September 29 2022, Kimpton Fitzroy London
Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
KEEPING ON TOP of developments in the social networking world feels like an impossible task - new sites launch, new statistics come out, existing brands continue to develop, nothing stands still. The rate at which the corporate travel world is taking to social media is reflected in how often the subject comes up on the conference circuit: five years ago it was GDS new entrants which took centre stage; three years ago it was green issues; and today the hot topic is social networking.
'Social networking' within the corporate world should really be referred to as 'business networking', as many companies have a knee-jerk reaction to the term 'social', fearing that their staff would spend their time sharing amusing video clips of cute kittens and snaps from little Johnny's first birthday party rather than sharing intelligence about a preferred hotel supplier.
For travel managers and buyers, there are a number of more substantial concerns resulting from the take-up of social networking within a corporate environment. Clare Murphy, co-founder of corporate travel consultancy Bouda, shared her recent experience of a high-level meeting with the board of a potential client that represents a microcosm of the current state of play.
"This meeting was a real eye-opener on many levels," Murphy explains. "It was the first time that we had seen the CEO of a company taking such an active stand on social media. The impetus is starting to come from the top down."
This particular sixty-something CEO's networking site of choice was Seatguru, part of Expedia Inc's TripAdvisor business. It is a review site for airline information covering things such as legroom, amenities and even the quality of the in-flight entertainment. The CEO used it when travelling with his family and felt that it would benefit travellers.
Tripit also had some advocates in the meeting, particularly among the younger board members. This site "helps people organise and share their travel plans", something that raised alarm bells with some security and HR chiefs at the meeting. They were able to argue against it being added to travel portals, although Murphy did point out that these were clients who were "particularly security conscious".
The "fusion", as Murphy described it, between business and leisure preferences is now firmly established. Older folks are seeing how social networking can work in their private lives, while younger folks need to have their enthusiasm reigned in within the corporate environment. And somehow, departments from security to procurement, travel management companies (TMCs) and CEOs all need to have a strategy in place.
Tony D'Astolfo, Rearden Commerce's senior VP, travel services, has more than 30 years' experience of business travel on both sides of the pond. His take on the fusion between social and business networking is worth listening to. "Look at social media as a way of leveraging information from the people who use your managed travel programme," he says. "Think about what information you want and how you intend to use it."
He says concerns about networking were shifting away from a knee-jerk reaction that people sharing information is bad news, and is becoming more refined. "You don't want the world to know what you are doing," he says, "but you want your colleagues to know. Tools are getting better so it is possible to partition the distribution of information, even within an organisation."
One of Rearden's products is its 'enabling of group-ware connectivity', which means Outlook and Lotus Notes users can share their contacts and calendar functions with other people in their organisation. This can have a clear cost benefit if there is a mechanism in place to convert the shared information into something usable.
"I heard about the CEO of a billion-dollar pharmaceutical giant who was flying into Heathrow," D'Astolfo recounts. "There were a number of his colleagues on the same flight, all headed to the same meeting, each of whom had booked their own transport from the airport. Sharing the travel information could have saved the business some money."
Like the Seatguru evangelist earlier, it's another example of how the C-suite are starting to see the benefits of sharing information. The savings from sharing a cab might not seem like a lot, but across the business it could add up. However, the holy grail of business networking could be the perennial concern about making sure travellers use preferred partners within the travel programme.
The subject of how social networking can become business networking and enhance the travel programme was discussed at an ACTE buyers' forum this October. The consensus was that travellers' feedback on hotels, car hire partners and airlines could help the travel team during negotiations.
Geoff Allwright, travel manager at Airbus EADS, told the meeting that reading what the travellers thought about an individual property or chain gave him "ammunition to renegotiate deals". He added: "If our travellers are telling us via their reviews that there are issues with a particular hotel, we can go back and say, give us a better deal for next year. Pre-internet we wouldn't have known what our travellers thought."
Comments made through an in-house or external networking site could be used as the basis to drop a hotel chain from the programme, negotiate a better rate or demand that any issues are addressed before re-signing. As D'Astolfo said, it's about what you do with the information.
Simone Buckley, the other cofounder of Bouda, said that there was anecdotal evidence that this was starting to happen but she had yet to see it first hand. Some firms were using the company intranet to facilitate conversations between individuals with responsibility for booking travel, she observed, which is some way away from using reviews to negotiate deals.
Almost any tech-based feature on any topic in any sector would need to cover mobile. D'Astolfo believes that mobile could be the game-changer for managed travel programmes.
