It can be argued that social media has boosted travel and tourism generally. Ordinary people now broadcast their travels to their extended circle of friends via platforms like Facebook and Instagram (#Instatravel), promoting the very idea of travel as glamorous and exciting. The information they share opens up the world so that large parts of the globe are no longer fearful and unknown to people who can afford to travel.
This is especially beneficial for tourism businesses in South Africa, which tend to be seen as far flung and also tend to show up in international news headlines for the wrong reasons. Airbnb, the internet-based accommodation sharing platform, which itself has had a major impact on tourism, reckons that 10% of global GDP, and one in every ten jobs, is now derived from tourism, and is set to rise, especially in the developing world. Airbnb has calculated that in the year from June 2017 to May 2018, “hosts and guest activity on Airbnb generated an estimated R8.7 billion in economic impact in South Africa”.
Although Airbnb does not say how much of that figure is a loss to the formal hotel and guest house industry in favour of private rooms rented out to tourists via the site, Anton reckons it can be safely assumed that a significant part of the amount is new tourism activities that Airbnb has helped to generate by popularising homestays as a new form of tourism.
Besides, many of the listings on Airbnb are indeed those of formal hotels, guest houses and bed- and-breakfasts, showing just how much the tourism marketing game has changed. A tourism business simply cannot afford not to have a strong internet presence. This means being listed on all the major travel platforms such as Airbnb, Booking.com and TripAdvisor, as well as building strong pages on the broader social-media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, and search engines such as Google.
Although there is still a case to be made for having paper brochures which can be disseminated at tourism information kiosks and complementary businesses, expensive print advertising is virtually gone. A lot of the budget that used to be reserved for print advertising has now been absorbed by boosting social media presence. Although most of social media is supposedly free, the arms race among businesses to land at the top search rankings has meant spending more and more on online marketing campaigns.
It begins with the costs of having professional pictures taken of the business, and professional text written about it. Even if posting the pictures online is free on various platforms, the competition is usually strong enough to compel tourism businesses not to skimp on the quality of their content on social media, then there are the costs of professional website design, search engine optimisation, and paid advertising on the various platforms.
In the age of social media, however, the customers themselves are the most potent form of advertising. Not only do they advertise your business to their circle of friends through their tweets and posts on social media, but they have the power to make or break your reputation through the reviews posted to the travel platforms. Customer service is therefore more important than ever before, and in the age of social media it starts with quick and efficient direct contact between you and your prospective customer even before they arrive at your business.
No business is able to please everyone all of the time, and tourism business owners should have a strategy ready to deal with a bad review from time to time, says Anton. Apart from taking customer complaints seriously and fixing the problem in the business, this must also be seen to be done on social media.
Effective online reputation management usually includes a strategy of responding immediately to bad reviews in an empathetic and sincere manner, but avoiding getting into an online spat with an unhappy customer. It is also important to encourage as many as possible happy clients to post positive online reviews. Social media is having a major positive impact on the tourism industry, but it requires tourism business owners to pay careful attention to their online presence, and to remain on top of the rapidly changing social media landscape.