6 years ago

Why the social travel model will never fully work

NB: This is a guest article by Rod Cuthbert, founder and chairman emeritus at Viator and founder and CEO at Qewz.

I had drinks with my mate Jack (name changed to protect the innocent) at the weekend.

He’d just returned from eight days in Hawaii and I was keen to hear how it went. To be honest, I was pretty sure what he was going to tell me, but let me give you some background before I get to that.

Real life

Jack is thirty-something, single and as red-blooded as the next guy. Outdoorsy without being a jock, enjoys a drink and loves a good restaurant, etc. etc.

His travelling companion was an old schoolmate of his from the UK, they’d travelled together before so there wasn’t going to be any issues of them wanting to go in different directions.

Eight days of surf lessons, sun, seafood, cocktails and etc. all surrounded by girls in bikinis, they hoped. So far so good.

Neither had been to Hawaii before, so Jack’s mate had a long call with a friend of his in New York who had spent a few months there last year.

Apparently an Hawaii expert, she was quick to suggest what sounded like a pretty good plan: four days in Honolulu and then four days on the neighboring island of Maui.

The boys were excited, bookings were made, bags were packed.

The Honolulu part of the trip went well, with well-earned hangovers each morning, washed away by noon thanks to the surf lessons on Waikiki Beach.

Plenty of bars, great food, people to meet (see “bikinis”, above) and generally all the sorts of things the boys were looking for.

Day five, and they’re off to the airport, vaguely wondering why they are leaving paradise and hoping that it was just going to get better. It didn’t.

And that’s not to say that there’s something wrong with Maui… it was just the wrong place for these two guys, who simply couldn’t recreate the Waikiki experience they had come to enjoy so much.

“Everyone was a couple! We could see ourselves coming back here in ten years with our families, but as single guys… No, it just wasn’t for us.”

The heart of the issue

That’s the problem with the whole social travel model, right there.

Your friends, no matter how well meaning, are not travel experts. They’re not going to ask you the right questions or make the right assumptions about what turns you on.

They’re just going to tell you what they like, which may be miles from anything you’d enjoy.

[The boys’ Hawaii expert, it turns out, is a botanist who loves long walks with her husband while listening to Enya on her iPod. Vive la difference!]

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating you forget your real friends, your Facebook friends, your family or your colleagues completely, nor am I suggesting you traipse down to see a travel agency instead.

Save for the minority of agents who are truly experts on something (see Conde Nast’s annual list for what I mean) there’s as much bad advice to be found there as there is good.

What I am suggesting is that relying on your friends is as likely to result in just plain awful advice as it is in good advice. There’s no getting around it.

Instead of building your plans around input from others, blend their suggestions with lots of your own research.

Academics who study happiness will tell you that the anticipation derived from researching an upcoming vacation will be every bit as uplifting and energising as the vacation itself. And it will ensure you have the best vacation for you, not the same vacation your friends had.

So what about all those companies we’re seeing emerge with sites that channel advice from friends, all to help your planning process?

They’re good fun, and sure to provide some great ideas that will enhance your trip. Just don’t rely too heavily on them: the very best person to plan your next vacation is still you.

NB: This is a guest article by Rod Cuthbert, founder and chairman emeritus at Viator and founder and CEO at Qewz.

NB2: Image via Shutterstock.

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  1. Online travel agency donates 100% of profits to charity | Gadling.com | Dr. Travel

    […] off! It certainly has the potential to raise significant funds for a number of great charities. 'For those who love to travel, there is now a way to see the world while also doing a good deed. A …/a>'For those who love to travel, there is now a way to see the world while also doing a good deed. […]

  2. Jay Ganaden

    Really provocative discussion at Business Week today of Expedia’s plans to make Travel more Social: http://www.businessweek.com/top-news/how-expedia-plans-to-make-travel-more-social-01032012.html

    Awesome to see that Expedia is using size as an advantage, to keep innovating.

    From the article:
    “Facebook, with its 800 million users, referred 15.2 million visitors to hotel websites in 2010, a 35 percent jump from the prior year, according to a July 2011 PhoCusWright study on social media’s role in travel. Of that number, about 568,000 resulted in a booking—a “conversion rate,” in industry parlance, of 4 percent.”