"Smartphones are ubiquitous and becoming smarter as users become more comfortable," he said. "They are an extension of the PDA and the desktop. They are devices which can enhance productivity, and travel managers really need to understand how enabling the technology is."
D'Astolfo referred to some figures from US-based online travel agent Priceline about how consumers were using its iPhone app for bookings. Priceline recently said "early data" showed that 82 per cent of room bookings through the app were made within one day of arrival, and that more than half were within 20 miles of the property when they booked.
Priceline's generic mobile booking platform was registering rapid growth, although the amount of business coming through is not yet material to its earnings. "But these are actual bookings, not research or planning," said D'Astolfo.
But the most telling stat in relation to mobile's potential is attachment rates. "In most managed programmes you're looking at 90 per cent of flights being within policy - for hotels at best it's 50 per cent," said D'Astolfo. "Location-specific apps, connected into your travel programme, can help address that imbalance because you can make sure that any traveller booking on the day with his or her smartphone books within the programme."
When location-based services are informed by business networking, the benefits to the corporation and traveller cover service as well as cost. "On a three-day trip, a traveller would have a number of meals out, some of which would be client facing," said D'Astolfo. "A corporation could have a deal with a restaurant in a particular town; some restaurants might be more suited to entertaining clients, others for eating alone. These decisions can be made on the ground by the traveller, but based on peer recommendations."
The mash-up between social networking and mobile for business travellers is a trend which has been picked up by BCD Travel. It recently issued a white paper entitled Changing the DNA of managed travel: Using Social and Mobile to Enhance Productivity, Morale and the Bottom Line.
So while one of the largest TMCs in the business is producing white papers about the benefits of merging social networking and mobile, what about the companies who are still working on their standalone networking strategy?
Charlie Osmond works for FreshNetworks, a London-based agency specialising in social networking media consultancy and technology. He was in attendance at the ACTE forum mentioned earlier, and had some words of advice for buyers who were still undecided about exactly what they thought about social networking. "It's safe to say that most senior business people realise that it isn't a fad," he said. "However, with so much hype around, the temptation is to rush in.
We would advise that businesses take their time to make sure that their entry into the space is strategic, with clearly defined aims."
The danger with jumping in too quickly is that the medium, rather than the execution, will be blamed, resulting in a long-term setback based on a short-term mistake. He suggested that businesses could have a look at how their intranet was used and take that as the start for a bespoke networking strategy. "It's better to get it right in a year's time than rush it now and get it wrong."
Simone Buckley from Bouda makes the observation that networking is gaining traction across all sectors and age groups. "It is part of most people's daily life so the deployment within a corporate context needs to be right," she says.
When looking at smartphones and social, it's worth remembering that 10 years ago neither really existed. Mobiles made phone calls, and not very good ones, and that was it; the phrase 'social networking' had no meaning. But in less than a decade, today's mobiles are multi-media entertainment and communication systems, with a camera built in. Some even make calls.
Social media news specialist Mashable recently reported that 83 per cent of Americans use mobiles, and that currently 25 per cent of US mobiles are smartphones. Globally, it claims that 68 per cent of the world's population uses a mobile; of this, 17 per cent are smartphones.
Rearden Commerce's D'Astolfo added that "the technology is so enabling, so widespread, it will change the way managed travel programmes operate."
BCD's white paper included another killer stat from Mashable - only China and India have more people than Facebook has members. So Facebook is effectively the third largest country in the world - that is the most compelling reason why travel buyers need to get a grip on the potential benefits of social media.
Sharing information with peers colleagues and strangers is not going to go away. King Canute couldn't hold back the tides; denying the impact of social networking within the corporate environment could be a 21st century equivalent.
IAN BROOKS, MD of travel recruitment specialist Pure Genie, thought that the ash cloud incident earlier this year could mark a turning point for corporate use of social networking.
"We know that a lot of TMCs used Facebook and Twitter to contact their travellers and let them know what was going on," he said, "and it showed them the potential benefits to having a formal social media strategy in place." However, Brooks admitted that "in terms of job requirements, knowledge and experience of social media is not high up on the agenda in terms of what our TMC and corporate clients are looking for in candidates.
"Compare this to the leisure sector, where most clients see social media knowledge and expertise as a key skill, particularly in marketing positions. "We think TMCs and corporate will over time see this as a relevant skill, but perhaps social needs to become established before experts are needed."