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There are very few businesses or industries that social media has not had a massive impact on, and travel & tourism is no exception. From food giants to clothing manufacturers, even the largest companies are finding ways to leverage social media to their benefit, with varying degrees of success.

For tour operators to successfully leverage social media to their benefit, they must first start by understanding how it impacts their industry in the first place.

Here are 6 ways social media has changed the travel and tourism industry:

1. It has created vastly more cross-cultural connections

At one time, if you wanted to travel overseas, you were largely walking into uncharted territory. Unless you had a friend or family member that lived where you were going, or if you were traveling for business and had contacts there to show you around, you were essentially “flying blind.” This also made tours quite popular, you could pay someone to show you and other travelers around.

Now, social media allows complete strangers that share the same interests and tastes to connect across the globe, either online or sometimes through an in-person meeting. This does not in any way mean the tour industry is dead, however. In fact, it is still thriving. It simply means tourism is changing shape to meet the needs of modern clients and consumers. An industry that was once full of traditional tours, now has endless types of unique tours to offer. Food tours, bike tours, market tours, and cooking classes are just some of the tours that are thriving in this new market.

2. Millennials – who grew up with social media – are looking for more authentic experiences

Where once travelers wanted to go and see the world, Millennials want to experience it. The best tourism packages involve some kind of immersive experience such as living with the locals or getting a special behind-the-scenes look at something that is not readily available to outsiders. According to a study done by Topdeck Travel, 86% of Millennials would rather spend their money to experience a new culture(opens in a new tab) versus 44% percent who prefer to spend it on partying or the 28% who would prefer to spend it shopping. Hence tour operators have had to adapt. Operators have had to engage more with potential customers on social media as well as learning to participate within it. By engaging with past and potential customers, social listening has been especially critical for tour operators.

3. Travelers are no longer dependent on brochures or destination-generated literature

At one time, hotels and other tourist establishments could essentially market themselves however they chose. This could allow shabbier establishments to market themselves as much more upscale than they are and charge equally upscale prices. While travelers who showed up quickly found out the advertising was false, they had few resources for warning anyone outside of their close family and friends. Now, thanks to online reviews and social media, potential visitors can get the real scoop from previous visitors, regardless of whether they know them or not. Likewise, this has put extra pressure on less scrupulous tour operators to upgrade their services to provide a better service.

4. Social media has become its own customer service outlet

According to Twitter, tweets aimed at brands in the travel, transportation and hospitality sector increased by 59% between the spring of 2013 and 2015. That was the 5th highest increase in any sector. More and more customers are turning to social media to air both their praise and criticism. When people on Twitter use the platform to contact a brand, more than half of them expect to get a response. That number rises to 75% when they are airing or expressing a complaint of some kind. This means businesses in the travel and tourism industry would be wise to take note of who is reaching out to them on social media and respond.

5. Social media offers savvy brands an almost unprecedented level of free advertising

Savvy travel and tourism businesses, who understand the power of social media, have leveraged this power to their advantage by encouraging the sharing of user generated content(opens in a new tab). Conversely, however, consumers are not at all unaware of the power their feedback has on the travel and tourism industry and expect to be rewarded for their patronage with better loyalty programs(opens in a new tab). Social media advertising has become more of a partnership between consumers loyal to a certain brand that will steer their friends, family and following to the brand and the perks and rewards the brand offers to their most loyal followers who do some of their most powerful marketing for them. Perhaps an obvious, but especially powerful, example of “free advertising” would be sports fans.

6. Social media has made travel more spontaneous

According to a recent Adweek survey more than half of Facebook(opens in a new tab) users dream about taking a vacation while perusing the site, even if they aren’t currently planning a trip. 69% of Millennials who were surveyed stated they regretted not taking a last minute trip they thought about, while a whopping 87% of them said they primarily use Facebook to gain inspiration for travel. While only 20% claimed to use Twitter or Pinterest for the same purpose, more than half(opens in a new tab) of all vacationers are more likely to hear about a new travel company or destination on Twitter than on any other site.

Social media has taken a great deal of power out of the hands of the travel and tourism industry and put it instead into the hands of the consumer. Businesses that want to do more than just survive are finding new and creative ways of leveraging the power of social media to build and even establish new brands. Perhaps one of the best aspects of social media is that it gives smaller and newer businesses a fighting chance to compete with more established brands – especially when you factor in the proclivity of millennials to genuinely want to try something new and untested.

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