Travel and tourism marketing isn't as one-sided as it used to be. Forget Frommer's travel guides and glossy brochures. Today's travelers are relying more than ever on word of mouth.
Just as more people turn to Facebook and text messages to communicate with friends and family, they're turning to social media to help them plan vacations.
Some won't even consider a hotel unless it gets mostly favorable ratings by reviewers on Hotels or TripAdvisor websites. Others use the Foursquare app on their smartphones to choose where to eat dinner or hang out for après-ski drinks.
Technology has changed the way tourism-related businesses, from four-season resorts to small bed-and-breakfasts, compete for customers.
In response, the tourism and hospitality industry is turning to social media to promote its services and to engage customers in a more personal way.
Next year, almost two-thirds of travel companies plan to increase their social media marketing budgets, according to a Travel and Leisure poll conducted this year.
Stowe businesses have been quick to grab hold of the trend and use it to promote their brands where traditional media would be impractical or too expensive.
Most monitor online reviews and feedback on social media websites and many have found that good online ratings can translate into strong bookings.
Reviewers on TripAdvisor give the Stoweflake Mountain Resort and Spa in Stowe an average of four stars out of a possible five-star rating. Kim Dixon, the resort's director of marketing, says it's a “powerful tool” in directing first-time visitors to the resort.
“The endorsement of travelers who have visited Stoweflake telling other visitors of their good experience is a boost in business by all means,” Dixon said. “I'm pleased to say that most of our reviews are very positive. But, should there ever be an interruption in service, we want to know that so we can address the issue and also contact the customer if possible and make things right.”
Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe worked with a social media consultant to establish its Facebook and Twitter pages. A staff member at the resort spends much of her time updating social media sites with photos, videos and information about upcoming events.
“We recognize that we have amazing experiences with nature and we were trying to figure out how to share that with people,” said Sam von Trapp, vice president of special projects for the resort. “Through social media, we can release photos to show trail conditions, and share stories when something great happens to one of us out in the woods.”
Social media also provide ways for guests to let the resort know when they're satisfied, and when they'd like to see improvements.
“One of the neat things with social media is that it makes it easier to communicate both ways,” Von Trapp said. “We can actually carry on a dialogue. It means a lot when people feel that they've been heard.”
Officials at Stowe Mountain Resort say social media are an important part of their overall marketing plan.
Two years ago, they launched a strong social media platform, primarily through Facebook and Twitter. They also offer special promotions through Foursquare and Scavenger.
For instance, one day last winter, they posted a code that skiers and riders could use to skip the lift line. Dozens of guests used it and shared it with their friends.
The resort's marketing team updates its social media sites several times each day.
“We like that voice to be a consistent one,” said Jeff Wise, director of communications for the resort. “We work closely together and meet on a daily basis to discuss what the social media strategy will be for that day, or week or weekend.”
The resort also monitors travel websites to view feedback of its guests' experiences.
“What gives social media great relevance with our dedicated Stowe tribe is that it's an ongoing dialogue with people who are passionate about what's going on at the resort, or just looking for information,” Wise said. “We've leveraged that platform by offering people a free Stowe Card as an incentive to join us on Facebook and Twitter.”
The card, valued at $75, offers discounts and reward points when card-holders shop at the resort and other businesses in Stowe.
“It builds our following and brings people to the resort to use the card,” Wise said.
The resort uses contests and promotions to encourage Facebook visits.
Last week, for instance, Wise took a photo of his coworkers enjoying lunch at the Cottage Club. He downloaded it onto the resort's Facebook page and asked followers to guess where it was taken. In exchange, one person's name would be drawn to win a gift certificate for free lunch for two.
Within a few hours, more than 50 people had responded and the gift certificate had been awarded.
“Fun stuff like that keeps people interested in what we want to say and keeps them engaged,” Wise said.
The texting generation
Unlike travel brochures and other traditional marketing materials, the conversational tone of social media strikes a chord with young travelers who are more comfortable with word-of-mouth referrals.
Von Trapp appreciates the way social media allow him to share his day-to-day experiences. For instance, when he posted a message about how an owl swooped down and swatted him after he got too close to its nest, a few resort guests posted messages about their own owl encounters at the resort.
“For me, being able to go out and ski and e-mail images from my smartphone directly to my marketing team, who can immediately post them online, provides a way for us to do what we love and share it with people in a positive way,” Von Trapp said.
“Social media is more about talking to people about what's happening at the resort and having it be less of a marketing message,” Wise said. “We post photos and snow reports to give people a feeling of what's going on at the resort and to keep them engaged.”
Social media also allow resorts and other travel-related businesses to share their messages in real time, an important asset to a generation used to checking the latest news, weather, and traffic reports by pressing a few buttons on their phones or keys on their computers.
“Now that the Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center is opening, we're talking about what's going on,” Wise said. “It has its own Facebook page so people who are passionate about arts can follow that entity specifically. We've seen good results so far.”
The Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing started using social media two years ago to broaden its reach.
Tourism is one of the state's largest revenue generators. In 2009, 13.7 million visitors spent an estimated $1.4 billion in Vermont.
In addition to its interactive Web site, Vermontvacations.com, the tourism agency uses Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr to post information, photos and videos about Vermont attractions and events.
The agency monitors and updates its social media sites daily. Especially popular are the daily “foliage reports” every fall.
“We've received a really good response,” said Erica Houskeeper, domestic and international tourism specialist for the agency. “It's a great opportunity to listen to what people are saying about Vermont and to provide travel information. It's been a great service and a great opportunity.”
The agency's Facebook page contains information geared toward tourists of all ages and interests.
“Right now, we're talking about holiday events and what to do during the winter season, whether snowshoeing, skiing or shopping,” Houskeeper said. “And, we help people who have questions such as what to do on New Year's Eve.”
Other state tourism agencies have discovered two advantages to social media. One, it's the quickest way to announce special events and promotions; two, it saves money when budgets are stretched thin.
Florida used it to combat bad publicity after the Horizon BP oil spill dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico last April.
Indiana's tourism agency, with a dwindling budget, is offering winter travel deals — but only to those who follow the agency through e-mail newsletters and on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
The promotion came after lawmakers last year slashed the state's contribution to the agency from $4.8 million to $2.4 million.