Social media and the travel industry have a rich heritage, from reviews to personal blogs and photos. But much of the mainstream use social media in the travel industry is confined to marketing and PR.

There is great benefit to be gained from focusing in these areas and some great work being done by brands. However there are many other areas across the business where social could be used, from innovative use of data to using location to provide a real service to customers when they are away.

Not social media marketing, more social business.

Social media and the travel industry have a long and successful history. From review sites to personal travel blogs, photos sharing and now location based services, travel is a natural area for users to create and share content.

This is, in part, due to the nature of a travel product. It is experiential, and often a material commitment in terms of money or time. People have long shared their travel experience and social media just facilitates this.

Travel brands have worked with this sharing trend to use customer stories and reviews, peer-to-peer discussions and other forms of social media to enhance their marketing and communications activities.

Social plays a fundamental role in the marketing mix for many social brands (big and small); more so than in many other industries. However, even the most advanced travel brands are only scraping the surface of the benefits social has to offer.

To make the most of it we need to make a shift from social media as marketing and communications channel to it playing a deeper role across the business.

There is a temptation to think of social as just another channel; a way of reaching, communication and engaging with existing and new audiences.

And it does have a role to play here, but focusing just on these areas is missing out on the bigger opportunities it has to fundamentally change our businesses and the experiences our customer have with us.

The real opportunities coming up for travel brands mean stopping thinking of social as part of marketing, communications or PR, and starting to think of the ways in which social tools can be used across your business and across your customer experience journey.

Within travel, there are for me three clear areas where social can add real value to brands (and to their customers) beyond marketing and PR. Each of these is being used at the moment but none have really become mainstream, either for brands or for customers.

None of these are marketing activities, but use sharing, interactions and the data that comes from social media in ways that start to change our businesses.

1) Social on location: Making travel guides more relevant

Social media has the chance to fundamentally change how we explore and experience new areas – be it a bus journey you have never been on before or discovering a new town or country.

Location-based services allow us to leave information, guides and other tips in locations for people to pick up with their mobile device. You can also also curate reviews and advice from other travellers based on locations – find a restaurant near your hotel based on people who have stayed in your hotel before, booked with your travel agency or who form part of some kind of online community.

This sharing, commenting and review via location will allow people to build personalised guides of places they are at and help them to build their experience beforehand but also whilst they are away.

Moving beyond location we can start to explore connecting real-world objects to the internet. Imagine connecting tourist site and monuments to the internet so that, when you visit the Berlin Wall you can receive history, imagery and media that others have left there.

People can share stories of their memories of the Berlin Wall and its fall, or leave media for you to watch to enhance your experience.

Any organisation could start to build communities in this way, using tools such as Foursquare or Facebook to leave information and allow users to create their own guidebook that is tailored to them and their experiences as they travel.

2) Social CRM: Adding to the customer experience

Perhaps the biggest benefit that many brands can get from social media is to explore ways that you can enhance existing customer experiences or create new ones. At a simple level we can look at ways we can replace volume to contact centres with customer care in social media – either through forums on our own sites or on Twitter or Facebook.

This kind of customer servicing can be reactive (responding to queries when people raise them directly with us) or proactive (finding people on social media asking questions that you can help them with).

But perhaps the biggest benefit will come from truly integrating social media into your CRM systems, prcesses and programmes. This means using the data people share in social media and the issues they discuss to add to your knowledge of them.

Clever use of Facebook’s social graph, for example, might discover that a particular client is interested in vintage cars, Thai food and photography (for example). With this kind of information you could start to tailor a package for them that they is bespoke and helps them decide what they want to do on their holiday.

You could do this automatically and approach them with ideas, or you could tailor your website so that it shows things relevant to them based on what we learn about them in social media.

Finally we can use things they discuss to help give exceptional customer service. Imagine a client of your airline is discussing on Twitter about a large business meeting they have just been to in New York.

How special would they feel if they were welcomed on board with a message ‘ “Hello Mr Rhodes, we saw on Twitter that you’ve had a big business meeting today, hope it went well and that we can help you to relax on your way back to London.”

3) Social data: Tailor-made experiences

Finally, and building on these examples, perhaps the biggest opportunity from social media is to use the data that we gather about our customers, alongside the data we can learn from their social profiles, to produce tools and services for them.

On a simple level we can use customer’s previous buying data to help to group people together into mini-communities on our site – let’s take everybody who usually books hotels in Spain together in a community about Spain; everybody who books hotels in Turkey in a community about Turkey (and so forth).

Amending their onsite experience so we only present to them things we think they might be interested in.

But we can move much further than this. If we know what people do when they’re away, where they go and where they spend their time and money we can start to present this back.

Rather than just reviews of restaurants near your hotel imagine if we could tell you the most popular places for people like you, who have travelled with us before. Can we rank airlines when people are booking tickets by the ratings people like you have given those particular flights before.

We capture so much data that customers give us directly and that we can get from their social profiles and contributions. Using this to change and enhance the product we give them, and to make it easier for people to research and book travel products is where a real opportunity lies in social.

The brands that get this right (without appearing too Big Brother-ish) will be the ones that really shine in use of social.

Image credit: bareform (via Flickr)