    On the question of commercial value, let’s kick around this conversion number for a second–

    I’m budget-minded, and I’m on a Seattle to San Diego West Coast roadtrip– my friends recommend Howard Johnson @ $40/night– yeah, I’ll book that.
    Assuming these 568,000 bookings, with a 2-night stay, that’s a value of $45.4 Million. Direct book revenue.

    Maybe HoJo isn’t you at all, and no matter what your deadbeat friends recommend, you’re gonna book W Hotels or J.W. Marriott’s because you’re a business-traveler points accumulator.
    Assuming 2 nights at $250/night, that’s a value of $284 Million. Direct book revenue.

    Well okay, maybe I have one FB friend that’s like me, that I trust, and fits one of these “higher-end” profiles– who recommends the steakhouse in the W. My dinner with aggregated wine (love that!) in the steakhouse is $250 for two. Maybe 1% of that 568,000 follows the advice and eats there, so it follows:
    Add-on restaurant revenue = 5680 * $250, or $1.4 Million. (Maybe that covers my hotel restaurant overhead for a year?)

    There’s other possibilities too, depending on the hotel: golf, spas, bars, shopping, shows (in Vegas) plus any referral relationships that might be setup with car services, destinations, tour operators, etc.

    Okay, okay, these assumptions are faulty. These are aggregated numbers, I know, so a portion of that pie is shared by the hotels that make up this 4% conversion rate. Also, the conversions may have come in via facebook ads, promotions on branded FB pages, and/or social recommendations. But the market potential and commercial proposition attributed to the Social channel is there.

    Ok, let’s prove it a step further– with little risk.

    Our firm currently has a pilot program running for travel brands interested in implementing Social Travel on their sites or apps using the Add to Trip API. There’s a few spots available, and we’re offering free strategy sessions plus free use of our code widgets, code generator and open use API. Contact me to get scheduled in.

    Oh BTW, we would welcome making it happen for our SF neighbors, Viator. 🙂

    Happy New Year!


  3. Henry Harteveldt

    “Social Travel” is a broad term that incorporates many sub-parts, including media, marketing, B2C communications, P2P communications, research, planning, booking, and payment — and I’m sure I missed some.

    I don’t think many would dispute that “Social Travel” has potential. The crux of this discussion isn’t whether “Social Travel” has merit, but how to make it more efective, particularly regarding the relative value and merit of recommendations from people we know. Unlike structured data, what appeals to one person may not appeal to another, even if that other person is a sibling, spouse, or best friend of the person offering the suggestion.

    The challenge, based on this thread’s original post, is to find a way to make the “recommendations” function better. Retail recommendations work nicely because they are generally based on structured data exists (mostly SKUs and extensive purchase data). Travel has structured data (O&D, travel dates, fare or rate class purchased, fare or rate paid are a few examples), but a significant volume of unstructured subjective information also co-exists. That, in part, is what makes “Social Travel” so difficult. It is this difficulty, I suspect, that offers many people — industry vets and virgins alike — the intriguing business challenge they seek.

    • Robert Gilmour

      Well if you define it as in your first para, then i guess it has to have ‘potential’ as you’ve covered the whole travel planning and booking process!

      As i said before, i am struggling with the commercial proposition here, and virtually none of the posts address this

  4. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    I dont think it has anything to do with on or offline.I believe there is a lot of BS being ascribed to some new fangled way to address information resources. Firstly you have to challenge the statement that there are friends and that these are REAL friends not just something less. What FB does is to homogenize friends. And it doesnt do a particularly good job at that. Leveraging what it has for its own benefit by telling me what i should like makes FB as bad as another member of the FAG empires.

    The lack of ability to represent nuance and subtlety in machines will always be an issue. So the Social Travel model will remain largely an oxymoron. With emphasis on the latter part of the word.

    I dont think I am going to give up my sensitivity features to Google or Facebook to tell me what I should like or not like.


