Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sheila Scarborough discusses Social Media in the Travel Industry

(Note:  Contributing blogger Matt Scherer recently interviewed Sheila Scarborough.  Scarborough, the co-founder of Tourism Currents, will speak at the Austin InnoTech eMarketing Summit Oct. 28 at 1 p.m. as part of a panel "Social Media 12 Months From Today" She discussed the changes within social media for the travel industry.)

Q:    What inspired you to start blogging on travel?

A:  After doing some writing about maritime topics while on active duty in the Navy, I decided when I left the military that since I loved to write and loved to travel, I would combine the two.

I started out blogging specifically about family travel because even as a newbie, I could see that it would be better to cover a niche if I was going to blog. My parents took me all over the world and I try to do the same with my kids, who are now 18 and 11. I launched a free traveler’s blog on the BootsnAll Travel Network because it gave me a built-in audience, so that someone besides me and my Mom would read my work.

Later on, I joined with other bloggers to write for the Perceptive Travel blog, plus I covered NHRA drag racing on Fast Machines for awhile and then started my own personal blog and co-founded a learning community (Tourism Currents, teaching social media for tourism.

I still do print work in state and national publications, but my heart is definitely online.

Q: I noted your military experience in the Navy.  Does that give you an insight into traveling to different places that most people would never get?

A:  Well, a Navy port visit is usually longer than the average cruise ship stop, although not by much. It's a good way to take a quick look at a place, though. 

The biggest advantage of my time in the military (and from growing up in a Navy family, too) is the opportunity to be stationed all over the U.S. and also outside the States. I've been an expat three times - Bahrain, Japan and the Netherlands - and that more than anything else it has taught me how to be pretty comfortable in many different environments.

It's also made me very sensitive to how hard it can be to communicate in a language that's not your native tongue.  I never sound like a bigger moron than when I try to mangle French.

Q:   With travel blogs, resorts and other destinations get an unfiltered review of their hospitality and overall service.   How many resorts are truly monitoring social media?

A:  Not as many as you'd think. Remember how long it took to get hotels to pay attention to TripAdvisor? Literally years. That's where we are right now with Yelp, blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Many properties are oblivious. They have no idea when they're linked to in a blog post; they have no idea how to "listen" online.

Those that are paying attention often don't know how to engage, even something as simple as saying "thanks" in response to a positive review, or saying "Sorry about that, how can we fix it?" in response to a poor review. So many see social media as a threat, not an opportunity. I wish they weren't so scared of a comment box.

Those that do engage, like the Roger Smith Hotel in New York, the Hotel Max in Seattle, the Elkhorn Inn in West Virginia or the Authentic Seacoast resorts in Nova Scotia are rewarded with word of mouth support and deeper relationships with their customers.

Q:  For those that don't, what should they do to monitor what is being said about them.

A:  Google the name of your destination/lodging/attraction and look not just at the "Everything" results, but also results from Images, Videos, Blogs, Updates (Twitter) and Discussions (forums.) 

Do a general search for your name on Facebook, scrolling all the way down to see "Posts by Everyone."  You will see results even from people who aren't connected to you, which is horrible for privacy considerations but useful in market research.

Use and look for mentions of your destination or attraction, including common misspellings.  You can monitor those keywords continuously with a column on a Twitter dashboard service like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite.

Make this monitoring a habit, a few minutes a day at minimum to scan the chatter.  Yes, you have time. You answer the phone and respond to letters, right? It's just customer service, folks.

Q:  Do  you have any other comments or thoughts on the travel blogging industry?

A:  We are at a very interesting intersection in the publishing world right now. Content is moving online and expanding into many different channels when it gets there, but getting paid decently for producing it is another matter.

I'm convinced that chasing eyeball numbers, gaming search engines and hoping people will click things is ultimately a losing proposition, but I'm having a hard time articulating a better alternative.  It has something to do with creating content that is unique, gives people what they're looking for and can't find except for a few special places.  People are willing to pay for that. We are also going to see more long-term relationships/sponsorships with high-visibility blogs....sort of a variation  on the branded "Hallmark Hall of Fame" TV shows.

Why does "The Economist" continue to do well worldwide, with its dense, long articles and coverage of hefty, often relatively obscure topics? Because lightweight "Top 10 Beaches" content only gets you so far.  What beach information elicits real interest? The annual report from "Dr. Beach," with academic analysis of coastal areas that are not necessarily well known but meet a respected guy's high standards.

Find your niche and special voice, then connect....on- and off-line....with those who love it.

Hear more from Sheila Scarborough at InnoTech, Thursday, October 28, 2010.  For more information or to register for the eMarketing Summit, click here.


  1. Great interview, Sheila! Thank you for including us an example of hotels that are engaging people through social media. We appreciate you encouraging people keep it real through good content and relationships. Old fashioned concepts that gain new importance in social media.

  2. Sure, Doug. Your properties are always "top of mind" because you are present and active where your prospective customers are online, AND you tell good stories about your region.