Social networks target business travelers
07/10/2008|11:59:00 AM|International Herald Tribune
July 9, 2008: Researching a business trip once involved guidebooks and the advice of a handful of friends. But if corporate travel companies have their way, executives will soon be consulting social networking sites and an endless stream of strangers for the secrets of the road.

Word of mouse is the latest trend in online travel planning, and a variety of corporate travel companies are setting up networking sites in hopes of becoming the dominant player - the Facebook of corporate travel.

Expedia and American Express Business Travel are announcing their new offerings this month. The Internet travel site Orbitz had one of the first networking sites, but it, too, is trying to increase participation by sending out e-mail messages to members to promote its Traveler Update.

Cindy Estis Green, author of "Travel Marketers´ Guide to Social Media and Social Networks," said she thought the surge of interest in social networking was mainly due to the time savings it represents.

"Some people ask me, ´Who has time for this? Aren´t we busy?"´ she said. "But when you need information about a job or a trip to China, it opens up tools that weren´t available to put a message out. Somebody will come back to you. It´s a utility and it saves you time."

 Social networking tools aimed at business travelers are, "in the very, very early stages" of development, said Jean-Pierre Remy, president of Egencia, the new name of Expedia Corporate Travel. He said that while the lines between leisure travelers and first-time business travelers were blurring, frequent business travelers heading to the same places on each trip had very different needs. For such folks, "it´s about how to repeat the trip and be more efficient in planning and booking," Remy said.

Egencia, which is one of the largest corporate travel companies in the world, counts Starbucks and Washington Mutual among its clients. The company is more closely integrating the best of Expedia´s noncorporate travel planning assets, which include SeatGuru, a Web site that describes the best and worst of airline seating, TripAdvisor´s City Guides and hotel reviews from a variety of sources. So a travel planner setting up a business trip for an executive would be able to see where on the plane the assigned seat was, without separately visiting SeatGuru, and the recommended hotels at the destination, because the City Guide would pop up as well.

In February, American Express Business Travel said it would team up with the corporate booking company, Sabre Travel Networks, which has been developing its own social networking system called Cubeless. The idea is to help clients´ employees share their travel knowledge with each other and potentially generate cost savings. American Express officials said that they were also creating a social community for buyers in business travel management, but they declined to give further details.

Tom Russell, group vice president for brand marketing at Orbitz Worldwide in the Americas, said the idea for his company´s Traveler Update "came from insights that the customers trust strangers more than they trust the authority."

Orbitz says it has around 500 customers traveling through Chicago O´Hare airport at any time. The company hopes these people will help create a central repository of information about travel conditions. So far the effort is in its early stages, and Orbitz has made sure to supplement customer-generated content with experts from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration and four former air traffic controllers, who also contribute by alerting customers to real-time weather delays, among other things.

Estis Green, who is also a travel marketing consultant, said all the openness of social networking sites had its downside. "I get inquiries from people I don´t know," she said. "It´s people asking me complex business questions. Am I obligated to write back? I don´t want to spend the time answering, but I´ve made myself available."

Remy of Egencia says he is skeptical that individuals are as generous with their time and information as some social networking fans suggest. That is why his company is sticking with its targeted offering of core services.

"If you look at the corporate travel side of social networking and user-generated content, no one has proven yet all the value of these tools," he said. "We strongly believe you shouldn´t try to change the way travelers behave. I don´t believe that because you´re waiting in a line for a taxi that you´ll start sharing that information with other travelers. It´s more likely your going to be upset about the time you are losing."