  5. Brian Lefils

    I love to hear “old timers” in the travel industry talk about technology and innovation, or in this case based on the comments why “social travel” will never work. If innovation were left to them, we would never have twitter or Facebook or any other social product, much less any disruptive travel product.

    It reminds me of a conversation I had with my uncle recently, who still doesn’t get Facebook or twitter or the whole social thing. As he put it… the phone is for talking, not texting or Facebook or twitter. Pickup the phone and talk. He genuinely seemed pissed that people were using Facebook & Twitter to converse instead of talking in person. I get it, change is hard but he simply didn’t understand the evolution of communication when it comes to social products like Facebook & twitter.

    So, I sit here reading some of the comments and think the same. “Social Travel” is about change. It is about the possibility of connecting travelers, during all aspects of travel from inspiration to “consuming” travel. So when I hear travel industry veterans simply write off the entire “Social Travel” business model, I think of my uncle and chuckle a little.

    • Julian Green

      Well said Brian. The idea that friends could be as useful online as they are offline for travel should not be controversial. Innovative travel sites are trying to work out how best to do it.

      • Robert Gilmour

        My son (16) continually tells me ‘things have moved on’ – this is almost 100% to try and justify something he wants. Sorry but travel ‘veterans’ are not by assumption that change is good, either wrong or irrelevant. Quite on the contrary, they are often right, and right now with ‘social travel’ being proved right so far, it seems. Can we see proof of concept first before jumping on bandwagons.

        Tell me the sites that are embracing/trying tio solve this, i’d be really keen to visit them.

  6. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    Sadly we have to conclude that there are many reasons why some people THINK this can work. Usually the “some” people are those without any extensive history of consuming travel. Rod’s point is that there is no short cut. And that as currently envisaged I don’t think Social Travel will ever work in a standalone perspective. Yet there are plenty of folks who are VERY keen on trying and there even seems to be a few Venture firms who are willing to put down cash for this (suckers!!!)..

    And just in case you missed it – look at Schemer from Google as an attempt (shock horror but only beta mind) to frame your activity.

    Facebook has tried to tell us that we should be listening to the “wisdom of friends”. That is clearly absurd overall. I have a wide and very varied group of friends and no I dont poll them on my every single activity. (Oh yes and that includes wine drinking). I do however value different people’s opinions IN CONTEXT.

    So Rod is right in my opinion. I also agree with the freshly minted experts who know absolutely squat about nothing and yet opine on so much.

    Clearly this is not going to stop people from trying. And for a mere 1000 per hour. I am happy to sell my opinions to anyone who wants to buy them. Please speak to my Siri for details 😉


  7. Guillaume

    I agree 200% with Daniele. There is nothing new under the sun.

    My own personal experience in travel for the last 15 years is that I never get any recommendations from good friends about where I should travel next and which hotels I should go to. The main reason is that my best friends have different tastes and a different concept of vacations vs. me and my wife.

    Hence why I wouldn’t take their advice on board.

  8. Daniele Beccari

    What is described in the post has been happening for centuries and will be happening for more centuries.

    It’s called people. Nothing new here, and Facebook won’t change that.

    The interesting question is whether technology can help augmenting our information processing efficiency: more intelligence in less time.

    Instead of good old “phone call to friend whom I’ve heard has been to Hawaii once”, maybe social technology could do something faster for us, like:
    – quickly discover who else has been to Hawaii (and you were not aware), recently;
    – ask a question once, and immediately get multiple answers from friends (or friends of friends) at once.

    So it’s still going to be about personal taste at the end, but at least it can be faster.

  9. Robert Gilmour

    OK I am struggling to find the commercial proposition in all this. Is there one? > and if so, what is it.?Assume I am a hotel GM going to my board of directors to justify something – what is it, how much does it cost, and how much business is it going to generate?

    Otherwise if you ask me its all just interesting chatter, exactly what a lot of social networkling is.

  10. David

    Nice article Rod. I recently wrote a piece questioning whether aggregation works for wine (http://bigpinots.com/are-customer-reviews-really-adding-value).

    Looks like a combination of friends’ input + own research = best way forwards for both (and, no doubt, many more areas).

