How & When Tourists Plan Trips via Social Media

We’ve completed over 40 online tourism research projects, where deep analysis of social media conversations is a key part of each project. As a result of all this research since 2009, covering hotels, post natural disaster impacts, cruise ship sector, bus tours and more, we decided to look at some of the trends we’ve noticed. If you’re a tourism operator or tourism agency, we hope this little insight can help you in your marketing planning.

How Tourists Use Social Media for Planning
The first aspect of social media most tourism authorities and operators worry about is their reputation and reviews. By now, most have learned that can often turn out to be a rather unclear, often no-win situation. But one aspect of social media conversations is to look beyond your own brand to gain new insights. Such as for planning. We have a unique ability in our software and analysts to look back over time to assess trends. In almost all of our projects, we’ve noted spikes in relation to when tourists start their planning for vacations. They use the Web as a whole, not just social media, but analysis of conversations in social media has helped us determine seasonal trends and shifts and where they come from. This can help an operator to better target when to increase their online marketing efforts.

Tourist Planning Phases via Online Channels
By looking at the averages of the conversations we analysed across 40 tourism research projects, we found that there are essentially three phases to tourism planning through online tools. These are;

1. Inquiry Research – Wish List Phase: While it’s difficult to say exactly what triggers a prospective tourist to define a destination, what we could determine is that on average a tourist will start by basic research of a destination. About 34% start with a defined, fixed location, such as a city or attraction (Las Vegas or Disney.) Approximately 8% will start to simply plug various regions, states or countries into whatever search engine they prefer or ask friends. The remaining 58% will start with an average of 3 choice destinations. In this phase they are looking at cost of travel and accommodations, review of accommodations and attractions compared to their budget and start building their wish list

2. Making The Case: In this phase a tourist starts to ask friends and family who may have gone to one or all of their wish list locations. They will also start looking at online reviews. Today we note that tourists will also check YouTube, Vimeo and other video channels to see what kind of videos people have uploaded about a destination (reviewing 15 recent projects we’ve seen an 87% increase over 2011 in tourists looking at destination videos as part of their decision making process.) This is when they start to make their case and will post questions in forums, Reddit, on blogs and other social media channels asking about people’s experiences.

3. The Final Choice Phase: Once narrowed down and their desired information has been collected, the final choice is made. While social media analysis can’t tell you exactly how a tourist makes their final choice, sometimes you can find final questions being asked…a perfect time to engage them if they’ve mentioned your destination.

Tourist Planning Variations by Region & Market Verticals
What we did find interesting is that tourists in colder climates that seek heat, typically Brits, Canadians and northern Americans, will start their planning 4-5 months ahead of the intended trip time (so October/November) while they will make a final decision closer to the actual date of travel, within 4-6 weeks. We did note a tendency to change a destination if it is in a similar region (e.g. one Caribbean country over another) if a package deal comes up. In only 17% of 1,500 discussions we looked at however, were tourists likely to change a destination based on a special offer – are operators leaving money on the table? Perhaps.

Those who live in the warmer climates will tend to stay warmer in their choice of destination or have similar planning cycles as those in colder climates. They also fared almost exactly the same in terms of influence by discounts and special offers.

Summary
Conducting research into social media can yield far more insights for marketing and communications than just reputation. In terms of planning, an operator or destination can look at engaging potential visitors much earlier and more cost-effectively through social media and other online channels, but be aware that engaging closer to a visit is more likely to pay off. Being aware of these phases that tourists go through, using social media monitoring or engagement tools, you can add new keywords to help with your monitoring….but if you think a social media monitoring tool is going to provide the answers, think again. They only access the “surface” chatter and miss many of the locations where the real insights come from and perform very poorly outside a significant sized brand.

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