The power of consumers online
The travel industry is becoming more aware of the power of their customers' online communication.
The Internet gives a platform "for anyone who snaps a photo of a moment in time," said Josiah Mackenzie, director of business development at ReviewPro, which helps hotels manage their online presence. "Sometimes it's a tweet that has no basis in reality. But when it goes viral, the potential audience is enormous."
People will often complain first on Twitter, even while they're still staying at a hotel, Mackenzie said. That's an opportunity for the hotel to address their complaints before it's too late.
"You can catch an item before days go by and they check out and leave a review on TripAdvisor that stays forever," he said.
And it's not limited to airlines and hotels.
Cruise lines know that customers have a hard time understanding the different layouts, room sizes and locations, amenities, on-shore excursions and fees of any cruise line or particular ship they haven't sailed before. That's why passengers turn to forums such as Cruise Critic to plan their trips and vent when things go wrong.
"Almost every cruise line I know has someone dedicated to reading forums and responding to them," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic. "I can't think of anything more important than communicating to your customers."
Even cruise line executives, such as Oceania Cruises chief executive Frank Del Rio, have been known to respond to questions posted by Cruise Critic members.
"If people don't feel valued, they're going to let others know about it," Spencer Brown said. "The danger of not responding is pushing forward the perception that you're not interested in the perspective of your customer."
Companies monitoring the forums can see whether ships are operating well or whether there are systematic problems aboard particular ships that need to be fixed, she said.
Crucial when things go wrong
When things go wrong -- as it did in May with a fire aboard Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas cruise ship -- it's crucial for companies to be upfront on social media. Brown credits Royal Caribbean for tweeting out news of the fire and sending pictures of its CEO examining the fire damage after the ship docked in the Bahamas.
The company also tweeted details about how they transferred people home, what compensation those customers would receive and what future cruises would be canceled.
"It was gutsy, and it was brilliant," Spencer Brown said.
It's actually nothing new
While the medium is relatively new, most customers are just demanding online what they've always demanded: good customer service. They want explanations when companies screw up or there are delays, and they want solid solutions to address any mistakes that are made.
"The emergence of digital media has put a special emphasis on customer service," said Mackenzie. "It's all about service, keeping our guests delighted. It's not a complex subject. It's just the way people communicate is different."
Toilet paper issues aside, United Airlines has a social media staff of 20 employees working from the airline's Chicago office, United spokesman Charles Hobart said.
That includes a presence at FlyerTalk, engaging with forum members and asking them for opinions on new products and existing products. "We know that it's important to be involved with FlyerTalk," Hobart said.
Leaving the potty humor to others, United also apologized for the toilet paper shortfall in a company statement.
"We apologize to our customers on this flight for the inconvenience and would like the opportunity to welcome them back."
Do you use social media or online travel forums to post your comments or concerns about a travel company? Please share in the comments below.