    At least the third party input can help people steer clear of unanimously “bad” options.

  11. Jon

    A social model for travel cannot be a __Facebook style__ social model.

    For instance many of my friends tend to go to Cancun for a 2 week all inclusive hotel… that sort of thing. I on the other hand can’t sit still and am more likely to be in a hostel then a hotel. You just have to take one look at tripadvisor, and no matter how much you filter e.g. for couples / for families – it’s just a mess of mostly useless information. Being a friend does not equal I like the same holidays/hotels as you.

    This is because my friends and traveller friends are not the same. There are many blogs, many users on Twitter, and there are only a select few Facebook friends that I would go for through travel advice / inspiration.

    However I strongly believe a travel social model __can work__ if defined well. If I could ‘collect’ people with similar travel interests (not people I know but people that __interest me__ – I’m sure I could also collect information that is useful and relevant to me. So more Twitter than Facebook…. I don’t like you but admire you – sort of thing. Social travel will work if a website aims to define a good social model and create a good social experience around that. Piggy backing on existing services like Facebook will never work.

    • Scott Bird

      Theres a couple sides to the social travel aspect – one is content, reviews and recommendations, the other side is the actual social aspect out there.

      There are several sites that “help” you meet people who are travelling to the same destination as you at the same time which is an interesting model, but those will never be Facebook like because most people only travel once or twice a year if that.

      Per recommendations it has to be individually specific and niche to have the greatest relevance but the economics for those situations just aren’t there.

  12. Michael Hodson

    Word of mouth is the best marketing available for any product. Any product. Sure, there are other very valid ways to learn about a product and make a purchasing decision, but pretty much any person selling anything on the planet is going to say that good word of mouth is the best thing they can get.

    What is social media? Word of mouth from people you know and trust (in certain areas).

    This article couldn’t be more wrong in the real world.

  13. » Should you let friends plan your trip? :: Vagablogging :: Rolf Potts Vagabonding Blog

    […] as it turns out. The Tnooz tech travel blog had an article called Why the social travel model will never truly work.  When you entrust your trip to someone who no other qualifications besides your relationship, […]

  14. Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: "The Descendants" | Blue Meanie Me .com

    […] Why the social travel model will never fully work Academics who study happiness will tell you that the anticipation derived from researching an upcoming vacation will be every bit as uplifting and energising as the vacation itself. And it will ensure you have the best vacation for you, … Read more on Tnooz […]

  15. Rick Craven

    Jani, your article is really pretty damn good….

  16. Jani Patokallio

    Rod’s right on the overall concept (social travel doesn’t really work), but there’s a bit more to it than a single anecdote:


  17. Matt Smolsky

    Isn’t this true of all social media? It’s one of the issues I have with the trend towards personalizing search results. While my friends’ +1’s are great and I respect them, that doesn’t necessarily mean I share their interest or tastes with the same passion. Plus, I almost instinctively reject any attempt to predict my behavior. All that said, social recommendations are great and can help you have a better time no matter where you go, but be sure to do your own research and use your own discernment before you give up the wild nights of Waikiki.

    • Jani Patokallio

      It’s true for all social media, but the effect is particularly strong for travel:

      1) Your network in the places you visit is likely to be weak, because you don’t know people there.
      2) Your ability to use recommendations is poor, because you’re limited by time. (If you live in Milan, you’ll probably go to the Mexican restaurant your friend recommends; if you’re there for the weekend, you’ll stick to Italian food.)

  18. Claire Horrobin

    I think there is a lot of merit in this article and I’m inclined to agree….as a web specialist and and operator who is regularly on the front line of tourism I am often suprised and baffled at the reactions and expecations of guests who pass through our hotel.

    Social Media is an online extension of viral marketing , two friends can visit the same location and have completely different experiences. A cursory look at Trip Advisor often leaves me wondering how two travellors can have such different experiences in the same property within only days of each other.

    How many times have we been reccommended a restaurant only to wonder why a respect opinion leader suggest you go there,,, perhaps they like a hot curry and you don’t.

