Dear Travel Companies and Bloggers: It's Not About You

What's your occupancy rate? How many page views do you receive per month? What's the ROI? Yawn. How boring, right? Yet working in the travel industry for nearly four years now, these are the questions I hear on a daily basis. Travel has become a transaction. But when did we commodify travel so much?

It's no single person's fault. Travelers, writers, bloggers, travel companies - we're all to blame. As writers, we're typically writing for clicks, page views, and shares and for the travel companies themselves, it's staying involved up until the transaction is complete. Companies often dismiss things like social media and blogging, citing that it's hard to quantify and calculate what the return is. Really? Well how about a huge billboard on the side of the road or sponsorship of a major sports event? What's the ROI on that? Is the return so big that it doesn't matter? I imagine the former executives of might have something to say about this, since they are a good example from the dot-com bubble. ended up going out of business in the same year they bought ad space for a Super Bowl commercial.

"Travel is transformational." These were the opening words from Scott Durchslag, President of Expedia, on Monday to a room of bloggers at Expedia's headquarters in Seattle for Expedia Blogger Day. I was taken aback. It was only after he repeated this and talked about his own personal experiences and the depth and breadth of travel that I realized I was in fact hearing "transformational" and not "transactional". Scott went on to discuss how online travel agencies, including Expedia, had become too commodified. So what is their solution? To reinvent travel so that Expedia becomes the one-stop shop for travelers. And when I say one-stop shop, I mean it.

Expedia's future is significant for multiple reasons, but relevant to what I'm talking about today is their relationship to bloggers. Monday's Expedia Blogger Day demonstrated a door being opened between Expedia and bloggers and one that wasn't closed at the end of the day on Monday. I honestly wasn't sure what to expect Monday or what the angle from Expedia was, even after listening to Scott and other executives speak Monday afternoon during breakout sessions. It wasn't until afterward, when I talked one-on-one with executives, that I realized that this is part of a much bigger collaborative effort on Expedia's part. I was asked very poignant questions by several executives. What are the reasons a travel company would have a blog? What are the reasons a travel company wouldn't have a blog? What are we not doing that we should be doing?

I sat around a table Monday night after meetings with fellow bloggers and we discussed the day. The overwhelming consensus was encouragement and excitement because Expedia is taking steps in the right direction that are long overdue in the travel industry. It's in my opinion, the ideal relationship. You have the company that knows their product and how to sell it and you have the content producer who is on the ground and knows travel and is already talking publicly on blogs, forums, websites, and social media about their travel experiences and the products they are using.

So if it's not just about us, what is it about? It's about the traveler and inspiring people to what Scott Durchslag describes as transformative travel. The production of travel content is ultimately about storytelling. It's not lists of top hotels or best attractions in a city for a photo, but experiences that go much deeper than that. As Pico Iyer puts it when describing the travel writer: “His deeper purpose, what elevates his mission, and makes it more worthwhile, is to take his subject out of space, too, to explore those larger questions every place dramatizes and that apply to almost everyone.” It's the job of travel companies to find bloggers and writers who can best tell the stories they are trying to communicate to travelers and the job of travel writers to appropriately tell those stories.

For travel companies, this means not just finding the blogger who you know has the most page views or followers on Twitter. It means finding the person who can successfully tell your story, drawing readers in to be inspired to go. For writers and bloggers, it's finding the right companies that will PAY you to inspire travel. Not just companies with the greatest following or most money, but companies that are relevant to your interests and that of your readers. I'm not going to partner with a spa or a company that sells trail running shoes. I don't use those products. Instead, I've developed relationships with travel brands in which I either use their product already or feel comfortable recommending.

I've been fortunate with some of the relationships I've developed in the last year. One was with the Stayon Beverly, a luxury hostel in Los Angeles. I wrote a post about my visit to the Stayon Beverly and have helped the owner, Bo, connect with other bloggers. I rarely write hotel reviews here, typically because the coverage is much greater on other outlets that I write for. However, since I was writing on my blog, it was more whimsical and off-the-cuff than if I would've written it elsewhere. The post got picked up by National Geographic Traveler's Intelligent Travel blog and has become one of my most popular posts. I talked with Bo this week and he said that at least 10 different guests have mentioned my post in the last few months. He went on to say that he believes that visits by other journalists and bloggers have contributed to a busier December this year than last.

My most recent partnership is with Expedia. I've helped kick off a weekly Twitter chat on Thursday mornings at 10 a.m. PST, called #Expchat, which we'll be continuing through the end of the year and on into 2012. Last week's chat was the second installment, which came on the same day as Expedia launched a new iPad/Tablet hotels app. The chat had several million impressions and was mentioned by Tnooz.

If the largest online travel agency in the world is opening up the lines of communications to connect with travel bloggers, you can bet that many other travel companies will be following suit. Social media, blogging, mobile - it's not a fad. A Ypartnership study last year noted that 25% of travelers surveyed had used travel blogs to plan their trips. It's here to stay and bloggers have tapped into these outlets to broadcast their travel experiences to other travelers who are commenting, sharing, and asking questions. These are the travelers that companies need to reach and it's travel bloggers that can reach them.

Travel companies and bloggers: It's not about you. Travel companies: Take some risks and develop partnerships with writers, bloggers, photographers, and videographers who are storytellers and who can effectively engage and reach targeted travelers. You're taking risks in other areas of your business, so take some with blogging and social media. Travel bloggers: If you expect to make money, don't just settle for top 10 lists and travelogues of your journeys and don't just develop relationships with companies that promise exposure. There are companies out there that match your interests and want you, the storyteller, to tell their story. They'll even pay you.

At the conclusion of the first #Expchat a couple weeks ago, we gave a couple free Expedia vouchers away to one participant. The winner, Tammera, tweeted the following upon hearing that she won: “I am calling my parents right now to tell them ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’. Thank You.” It's reasons like that I travel and write. Those are the stories worth telling.