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The long reach of social media

No longer just a way of keeping tabs on your friends, social media is changing the way tourism destinations operate

In just a few years, social networking has rewritten the book on customer service, compelling the tourism industry to relearn their approach to client relations.

Social media mogul and founder of the Travel Blogger Exchange International Conference Kim Mance called the travel review side of the business a highly influential  "wild, wild west."

"Sites like Hotwire and TripAdvisor rank so high on Google that when someone searches for something - and we know that over 70 per cent of people are booking online -...they affect the results you see when you look for a hotel or a destination experience," she said during a phone interview from her home base in Colorado. "I think it's definitely here to stay..."

Both businesses and guests are active on the social media sites that relate to Whistler. Beyond keeping customers happy - and subsequently away from angry online reviews - tourism businesses are seeing an increase in business filter through travel sites aimed at providing a customer-experience heavy platform and booking options.

"We sell a lot through Expedia, TripAdvisor, Whistler Blackcomb...they have definitely increased bookings," said Jennifer Tice, public relations manager for Fairmont Whistler. "Guests are savvier and are looking for information in other places, and sometimes we have other deals with other partners and I think with sites like Trip Advisor and Expedia, they can see feedback from other guests and can compare them to other properties, they perhaps have other information that we don't have in that holistic sense of comparisons to other properties, compared to other prices that are right there."

According to Tice, bookings through third party sites that offer reviews help increase traffic to destinations like Whistler because prospective guests typically do a lot of online research before deciding on a resort, hotel and travel itinerary.

"We're definitely seeing a trend from guests either going to that site and booking or going to the site and perhaps booking through us and using that as a resource tool," she continued.

The tap-happy fingers of customers with Internet access and something to say heavily influence the tourism sector but companies aren't being left out of the game. The Fairmont Chateau Whistler monitors guest reviews and joins in the online discussion if it appears a client had an unsatisfactory experience. Tourism Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb do the same.

"We are playing in all the places we feel our guests are using and obviously keeping our eyes open for emerging networks as they come out of the woodwork," said Amber Turnau, media relations and social media strategist for Whistler Blackcomb (WB). "We're perhaps listening even more than we are broadcasting. It helps us gage the sentiments that people have about their experiences here. A lot of time we can get product feedback as well about the terrain parks or the bike park. When we're listening we're trying to see generally what people are saying and sometimes it's bad and we're open and transparent enough to acknowledge when it is that and communicate with people in the spaces that they're in."

Whistler Blackcomb is engaged in over 10 social media channels including Facebook, Twitter and emerging social network Foursquare, which they consider to be their top three pillar channels. They also have a LinkedIn profile and monitor and contribute to a variety of blogs and forums related to skiing, biking and snowboarding. For visual heavy avenues they both use and encourage guests to contribute content to more traditional sites such as Vimeo, YouTube and Flickr. In a sense, social media allows prospective guests to test the temperature of the community and find out what to do, where to go and where to eat - for better or for worse - and all before they arrive.

"While there is incorrect information out there, we can also reach those conversations and the channels in which they are happening and try to rectify the information," continued Turnau. "Social media is a real paradigm shift in the way society communicates now and as a brand you have to be willing to let go of control of the message because people are talking peer to peer, business to business, consumer to consumer - you just have to be willing to accept the fact that sometimes incorrect information does get out there and as a corporate company using social media, you can use that tool to spread the correct information."

Though print advertising is alive and well in Whistler, some enterprises are choosing to use social media outlets to promote their businesses as well. Edward Dangerfield, co-owner of Alta Bistro restaurant says he relies on Twitter for 95 per cent of his promotional material. Facebook makes up the remaining five per cent.

"It's free," he said.

"The good thing about it is that we target people who are actually interested in what we do, interested in tons of different ways. Interested from a food point of view, a wine, cocktails, environmental, sustainable, charity and so we loop all those things together and we engage in real dialogue."

Dangerfield admits he was a skeptic at the beginning, feeling sites like Twitter were dominated by isolated individuals who didn't experience half of what they discussed online.

"But I totally changed my opinion in about three days when I started seeing that people that are really into food and wine or connecting with other people and to me social media facilitates the interaction in a real sense, it's not a substitute for it," he said, adding that the feedback he receives online is always helpful. "Someone can go online and they can tweet about you negatively whether you're on Twitter or not so as I see it it's better to be on there and to know about it and be able to respond than to have no followers and no recourse."

Small business isn't the only one to take a cue from the success of online marketing tools. At Tourism Whistler, mainstream promotion strategies of the resort have been boosted, not replaced by the new alternatives. They've been active in the social space for three years, assessing strategy as dominant social media sites rose to the top. The new medium doesn't change what they're doing - their goal is still to promote Whistler far and wide, but now they have the ability to more easily tap into the memories of the customer experience.

"We've always known and our research has always shown that word of mouth has the biggest influence on customer purchase behaviour and I think social media has drastically changed the way people can do that, it's facilitated that," said Kirsten Homeniuk, senior manager of marketing services at Tourism Whistler. "There is no better way to showcase a destination or travel experiences than through pictures and videos so the ability to use YouTube and Flickr and have visitors share their experiences has been huge for us.

"We also integrate TripAdvisor reviews on so that's how people are sharing their travel experiences, good or bad, and we know that's a significant piece in people's travel planning toolbox."

Tourism Whistler has been wary of the fine line between corporate push and customer experience, choosing not to offer deals and sales through social channels designed for non-market interaction after a few experimental promotions.

"The research shows and experts are saying that it's a place to engage and have real conversation with your consumers it's not a place for the hard sell and our experience supports that," she said. "We've heard the impression that Whistler can be a little bit corporate or a bit faceless and I think that social media really has the ability to say 'hey, you're speaking to me, a real person and I'm speaking to you, a real person and we're having this conversation' and we're really trying to use this social space to do that."