    Anyone working in hospitality knows that offerring consistency of service quality is one of the biggest challanges in this industry, be it staff having an off day or selling out of New Zealand Lamb on a busy day only to leave guests sulking into their beer…..add on weather, rain, other noisey guest and so on….

    There are many factors that make a travel experience work and memorable, social media may help refine a decision or educate to possibilities however to base a such significant purchase entirely based on the fluffy statements posted by a friend who had a good time somewhere may leave you wanting…or sulking into your beer!

  19. zach E

    I’m sorry but this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. There is no argument here. First, your friends shouldn’t be asking you the right questions, you should be asking your friends the right questions. Your friends aren’t mind readers. Second, if you’ve ever taken an econ class you should know to attack the problem head on. If the problem isn’t that you are asking the right questions, then learn to ask the right questions! Spending a fraction of a fraction of the amount of time you do for research, research the right questions! And guess what, you can use them over and over again!!

  20. Robert Gilmour

    Can someone therefore define social media, and social media activity, and social media marketing, please, and if relevant, distinuguih it from social networking’. it seems to me that people define social media to suit the conversation so that they can give it a raison d’etre, I’ve heard as many definitions as i’ve had hot dinners, [people even tell me that search is social media???

    I’m agreeing that Trip Advisor for example is not ‘social media’ or ‘travel social media’ – its a reputation management tool, but first and foremost a massive independent hotel/tyavel review site with huge commerciality, real and aspiring – in fact its virtually an OTA and a meta search engine rolled into one.

  21. Rick Craven

    I have been thinking about this a lot, and while I understand that social travel can be a neat feature if done right, it’s really just a commodity that any travel player can easily integrate. There’s no need to choose only one or the other.

    Why not ask a vast crowd, ask experts, ask locals, and additionally layer in, “let’s see if your friends know anything too.” The established travel content players are either doing this now or will soon, and I expect all travel sites to have a social layer in the next year. When asked which of the startups he thought was doing social travel best, at PhocusWright, Dan Rose a VP of Facebook said,” Tripadvisor” which I think is pretty telling.

    It’s hard to get a high quality, valuable, and useful body of content and community that can impart expertise, and provide scale and variety of opinion. That’s why Tripadvisor, Virtualtourist, Lonelyplanet, etc. are so useful and valuable and people use them.

    If I have no content, no community, no real assets, the social travel strategy is to hype up the marketing campaign, pick a fight with travel content, claim that it’s all broken and sell my “new unique product” as the answer.

    How useful it is depends on many, many things. Sure it’s a potential nice add on, but there are a billion pitfalls which we’ve all heard. How many friends do I have? (FB avg is 130) How many are my grandma and 13 year old niece? How many of my friends really will give me the best advice? How many people do I need in the circle to get real, valuable, up to date advice that fits me. If I already have those people in my life, can’t I just call them? Can’t I just ask a question in FB? For me personally, the only real additional “friends” value I would get is due to some FB friends whom I know from a travel community I participate in.

    But realistically…if a friend recommends a place to stay or restaurant via social recommendation, what’s the first thing I’m going to do?

    That’s right, check it out on Tripadvisor or Yelp or Chowhound or whatever….

    (BTW, I haven’t met Rod, but I’ve seen him talk a few times. And I have to say, amidst the crazy hype fests -AKA conferences – he seems to be one of the few injecting a need dose of reality and business sense)

  22. Jay Ganaden

    The big takeaway in Rod’s writing above is:
    “Instead of building your plans around input from others, blend their suggestions with lots of your own research.”

    Social Travel is not meant to be a silver bullet in any travel brand’s marketing scheme. Marketing is comprehensive. Social Travel might influence the traveler, just as much as a really good flash sale deal, an article in Outside magazine, a TV spot, a recommendation in Zagat, a billboard display ad, or even really amazing photography. All of these influencers combine to drive the consumer down the purchase funnel.

    The average consumer is increasingly smarter about advertising, whether in the Travel industry, Retail, Healthcare Providers, Finance (anyone notice an increase in conversations about where to move their money in light of the whole Occupy movement, or the volatility of the Euro?), etc. Things like Tivo help them cut out advertising, or some even pay $1-$5 so their once-free Mobile apps don’t show ads.

