part of a charm offensive aimed at developing a relationship with bloggers.
Expedia, the biggest online travel agent, hopes bloggers can serve as an important plank in its effort to re-engineer the way people shop for hotel and airplane tickets by incorporating those transactions into a marketplace driven by social networks.
“If our goal is to get closer to travelers … bloggers are a very interesting place to us,” says Joe Megibow, vice-president of Expedia U.S. And while Expedia isn’t looking to add a roster of bloggers to its payroll, the company is likely to fund trips for bloggers it deems influential—those with sufficient audience and voice.
Expedia would likely use the bloggers’ videos, photos, and writing on its site, without influencing content. The company considers bloggers an untapped resource in an industry whose media strategies are often dictated by newspaper travel sections, magazines, and public relations firms, said Sarah Keeling, the Expedia public relations executive overseeing the effort.
The idea that your friends might alert you to cool stuff while flagging the dreck is not a new one. Industries as diverse as retail, radio, and restaurants have leapt into social networking with gusto in recent years. People tend to trust their friends’ opinions.
The $109 billion annual online travel market has been notable for not deploying the mountains of data found on social networks to suggest potential trips, or to connect your friends’ experiences with a hotel or resort you may be researching at a site such as Orbitz or Expedia.
“Think about what Amazon has done around personalization and recommendations. And we see nothing like that around online travel,” says Douglas Quinby, a senior director for travel research firm PhoCusWright.
A slew of tech startups such as Trippy, Gogobot, Gtrot, and FlyMuch are hoping to change that by using Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and other social-networking data as a way to gather information, share reviews, and plan trips. The idea is that as you plan travel, you’ll be more comfortable about booking a particular hotel or resort—or choosing a particular Caribbean island or rain forest hike—if one of your friends has been there.
“Harder to Backpedal Into Social”
Some travel experts question whether such sites, which struggle for traffic, can build viable stand-alone businesses. Most suffer from no recognition and meager traffic. To help build traffic, Gtrot plans to introduce “white label” co-branded sites that larger travel clients will use to offer a socially curated experience, says Brittany Laughlin, a co-founder of the Chicago-based company.
For example, airlines, hotels, or online travel agents would offer a link to Gtrot from their sales-transaction pages so customers can share plans with friends. The first such partnerships are to be announced in February.
“I think the biggest challenge for OTAs is that they are transaction sites and they always have been,” Laughlin said.
“It’s just a lot harder to backpedal into social.” Johnson, of Trippy, agrees, citing the retailing success Apple has enjoyed with iTunes, vs. the dismal public reaction to its Ping social network.
The meager traffic for social-travel sites hasn’t kept investors away. Trippy received $1.75 million in funding from Sequoia Capital and True Ventures in November and Gtrot has raised $1 million from Lightbank, the venture capital firm started by co-founders of Groupon. Trippy founder J.R. Johnson in 2008 sold another travel startup, Virtual Tourist, to Expedia.
Johnson and Megibow declined to comment on whether Los Angeles-based Trippy would fit into Expedia’s plans for social travel.
Expedia’s goal is to make planning the entire trip—from flights to hotel to transportation, with even restaurant selections and amusement park tickets—an integrated shopping experience. Say your family is planning a spring break trip to Orlando. After booking flights, your hotel search would incorporate friends’ views on particular properties.
If your cousin’s family has been to a particular restaurant, you’d get her recommendation or caution. And all those Facebook photos that people post after a trip? Expedia wants to mine those for your own travels, just as TripAdvisor does with hotel shots its users submit.