(Reuters.com) - Earlier this month, users of image-sharing app Instagram gathered in Amsterdam to conduct a "photo walk" around the city. Low-cost-carrier bmibaby had flown participants in from London so they could meet fellow members in the flesh.
A destination guide to the Dutch city based on the images followed on the airline's blog page to inspire visitors to travel there in the future. Julian Carr, managing director of bmibaby, told Reuters, "We measure the effectiveness of our social media through levels of engagement, rather than ‘bums on seats'."
Travel, that most social of pursuits, has always been wise to the web; the industry was an early adopter of e-commerce booking engines, and with the advent of advice-, recommendation- and opinion-sharing sites like Virtual Tourist and TripAdvisor (TRIP.O), social media.
But reaping quantifiable rewards from the social web is proving as elusive for travel brands and booking engines as it is for most other industry sectors. As a 2011 Euromonitor report on the subject puts it, "Measuring the impact of social media advertising is difficult due to the impossibility to identify the impact of the different factors, and evaluation is often of a rather qualitative nature."
Other travel sectors concur. Peter Shanks, president of the Cunard cruise company, told Reuters last week at ITB (a vast travel confab in Berlin) that social media was a great tool for informing people and interacting with them, though it was not yet a money-spinner.
"Social media is fabulous. The only challenge is we haven't found a way to make money out of it."
At the same event, Christian Saller, CEO of Swoodoo, operator of a German online hotel and flight booking platform said that Facebook is overvalued for the tourism industry as the number of fans had nothing to do with monthly bookings.
Yet Facebook remains the social network of choice for the industry to sidle up to; hotels and carriers have started to integrate booking channels with their corporate pages. You can now book a room at Omni Hotels or Best Western on Facebook; easyJet was the first airline to allow passengers to book flights on their page. Delta soon followed suit: its air warriors have been able to buy and broadcast their bookings on the site since 2010.
More recently, KLM (AIRF.PA) has raised eyebrows with its Meet & Seat application on Facebook which allows passengers willing to connect their social profiles to their booking to ‘meet' others before boarding. Malaysian Airlines' MASM.KL MH Buddy feature is similar, but restricted to a passenger's actual friends.
Other innovative mobile applications layer over users' social graphs to turn travel inspiration into travel booking. Trippy for example allows users to seek advice from their friends, and in turn their friends' friends, to glean activities, restaurants and hotels tips.
Trippy CEO J.R. Johnson is convinced they are on trend. "As mature as an information-seeking group online, we want better and we want more. This comes down to what is trustworthy and what is relevant. Something like TripAdvisor is fantastic if you just want to get a broad, crowd-sourced view of things. takes a much more narrow approach, where less is more."
TripAdvisor have been working with Facebook's social graph for over four years, the first to integrate wisdom of the crowds with the wisdom of your travelling friends with the launch in 2010 of their Trip Friends social feature.
According to Adam Medros, VP global product, TripAdvisor, "The wisdom of crowds remains invaluable but your friends' advice is an additional layer of highly personalised, relevant and trusted advice, and we think this will help travellers make even more informed decisions in planning the perfect trip."
William Bakker of Canadian marketing agency Think! Social Media sees the integration of social media as still in its infancy.
"What we're seeing is a lot of experimentation and some scattered successes by a number of companies. Social Media is not a feature; it's a new way of doing business. This means it's a disruptor to most business models and taking it seriously will most likely require some risks to existing business models that most executives aren't willing to take at this point."
This might be because they presume that the biggest users of the social web are Generations Y and Z, markets who don't have huge travel budgets. Previous generations, conventional wisdom goes, prefer more traditional recommendations from friends and family, or inspiration from a travel article.
Yes the under-30s are habitual social media users, argues bmibaby's Julian Carr, but it's becoming more mainstream for older age groups.
"With almost half of online travellers using social media when researching possible trips, social media is a key communications platform for bmibaby, both in marketing and in customer services."
Peter Duffy, marketing director for easyJet (EZJ.L) is of the same mind. He sees customers from all segments engaging with the airline through social channels from business, commuters, day trippers, families and backpackers.
The corporate travel industry isn't convinced. Business travel management firm Carlson Wagonlit Travel's CWT.L Andrew Winterton told Reuters that though social media is very helpful in information-gathering, dissemination and advising, they don't see it taking a huge role in booking.
"In order to fully exploit the opportunity of you have to have a bit of time on your hands!"
This needs to change, thinks Yael Klein, managing director of corporate travel player, AirPlus International. Klein argues that travel Managers need to seriously consider integrating appropriate social media tools into their travel management programmes.
"Social media is a trend for tomorrow and travel managers have the ability to use these tools to their advantage so should stop resisting and embrace these new technologies".
Global online travel agency Expedia (EXPE.O) is also wary of focusing solely on the social, having made the assumption that our friends are not travel experts. Users of their sites can expect to see their social graphs fused with anonymous recommendations and expert reviews and tips.
"At the moment we know that people who have been referred through social channels are twice as like to contribute a review," says Andrew Warner, senior marketing director, EMEA of Expedia.
"This can then be integrated with your itinerary; if we know you're staying at a certain place at a certain time we can put you in touch with content, whether that's from Frommers, from locals, from someone who's like you who has already done a review of stuff in that area - and that builds a collective knowledge that we can then curate and target back out again."
This makes sense to Steve Keenan, former online travel editor of The Sunday Times newspaper and founder of travelperspective.co.uk. "On average," says Keenan, "people research 28 sites before making a decision to book - then head to their favourite booking site, be it Expedia, TripAdvisor or a.n.other."
"But there will be an incremental increase of booking on pages that inspire users, be it through a competition, deal or superb writing/content."
Air transport information and telecommunication solutions provider SITA are currently looking into whether industry players should continue to develop multiple applications or simply use social media sites as the place to interact with passengers and their wider social groups.
SITA director Alisdair Wright told Reuters, "Social media is here to stay, and airlines and airports are embracing this new way of communicating with passengers."
"But as we move forward we need to ask the question, ‘Do airline customers want to have a direct relationship with each and every airline they fly with?'
The travel industry has always known how to inspire travellers; time will tell if the investment in doing this alongside the social web is justified, and whether significant numbers of travellers will use the same social channels to complete their bookings.
Editing by Mark Kolmar