    People want to turn to real life, authentic experiences of their friends and family to help cut through advertising even more– this is the value of Social Travel to the consumer.

  23. David Thomson

    The title should have been:

    My friend and his buddy had half a bad vacation by listening to and following advice that obviously didn’t apply to them

    I agree with nearly everyone above and while I have many issues with this article the below sums the entire article up.

    “What I am suggesting is that relying on your friends is as likely to result in just plain awful advice as it is in good advice. There’s no getting around it.”

    The reality is that you need to filter all advice that is given to you. It is not a social travel problem, it is a problem in general. And btw, isn’t this simply reason that nearly all humans are born with? Some people make better use of it than others.

    @robert – Travel Social Media and Social Travel are not the same thing. Social travel uses distribution methods of social media to create viral/word of mouth, engaging, and sticky user experiences. In its current form, Travel Social Media is nothing more than pr, direct marketing, videos, reviews and customer support. They should not be painted in the same context as they have completely different KPIs associated with them.

  24. Henry Harteveldt

    First, thank you, Rod, for taking the time to write this post.

    The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” is relevant here.

    I believe that Rod makes a valid point in his post. A person who blindly accepts the advice, whether it’s for a trip, restaurant, investing — even the best place to sit in a sports stadium — may or may not have the good experience they seek. When asking anyone for advice, on any topic, it’s important to have some understanding of the person being asked, especially regarding their experiences with the topic at hand. That applies regardless of conversation channel — offline or online, direct or via social network.

    I believe that social travel has potential — but potential is a promise, not a guarantee, and not the present state. That potential is highly dependent on the person seeking assistance to be actively involved and asking the right questions of anyone who offers advice/suggestions.

    My $0.02.

  25. Robert Gilmour

    Proof of the pudding, I’d say. Non travel social media is just not delivering sustainable returns or commercial benefits to travel and hotel businesses. Social media ‘experts’ will doubtless jump to its defence – concrete examples of real business success stories please, nothing else will do. it took me 35 years to become an’expert’ and i’m still learning. Social media seems to produce experts by the hour.

  26. Diana

    Have to agree with the first two comments. There are friends that I know like the party scene and friends that are in bed by 9pm. So any travel advice from either group is taken knowing their own personal preferences. For me, word of mouth (from friends, co-workers, casual acquaintances) is still my preferred way to get the information I need to make travel decisions.

  27. Julian Green

    Rod is somewhat right and mainly wrong. Friends who don’t know anything about what you want for your holiday are unlikely to give good advice. Friends who don’t know what you want are either the wrong friends or what we have here is a failure to communicate. Travel agents who can get to know what you want as well as your friends and give unbiased informed advice are gold. For most of us, finding the right friend for advice is the key. My site Jetpac is designed to find you the right friend for travel advice – try it!

  28. Gautam Lulla

    Those boys should have considered that their Hawaii expert “is a botanist who loves long walks with her husband while listening to Enya on her iPod. ”

    While I don’t have a strong opinion on whether the social travel will work or not, the example does not support the thesis.

  29. Brian Lefils

    While I appreciate the attempt of this article to articulate how social recommendations can destroy your vacation, but I completely disagree with the author’s own recommendation and tone of the article.

    Let’s take that friend in New York, what if they were helping with a car buying decision and suggested a Minivan or a motorcycle. It is up to the recipient to ask questions and understand why they are suggesting it. Do they have kids, that’s the reason for the minivan. Are they are thrill seeker and love motorcycles. Then the friend can make an informed decision whether to take this advice or discard it.

    So yes, blindly accepting travel advice is just poor judgement on their end and ruined the second half of their vacation. But to say that the Social Model for travel will never work is naive and just way off basis. Or is an attempt to advertise your business model with Viator (which advertise hand picked tours & experiences). I will trust my friends advice every time over your hand picked tours.

    Social Recommendations works because it is based on trust. I will always trust my friends’ advice, even if they fit a different demographic, and can then make informed decisions.


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