Before the latest social media revolution, Jessica Gottlieb would have probably watched helplessly when her kids, Jane and Alexander, were trapped on the tarmac, waiting for their Virgin America flight to take off.
But that’s so 2008. When it happened to her last week, the Los Angeles-based blogger reached for her iPhone and twittered about her troubles. “Dear Virgin Air,” she wrote. “My children have been on the tarmac for one hour with 90 more minutes to wait. I am at JFK gate b25. Pls RT.”
That last request — please “RT” — is shorthand for Gottlieb’s nearly 10,000 followers to “retweet” her message, or rebroadcast it to their followers. And retweet they did. Within minutes, Virgin had phoned Gottlieb to reassure her that her kids would be fine.
“They contacted the gate agent manager and explained to us the entire weather situation,” she says. “Within 20 minutes of that conversation, the plane took off.”
The same forces that threaten to unravel a repressive Iranian regime are revolutionizing the way Americans travel. Social media sites that allow people to interact in the moment are changing how travel companies talk to their customers — and how their customers talk back.
The net result? Travel could improve for everyone.
Behind the scenes
It may not come as a surprise that this movement is being powered by microblogging sites like Twitter, which allows travelers to communicate in short, 140-character bursts of text, and Facebook, the ubiquitous social networking site. (For more on microblogging and travel, see my recent column on the subject.) Sites like these let travelers share information almost at the same rate they receive it (or “real time,” in tech parlance), which is something previous Web-based services didn’t let travelers do.
But few people have come to understand the far-reaching implications of the technology. Talk with someone like Cheryl Spezia, the vice president of marketing at the Destin, Fla.-based vacation rental company ResortQuest, and you get a sense that the relationship between the travel industry and its customers is being rewritten. “The dynamics have changed,” she says.
ResortQuest’s Twitter presence has helped guests get quick answers — and sometimes action — about their accommodations. In one memorable case, a condo with a broken air conditioner that was in less-than-presentable shape was promptly fixed when it was brought to the company’s attention through Twitter.
In order to understand what’s happening here, let’s hit “rewind” for a second. There have actually been three distinct customer service uprisings enabled, in part, by the Internet. In the late 1990s, Web sites and moderated discussion forums pushed the first wave of the revolution. But many travel companies brushed these sites off because they were easily managed or ignored.
About a decade ago, blogs and emerging social networks like MySpace and LinkedIn gave rise to a second customer rights movement that is just now abating. The third wave, which harnesses the influence of Facebook and Twitter and may peak with a new Internet standard coincidentally called Google Wave, is just now on the horizon.