Sunday, January 25, 2009

Twitter connects travelers and businesses

When Mike Wilson joined Twitter in July 2007, he wasn't expecting it to garner him his proverbial 15 minutes of fame. But that's exactly what happened last month when the Denver native boarded the ill-fated Continental Flight 1404 headed for Houston.

Thanks to Twitter — a free micro-blogging service that allows users to send and read short text updates — Wilson (or "2drinksbehind" on Twitter) became a national news phenomenon as he documented his experience during the Dec. 20 plane crash.

His descriptions ("tweets" in Twitter parlance) from the scene of the crash ranged from initial alarm to annoyance as the airline refused to serve alcohol post-crash in the lounge. "You have your wits scared out of you, drag your butt out of a flaming ball of wreckage and you can't even get a vodka-tonic. Boo," he tweeted from the scene.

Wilson is being tagged as the first to tweet from a plane crash, but he's certainly not the first twittering road warrior — and those in the travel industry are noticing.

Hotel brands, airlines, airports, destinations and other travel companies are joining the growing Twitter community not only to have their voices heard, but also to hear what their customers in the Twitter community are saying about them.

The mobile nature of the technology makes it especially attractive to travelers.

It was even attractive to users attending President Barack Obama's inauguration festivities. According to the Twitter company blog, "Twitter sailed smoothly through the inauguration but at the peak (around noon), some folks did experience a two- to five-minute delay receiving updates."

Airlines keep in touch

"We consider our Twitter account akin to an information booth," said Morgan Johnston, JetBlue's manager of corporate communication. "Responding to situations after they've happened is a great idea; responding to situations while they're happening is even better."

JetBlue frequently responds to tweets by directing people to tools already available for their use such as flight status updates and weather alerts. But oftentimes, Twitter gets much more personal.

In late November, a Twitter user updated her status announcing that she needed a wheelchair for a JetBlue flight. Before customer service got to her, Johnston saw the tweet and hooked the woman up with someone at the airport who was able to offer assistance in less than 10 minutes.

Southwest Airlines is often credited with innovative marketing, and when it comes to its Twitter account, it's no different. Answering inquiries and announcing new service aren't Southwest's only uses of Twitter.

The airline regularly posts photos of airport giveaways and holiday terminal decorations to its account. The airline even hosts Tweetups for users to get together.

Tablet Hotels utilizes its Twitter account similarly to JetBlue, keeping an eye on what customers are saying and what they can do to improve their experience. "We had one of our TabletPlus members Twitter from the front desk when the hotel was giving her a hard time," said Michael Davis, co-founder of Tablet Hotels. "We caught it within 30 seconds of posting and our customer service called the hotel to resolve.

"Customer problems can no longer be kept 'quiet' with the emergence of the Web," Davis said. The Marriott hotel group agrees, which is why it has not one, but two Twitter accounts. One serves as public relations and customer service vehicle, while the other focuses on Marriott's efforts to go green.

"The most interesting way we used Twitter was after the attack on our Islamabad hotel," said John Wolf, senior director of public relations for Marriott.

"The responses were not only heartwarming but overwhelming. It really represented what social media is all about because the conversation was authentic and genuine, and because the replies came from people in so many nations."

Fairmont Hotels and MGM Mirage are other popular hotel tweeters.

Tourists get answers

Before road warriors and leisure travelers hit the road, more are turning to Twitter to scout their destination. Baltimore, Chicago and Philadelphia tourism officials are active users on the site and use it to offer tips from restaurants to shopping and everything in between.

The man behind Baltimore's account, Tom Rowe, frequently responds to tweets requesting live music on specific dates. "We'll respond with what's on our radar, but the community will chime in," said Tom Noonan, president and CEO of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

Even specific destinations are getting into the micro-blogging madness. California's Monterey Aquarium is an avid user, as are the folks behind the Brooklyn Museum, who promote exhibits and happenings on the site.

The San Francisco Zoo learned the power of Twitter early on. "We had one (user) complaining that one of our exhibits was closed," said Gwendolyn Tornatore of the zoo. "They had come all the way out here and were upset they didn't get to see that specific animal. This was a key learning experience for us and we started to Twitter when animals were off exhibit or if our carousel was closed for the day."