06/14/2012 07:30 am ET Updated Aug 14, 2012

Tour Operators Tap Into New Customers Using Social Media

The days of booking tours using a rotary phone and a brochure are rapidly changing. Today, savvy tour operators are tapping into a stream of new customers using a variety of social media channels, most notably Facebook and Twitter.

The rationale for these creative viral strategies is simple: more tour operators believe that consumers are more likely to book a trip if they know a friend or a family member has had a good experience.

Lindblad Expeditions: A photogenic partnership with National Geographic
For Ralph Hammelbacher, Director of Expeditions at Lindblad Expeditions, making good use of digital platforms was a no brainer even before they became mainstream. "We've been blogging and using digital platforms even before blogs were common," he says. Lindblad Expeditions (@LindBladExp on Twitter) partners with National Geographic to bring real-time high resolution photos of their journeys, either through Flickr, their blog, Facebook photo albums or through Instagram.

Some expeditions defy a prescribed itinerary. "For example, if you go to Arctic Norway, you have to be guided by weather and ice conditions and we're looking at possibilities of sighting polar bears and whales, and if we see something interesting, we stop. We should put a sticker on our ship called 'I brake for whales,'" he jokes.

But these ad hoc sightings can translate into pure social media gold. Followers of Lindblad Expeditions' channels have the opportunity to see and visualize their journeys almost in real time: the rich visual payoff is compelling.

Collette Vacations: Learning about Consumers through Facebook

For Collette Vacations which began its long history as a tour operator way back in 1918, the future of its marketing efforts features technology as a strong component. Currently, the tour operator is running a "Win Your Italian Dream" sweepstakes featuring a grand prize of a 10-day trip for two to Italy, with airfare included.

While prizes and sweepstakes are one way to attract customers, Executive Vice President Paula Twidale says that the "online conversations we are having with our travelers, much of it sparked by the Facebook sweepstakes, has provided invaluable customer feedback."

The United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA): Increasing Consumer Awareness of Tours through Facebook

A non profit organization created with the purpose of protecting consumers' financial interests while booking a tour, USTOA has launched a consumer sweepstakes using Facebook for the first time in its history.

President Terry Dale says, "In our annual member survey we learned just how critically important social media is to our members. Nearly 90 percent are actively using social media for consumer engagement, driving traffic to their web sites and providing a higher level of customer service. This is how you build consumer loyalty in a highly competitive environment."

Several USTOA member organizations (including Collette Vacations, Globus, Pacific Delight Tours and Go Ahead Tours -- which targets both the adult and student travel demographic -- have offered weekly prizes with a total value of $40,000.

Expanding footprint and receiving candid feedback from consumers through viral channels can only improve transparency and travel efficiencies. We can only expect to see more creative campaigns in the future from tour operators, making channels like Facebook, Twitter and social media's new darling Pinterest more exciting and interactive frontiers than ever before.