Let's face it: Social networking influences the way we travel, whether on business or for pleasure. Here's how you can make the most of your trip by using the networks you're a part of.
Social networks have changed the way we work—and live. For example, 18 percent of consumers use social networking sites before even getting out of bed, according to a May 2011 Ericsson ConsumerLab study. They have also changed the way we travel, morphing business trips from a mundane experience into a data-rich opportunity to make new connections and discover or strengthen relationships.
"The simplest way to think about it is that you used to fly into a city and unless you knew someone who was there, there's no chance that you ever got in touch with anyone," notes Aaron Strout, the Austin-based head of location-based marketing at WCG World, an integrated global communications company. "We all tend to hover around in these bigger metropolitan areas and we're closer to so many people we know than we think we are, but we just don't know it. So social media kind of tightens up that six degrees of separation, and it also makes for serendipity."
But how do you keep it professional and make the most out of your next trip by utilizing social media? Here's what the experts advise.
How Social Media Has Changed Business Travel: Before You Leave
Before you ever book your trip, social networks allow you to research, interact, and enhance the experience. From a research perspective, some hotels have started to offer room specials exclusively for fans of their Facebook page. Morever, travelers can see reviews of properties from trusted colleagues, friends, and strangers to make sure it's the right spot long before arriving. Lastly, you can figure out where your connections and contacts are staying if they'll be in town at the same time to simplify that process later on (travel-organizing app TripIt makes this easier with its integration into LinkedIn).
Travelers can also use Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to communicate with existing contacts to figure out details about where to stay and what to do while traveling—including whom else might be in town. You'd be shocked sometimes at where old connections that you haven't seen in years might be living or have lived, allowing you to solicit opinions or schedule meetings with folks you never envisioned.
"A lot of hotels are adopting this Roger Smith idea that if they become more social-media friendly, people will start staying there," Strout says. "Before I leave, I can figure out if someone I know will be there and then triangulate that data to connect for dinner. You have micro-control of it too, because you can broadcast out what you like or keep things private."
Social Networks and Mobile Apps to Use Before You Travel:
• Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn: Let your contacts know you're planning a trip to see what fellow connections are going to be in town so you can schedule meetings—formal or informal—and determine places to go and things to do in your down-time. Follow hotels or airlines on the networks to get exclusive discounts not available elsewhere.
• TripIt: book your travel wherever you choose, and forward your itinerary to firstname.lastname@example.org. The free organizational service does the rest of the work, allowing you to access the data anywhere and also telling you if any connections are in the same area.
• GTrot: still a relatively new service, GTrot (short for globe-trotting) connects users with Facebook friends who live where you're visiting, have visited there previously or are there at the same tim as you. With one click, you can notify those friends of your plans and solicit input or suggestions.
• AutoSlash, CarRentals.com, or Zipcar: whatever your car rental needs are, there is a way to access the best deals here. Autoslash and CarRentals.com allow you to input dates and times of arrival and departure and then scours the Web for the best deal. With Autoslash, if you book a rental and a better deal comes across the site, it automatically rebooks you at the lower rate. Zipcar is a well-known service that allows you to rent a car for hours, days or longer, often cheaper than car rental companies and with nicer vehicles (but including a membership fee).
• Getaround: part of the rising trend of social car sharing and luxury car services, this is changing the way we get around in town. Getaround, the winner of TechCrunch Disrupt's startup pitch last month in New York City, allows car owners to safely rent out their unused car to trusted drivers when they need it most.
Dig Deeper: Get the Best Airfare Deals
How Social Media Has Changed Business Travel: While You're Away
Once you leave home and are in a foreign city, you're never disconnected from your social networks. In fact, you're able to do so much more today while on the road thanks to social networks and mobile applications.
"I use social media for crowd-sourced research for restaurants, bars, or whatever else is nearby when I travel," notes Christian Wofford, a Construction Project Manager at Burberry America who is based in Brooklyn, New York, and who regularly travels to new stores around the country. "For me, the new Foursquare Explore feature is so helpful when I travel somewhere with the way it links into the places you've been and the places your friends have been. Often, it comes down to the fact that you're getting a credible review of a place from someone you know and trust. That's huge."
