You’re in New York. You’re an art lover, and like pizza and sushi but are not so keen on steak. It’s raining, and you’re three blocks from MoMA. Your phone knows all this, although you’ve never had to input anything. An email arrives: an invitation to a guided walk around the gallery. A booking discount of 30% is offered, only to you. And the tour leaves in 15 minutes.
You glance at your watch: you’ll need lunch afterwards. Open your favourite travel app and it automatically highlights the best pizza or Japanese restaurants within 10 blocks and current lunchtime meal deals.
That was a personalised travel experience. Does it sound useful? Or creepy? If you think it sounds impossibly futuristic, think again. Some of this is happening now, and it won’t be long before this sort of predictive technology is a routine part of a holiday experience.
The force driving many innovations in personalised travel is something technologists call the ‘social graph’. Sounds geeky, but the concept predates the internet, and even the PC.
“The social graph is simply a way of mapping out how people are connected — their friendships and interests,” says Matt Rhodes, strategy director at London-based social media agency FreshNetworks. “It isn’t a new thing.”
To illustrate, imagine I know you. We both also know Sue, but only you know Stu. What I’ve just described is a simple social graph, one I could easily draw on a sheet of paper. If there’s something you or Sue know that I’d like to know, I simply ask you. It’s also easy for me to find out something Stu knows. I ask you to ask Stu for me. Finding stuff out is one of the ways in which we use our social graphs every day.
Now imagine the graph for all the real connections in your life, and then add all the connections of each of those people. Clearly, you can’t draw this on a piece of paper. But it is written in code, all over the interlinked social networks populating the web. Imagine if technologists could tap the power of that.
In fact, some already are. Most activity is centred on Facebook’s social graph, as that’s where most users are. But Twitter, LinkedIn, Google’s social layer, Google+, and many more networks all have their own social graphs.
As Matt Rhodes explains, the social graph is a good fit with the travel sector: “Travel is a social product. We experience it with others and it’s something that often reflects our interests.”
And as it’s experiential, it’s also something we readily share news about on open social networks. That’s a billion of us chattering about travel on Facebook. It’s 140 million tweeting our adventures on Twitter. Photo sharing app Instagram grew from nothing to 30 million users within 18 months, before being bought by Facebook for a reported $1 billion (£643m). Don’t forget LinkedIn (120 million users), Google+ (90 million or so), social check-in service Foursquare (more than 20 million), and others. Each has a vast and growing network of relationships, preferences and obsessions built around travel.
“The record of all that activity is essentially what forms the social graph in travel: our likes, dislikes, aspirations, and connections,” says Kevin May, editor and co-founder of Tnooz.com.
The data generated by social networking is increasingly being captured by the smartest travel firms. Kevin’s site has the pulse of what’s hot in travel technology, and he estimates “around a quarter of travel start-ups we’ve noted in the past two years have either utilised or been entirely based around the social graph”.
Putting the graph to work
Applications of the graph have been messing with the old order in many fields, notably the media. Ask yourself this: what was the lead item on last night’s news? Or on the front page of yesterday’s papers? Another: what was everyone talking about on your Facebook timeline or Twitter stream yesterday? If you can answer that, but not the first two questions, the social graph is already shaping your world view. News editors used to set the current affairs agenda. These days, for many of us, it’s our social graph that curates the news. Apps like Flipboard even build that personal agenda into a constantly updated ‘social magazine’.
One travel firm pushing at the frontiers is Flextrip, an online marketplace connecting tour operators with suppliers of in-destination tours and activities. Co-founder and chief operating officer Alex Kremer explains: “If you booked a flight to New York tomorrow, our partner would send us your itinerary, and from it we would create recommendations. If we get your email address in the itinerary, we can start personalising further by ‘crawling’ for what you talk about on Twitter or publicly on Facebook.”
How is that useful? “If you talk a lot about fishing and the outdoors on Twitter, our recommendations will be skewed that way. If you’ve ‘liked’ gospel music on Facebook, we might try and find some gospel tours in the area. The idea is to use whatever data we can find to make things more personal.”
“The aim is to speak to the customer about something that interests them,” agrees Dave O’Flanagan, CEO of Boxever, a Dublin-based data-mining start-up that helps airlines get to know their customers. “Using social data delivers value that’s in stark contrast to weekly email blasts from your average travel company.”
