While the management team at Eons.com, the "MySpace for the 50-plus crowd," was trying to figure out how to incorporate a travel component on the site, a group of members decided to take a trip together and organized all the details, right down to putting out a press release to attract more participants.
It was a demonstration of the power of social networking online, Jeff Taylor, founder and chief executive officer of Eons, told an audience at the TravelCom/Res-Expo conference.
Taylor, who also founded the Monster.com site for job-seekers, said Eons provides an environment in which Baby Boomers can express their hopes and dreams, which bear little kinship with the uneventful, stay-at-home retirement of previous generations.
The site is still in its infancy -- it was launched in August --but "40% of the people on the site want to travel," Taylor said. "More than 800 people want to go to Italy. Ninety-seven people have gone and shared their photos."
Creating an online space for these people also creates tremendous opportunities, Taylor said. This demographic group "purchases 80% of luxury travel. They are looking for the perfect trip, not the cheapest trip," Taylor said. They will hike all day, but they want good wine with dinner and a luxurious bed at night.
Taylor's presentation stirred the greatest buzz at the conference, which focused on social networking, user reviews and other user-generated content.
Many travel suppliers are still struggling with the concept. While some have embraced it -- Sheraton, for example, allows guests to post accounts of their hotel experiences -- others wonder whether it is wise to provide a forum for potential complainers on their own sites. They also are not sure how to make money with such a platform -- or whether it should, in fact, be monetized.
Either way, "user-generated content will happen," Philip Wolf, chief executive officer of PhoCusWright, said. "It's a matter of whether you want it to happen on your turf,"he said.
Activities such as writing peer reviews, creating online scrapbooks and blogging have become easier, he said, and consumers looking for "transparency and truth" are creating a new "C to C" model. That is forcing suppliers to create messages that are "consistent with the experience."
Wolf, who spoke at the Internet Travel Marketing Conference, presented by Hotel Sales and Marketing Association International in conjunction with the TravelCom event, advised suppliers to "empower consumers -- don't try to organize them."
Or, as Forrester Research vice president Henry Harteveldt said in his TravelCom keynote speech, "The customer is the driver, and he's not letting go of the steering wheel."
Travelers now have the "unfettered ability to immediately share their opinions with the world," he said, citing the Web site usairwayslostmycostume.com, which tells a lost-luggage tale, as an example. The phenomenon cannot be ignored, Harteveldt said: 41% of U.S. online leisure travelers use some form of social computing tool in their travel research efforts, and 30% of U.S. online hotel bookers who read a user-written review online change their hotel based on those comments.
And you don't want a photo of someone vainly attempting to make sense of your airport check-in kiosk turning up on Flickr, he said. But even bad reviews occasionally have their good side.
Christine Petersen, senior vice president of marketing for TripAdvisor, noted in a panel discussion that a few negative comments can lend an element of honesty and authenticity to positive user reviews.