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The Wave of the FutureMarch 31, 2008 By: Jena Tesse Fox Travel Agent
Social networking sites add a personal touch to planning a vacation
Sites such as Tripadvisor let visitors share their vacation stories
As the Internet continues to revolutionize the travel industry, social networking sites are making it possible for tourists to learn about where to go and what to do—not from agents, but from one another. Websites like
TripAdvisor.com, for example, let visitors share stories about every step of their vacations, encouraging a free-flowing exchange of ideas and opinions. A more targeted site is Holland.com, the official website of the Netherlands Board of Tourism, which encourages users to learn about visiting Holland from those who have already been there. “People are not only informed by tourism boards,” says Conrad van Tiggelen, the director of the Netherlands Board of Tourism, “but also by other consumers.”
Content from Consumers
With websites that rely on user content (called Web 2.0 sites) gaining in popularity over websites that exist solely to provide pre-approved information from a vendor, consumers are opting for advice not from professionals, but from people with similar interests and tastes. “There is a shift from the official information sources to more personalized information sources,” van Tiggelen says. “People tend to rely more on other peoples’ opinions, other travelers’ opinions, than on the official sources.”
Holland.com was born from an experiment in which the board sent students to the Netherlands with instructions to maintain blogs about their experiences. “We didn’t force them to write anything or ask them to write anything,” van Tiggelen emphasizes. On their own, the blogs took off in popularity, and suddenly people all over the world could experience the daily details of travel throughout Holland. “That’s a site where you hardly see that the tourism board is behind it, because students don’t want to be informed by the tourism board,” van Tiggelen explains of the still-active student-blogging site. “They want to be informed by their peers.”
Other Sources of Information
Beyond blogs and user-submitted material, Holland.com actively searches for up-to-the-minute information to share with its users. “We get feeds from different sources —not only from consumers but also, for example, Yahoo news and Google news,” van Tiggelen says. “So if there’s anything on Holland or the Netherlands in the news that comes on the Internet, it is fed to our website, and then we select what’s interesting for our visitors.” Likewise, photographs posted to the popular image-sharing site Flickr.com or videos posted to YouTube.com that are tagged “Holland” will also appear, creating a full multimedia experience of what a traveler can expect to see in Holland.
Global Word of Mouth
Although van Tiggelen admits that there hasn’t been a dramatic increase in Holland’s tourism since the website launched, the numbers are still impressive. Twenty percent of all tourists staying in hotels in the Netherlands used the Internet in some way to help plan their trip—and for Americans visiting the Netherlands, nearly 48 percent had used the net. “Almost 50 percent of all Americans staying in a hotel in Holland have visited the website,” van Tiggelen says. “So it’s a tool where we can reach out to the consumer. If people type in ‘Holland’ in Google, we pop up first in the organic search.” During slow months, the website gets 50,000 visitors per month, but during the busy season, it can see up to 100,000 visitors exchanging stories and ideas.
For professionals in the travel industry, a forum like a 2.0 site can seem intimidating—if not downright threatening—to their business. Van Tiggelen, on the other hand, believes that his site and others like it are simply the newest version of word-of-mouth reviews, only on a global scale.
“It’s a great way of letting consumers tell you what they think about a product. You can listen to it, so you can improve your services,” van Tiggelen advises travel agents, and adds that clients’ reviews will hold everyone throughout the industry to a higher standard of service. “It’s a benefit to consumers,” he stresses. “They will have more open information and have access to everything so they can be well-informed. And a well-informed traveler is an excellent traveler. And for travel agents, it’s also a great opportunity, because they can become part of the networking communities and show their expertise.”
Time will tell how the Internet will continue to influence the travel industry and how travel agents can use it most effectively. “Stay informed about the technologies, and what’s out there,” van Tiggelen advises agents. There are, of course, traditional consumers who prefer meeting agents in an office, but as the industry changes, the professionals must work to shape it to their advantage. “If you want to grow your business, there is plenty of opportunity online right now,” van Tiggelen says. “We invite all agents to become members of the site, and they can add their own content about their experiences and their knowledge about Holland. Travel agents can be users of the site to add content, and then consumers can read it and contact them.”