Lion Travel Tour Guides and Travel Bloggers
The Internet has dramatically changed marketing in the travel industry, and Lion Travel Co. is taking advantage of Web-based social networks to build and expand its customer base.
Lion Travel Tour Guides and Travel BloggersBy Chao-yen Lu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 438 )
Last month Lion Travel tour guide Terry Chen led a group of some 30 people to Austria and the Czech Republic. One week before their departure Terry Chen sent an SMS to all tour group members with the link to his blog, informing them that he would hold an online briefing on the upcoming trip.
After arriving in Prague, when the group visited the historical Charles Bridge, the travelers voluntarily waited in line begging Chen to take their photographs with his high-resolution camera. Upon returning to Taiwan, Chen used the photographs to make individual desk calendars for each member of the tour group. Within two weeks, each traveler also received a photo CD of the trip. On top of that, Chen spends considerable time maintaining his travel blog and interacting with his readers.
Tour Guide Bloggers Draw Online Fans
"The tour group members will tell each other about me before making any further moves," says Chen, as he further explains the changed marketing environment. Today customers not only compare package tour prices online, they will also inquire about the tour guides' reputations.
"You rub shoulders with your customers for 10 days. You have tea and chat together, so there is a lot of interaction. Travel agency sales representatives usually speak to customers an average 15 times on the phone, but they never meet them face to face," Chen points out.
When the tour guide recently promoted a tour to Venice in February on his blog, half of those who booked the trip were people who had traveled with him previously.
"Now every tour guide doubles as a salesman," notes Fisher Chia-yu Chen, an associate professor in the Department of Tourism at Shih Hsin University. The modern tour guide no longer passively takes over a tour group put together by the sales department but works on the front line of customer development, personally managing customer relations – starting weeks before a trip begins and continuing some time after it ends.
Lion Travel has some 500 tour guides like Terry Chen. "They have already become stars," notes Lion Travel Vice President Chen Hsien-hsiang with pride. And the star tour guides command a solid following of travelers who are also their online fans.
"We will cultivate more stars in the future," says the Lion travel executive, underlining his trust in this new marketing approach. The model works because every "star" tour guide has around 500 to 1,000 fans. All these fan communities can be used for crossover marketing to target a broad range of customers for different tour groups.
"It's a great business model. What started out as popular blogs has turned into a top tour guide community that can be used to make money and to identify subgroups," Lion Travel's Vice President Chen says.
Star Tour Guides Create New Style Travel
In the past, travel agencies mainly acted as booking agents and were easily caught in price wars. Today, customers not only want a good price but also demand added value, namely professional expertise.
Consequently, Lion Travel not only deftly uses the talent of its in-house tour guides but actively cooperates with well-known bloggers to bolster its talent pool with external expertise.
The newly created position of "talent manager" is in charge of designing tours in cooperation with influential bloggers. Foodie Hsu Tien-lin, alias Gary, who hosts a highly popular restaurant blog, helped put together a gourmet trip to Tokyo. This year travel program host and fulltime blogger Ken Worker will be invited to take a tour group on an 11-day honeymoon trip to Venice.
Lion Travel has also set up a specialized arts and culture division which cooperates with music experts to plan tours for music lovers. Other types of special interest trips such as wine tasting seminars are also organized with the help of external experts. Lion Travel Chairman Jason Wang notes that modern travel habits go far beyond the scope of a traditional travel agency. "We are not just dealing with travel, but also with lifestyle trends," he asserts.
While Lion Travel exploits the new business opportunities that web-based communities provide, the agency also plans to increase its brick-and-mortar store locations in the latter half of this year to better serve customers that do not use the Internet. Within the coming two years, its number of outlets is expected to grow from the present 43 to some 80.
Vice President Chen concedes that even Internet-savvy customers sometimes want to get further information face to face at a physical store. And since not every customer feels comfortable making bookings and payments online, physical stores alongside an online presence are still important.
Another case in point is marketing to senior citizens, a highly lucrative market segment. The two largest tour bus user groups are pilgrims and neighborhood groups on one-day roundtrips. These are travelers that can barely be reached via online marketing. In rural Nantou and Pingtung counties, Lion Travel has already opened new stores, where travel agents directly approach potential customers with flyers and other traditional forms of advertising.
Sales personnel are also required to adopt new marketing approaches such as working with neighborhoods. In last November, staff at Lion Travel's Zhongxiao flagship store in Taipei cooperated with a nearby kindergarten hosting an event on the origins of the Italian carnival. If such events strike a chord with the children, winning over the parents is a breeze and promoting trips to Italy becomes much easier as a result.
A string of travel agencies folded over the past years due to the lack of brand recognition. As professor Chen points out, the strength of a brand depends on the ability to gain customers' trust. She notes that Lion Travel's planned rapid expansion of its physical store network signals the travel agent's intent to become the top brand in Taiwan's travel industry.
"We have begun to study how enterprises can link with Web 2.0. That cannot be done if just a few people do it. The entire company must become an enterprise 2.0," declares Vice President Chen.
Lion Travel has successfully implemented the spirit of Web 2.0, mastering tools such as information sharing, user focus and social networking in both its online presence and brick-and-mortar stores.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
New travel industry competencies
1. Conscious use of web-based tools to develop new market segments and maintain customer relations
2. Openmindedness, use of external expertise
3. Staff at physical stores build relations with neighborhoods