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Social seating – integrating profiles into the flight booking process – is growing in the leisure sector. Will the business travel market be next? Matthew Parsons reports
Social seating, for now, seems to be the preserve of “buddies”. Choose a buddy to sit next on a Malaysia Airlines flight with its MHbuddy Facebook app, or “your ideal seat buddy” when flying with Air Baltic flight, using Satisfly. And for Amsterdam flights, KLM lets you see who’s on your plane way before take-off with its Meet and Seat tool.
Picture the scene – when choosing your seat, you see another passenger has the same music tastes, or grew up in the same city; the perfect neighbour to help make the four-hour journey fly by. Transpose this to the corporate sector, and networking opportunities abound. Browsing the Linked In profiles of other passengers, a business traveller may well decide four hours next to an employee of a firm they’ve been hoping to do business with could pay dividends.
WHAT IS SOCIAL SEATING?Social seating is a type of social networking service that allows users to book a seat based on the ability to see other passengers’ social profiles (such as Linked In, Facebook or Twitter). It is an opt-in service, so the user may, or may not, allow others to see their own profile. Other options include displaying past or future bookings.
FRIENDLY FLYINGSocial seating also goes further than picking a seat. In the future, TMCs could let clients choose flights based on which day their “friends” are flying, useful for colleagues to work together during a long-haul flight. TMCs or airlines may also give travellers the option to see which of their “friends” had upgraded.
This is one area that Seat ID, an Israel-based social seating company, believes would help boost sales. Eran Savir, Seat ID’s founder, says: “Users are more likely to buy something if they see a familiar face. If you’ve seen that a friend bought a seat upgrade, you’re more likely to buy that upgrade, too. So it’s increasing conversion.” Seat ID counts small airlines, such as Safarilink and Auric Air in Africa, plus various online travel agencies and hotels, as customers, but is now targeting the business sector. “Users are more social than ever before,” Savir argues. “You’ll see business travellers working hard in airports – they are looking for solutions to help their businesses.”
It is these business travellers who are part of a new generation, the 20- to 40-year-olds who have social profiles, and want to benefit from them, Savir claims. “These are the ones saying: ‘I keep my Linked In profile updated, I want it to be more meaningful.’”
THE TMCs’ VIEWCorrie Long, air product manager for Capita Travel and Events, believes social seating “sounds interesting” and may be worth exploring as part of conference management.
However, for Vanessa Bailey, director of account management at Business Travel Direct, privacy is a sticking point. “We believe companies may not be keen on staff divulging their travel plans and inadvertently giving away information to competitors,” she says.
Savir dismisses any privacy issues because, overall, social seating is an opt-in system, and users have full control of what they share.
LIMITED TAKE-UPBut even putting these privacy issues to one side, there may be some turbulence ahead. In a Business Traveller poll last year, 75 per cent of readers said they would not use a social networking site to meet other travellers. Plus, it seems, demand is not currently quite there. British Airways says “social seating is not something we are currently looking to introduce”, with no enthusiasm either from American Express’s Global Business Travel division.
However, Savir revealed to Buying Business Travel that Seat ID is about to be incorporated into a well known travel and expense management solution provider. “In the past year, we’ve seen more brands understand the value of social media,” says Savir. “They’re looking for something smart rather than just seeking out more followers.”