The options are plentiful as you hit the road. "Without a smartphone, I never knew on the go what the weather going to be like maps to get somewhere, where to eat," says Amy Jackson, the senior public relations manager at TripIt. "Social media has made more savvy travel possible by having all of that information with you in real-time. It's a lot more practical than when you printed something out before you left for the airport and stuffed it in a manila folder. Now I just pull out my smartphone. To me, it's about being more informed, being more savvy and making the most of your time while you travel."
Social Networks and Mobile Apps to Use While You Travel:
• TripIt: once you're actually on the road, TripIt remains an outstanding way to access all of your reservation data in one place. Pull up the mobile app to find confirmation numbers, itinerary, and more. If you subscribe to TripIt Pro, you'll also receive flight notifications if you're delayed and access to all of your frequent customer programs (airlines, hotels, cars, etc.) at the touch of a button.
• Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn: It goes without saying that you're going to broadcast to your networks much of your travel. Utilizing the traditional networks can work to obtain recommendations, to let people know where you've been or where you're going, and to share photos.
• Meetup or Upcoming.org: Check to see if there are any industry-related events that coincide with your travel plans. If so, you could find colleagues or prospects to connect with informally over coffee, breakfast or an actual event.
• Dining: A big part of business travel remains the business lunch and dinner. But when in a foreign town, you can't rely solely on the concierge of your hotel. With mobile apps such as Foodspotting, UrbanSpoon, and Eater, you can find a restaurant while you explore the city. The old stand-bys like Zagat and Yelp both have mobile apps as well to accompany their standalone reviews and recommendations, as eating somewhere that has a worthy and reliable review is always better than blindly window-shopping.
• Location-Based Social Networks: Whether you prefer Foursquare, Gowalla, Scvngr, or another location-aware network, using one is a great way to see where people in your network have been so you can get recommendations on where to eat, visit, and more. "To me there are two big benefits: the connections with people and the discovery," says Strout. "So let's say I go to Minneapolis and I don't know anything about the city. If I don't know what coffee shops to go to or where the Apple Stores are, I'm in trouble. And unless you have local knowledge, you don't know what's good. So that discovery and going and seeing where your friends are and have been, regardless of what you want."
• Plancast: A simple way to share plans for your trip with others on Plancast and across other social networks and discover what other people are doing. Rather than you reaching out to everyone, people can figure out where to find you and come to meet up.
• Photo-sharing apps: Popularized by a plethora of companies such as Instagram, Picplz, Pano, PhotoSynth, Hipstamatic, Path and Color, it's really a matter of preference, which one you use. But it's all about creating a visual accompaniment to whatever you are sharing. "It's like a digital postcard of where you're at that others can check out very easily," says Wofford.
• GPS and Maps: Whether via your Garmin device or Google Maps on your smartphone, there's no excuse for getting lost anymore. Just plug in your destination, it determines where you are via GPS coordinates, and then follow the arrows (or the annoying voice).
• Traffic.com: Particularly when you're visiting a place you don't spend a lot of time in, one wrong turn can put you in bumper-to-bumper traffic, causing you to miss an important meeting or a flight. Available on mobile devices, Traffic.com tells you what roads to avoid.
Dig Deeper: Best Local Search App: Poynt
How Social Media Has Changed Business Travel: After You Return Home
There remains a lot of potential in this area, as actually participating in the conversation on social media after your business trips concludes is rarer. But don't overlook the potential here. Other than posting photos from your journey on sites such as Flickr, you are rarely prompted to post reviews. That's where a company like Bizzy, which has a system that prompts you to review places you've been recently, has a real edge.
If you need a kick to continue the social-networking after you've landed back at home, just remember that unless you actually take the time to return e-mails, connect with folks you saw on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, you're losing part of the extension of the relationship, a key to extending relationships in social media. Those simple steps make it easy to keep in touch.
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LOU DUBOIS is a Philadelphia-based Social Media Editor for NBC Universal's local news affiliate (WCAU-TV). He is an experienced writer, editor and marketer who has worked with and written about Fortune 500 companies and small businesses, focusing on social media, emerging technologies, small business success, entrepreneurship, sports business and corporate policy. Previously he worked for Social Media Today, Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and SOBeFit Magazine, along with various newspapers.