And this exercise in mass data gathering is about more than just making better marketing. It’s about designing better products and experiences too.
“Making good use of the social graph comes back to relevancy,” says Kevin May. He points to TripAdvisor as the benchmark for a big travel company doing useful things with social data.
Searching for relevance
Launched in 2010, Trip Friends is an optional feature that personalises TripAdvisor for those who visit the site while logged into Facebook. You see friends’ reviews displayed prominently on the homepage, and the most popular places visited by your social group. Start researching a destination and friends’ reviews appear at the top, followed — since April 2012 — by friends of friends. The purpose is to boost the relevance of TripAdvisor’s masses of recommendations.
Relevance is a recurring theme. Current king of a growing niche known as ‘social travel’, Gogobot, opened in November 2010. But the idea of social travel isn’t new. A service called Dopplr launched in 2007 and built a network of frequent flyers wanting to share travel plans and tips. It was bought by Nokia in 2009 and quietly slipped from view. What’s changed isn’t so much the concept, but the power of the data it’s now possible to mine. The chief source is Facebook’s billion or so users.
Gogobot has been adept at integrating with Facebook, but it also enables users to add friends from Twitter and Foursquare. It’s a sophisticated, travel-focused hub for your social connections also making it easy to find new friends who share your tastes and interests.
Travis Katz, Gogobot’s CEO, explains: “Imagine you want to go to Portugal next summer. A Google search yields 1.3 billion results. Seek out the top hotels in Portugal on Gogobot and instead of 1.3 billion results, you may get 10 suggestions. But unlike on Google, you know they’re coming from people like you.”
What if your friends don’t share your tastes, or you don’t trust their judgement? “Gogobot’s content instils a sense of trust due to people being logged into the network with their own identity. You know who shares your tastes, and whose recommendations you should ignore.”
Airlines aren’t being left behind either. KLM’s ‘Meet & Seat’ facility allows solo travellers to search their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles of fellow flyers and choose a seat next to someone with similar interests. Ultimately, social data can help you productively fill the dead time of a long-haul flight. In June, Estonian Air launched its ‘Let Me Think’ service. Before confirming a booking, flyers are given the option to hold the flight and lock the fare for 48 hours. You’re able to message friends and family on Facebook direct from the airline’s site, to discuss and coordinate your travel plans. It’s easy to see how either service might be useful in planning social train journeys, too.
Many start-ups are also moving into this area. Created in 2011, Tripl uses your social graph and travel plans to connect you with locals in a destination who share your interests. WeHostels, a social booking site for hostels, links with Facebook and lets you collaborate on reservations and make friends before check in.
Only the beginning
There’s more to come from the ‘personalised travel’ revolution. The Holy Grail lies in tying the scattered trail of your online information together with your location. Many smartphone apps automatically capture location, and you can advertise it by ‘checking in’ on services like Foursquare and Facebook Places.
Flextrip’s Alex Kremer says: “The real action is in leveraging big data technologies to find trends in people with similar buying habits. It’s in finding people who have the same tastes as you do, even if you’ve never talked with them. And then to make the whole thing work in real time: you open up your favourite mobile app and get instant recommendations based on your preferences, location, the weather, and special deals nearby. This is the near future.”
There are challenges, though. Prominent among them is the cost of roaming; in particular, accessing the internet on your mobile when abroad. And although new EU regulations capping data costs for intra-EU travel were introduced in July, there’s some way to go before global phone use is seamless.
Also, what if we prefer to keep our social networking sparse and private? If we share very little on open social networks, there’s no trail to follow and no data to interpret. If that sounds like you, beware. The social-travel train is departing, with or without you.
FreshNetworks’ Matt Rhodes says: “Those who share nothing publicly will not be able to benefit from any of these personalised benefits and approaches. They risk getting a different, maybe lower, quality of service.”
Perhaps, as Alex Kremer concludes, “openness will be the new norm.”
It won’t be too long before the secret to a good holiday could be to get online and get sharing. Right away.
The social graph in action
KLM ‘Meet & Seat’
When it launched:
How it works: Any passenger booked on a KLM intercontinental flight can connect their Facebook or LinkedIn profiles to the reservation and browse others who have done the same.
You can hunt for someone you know on the flight, or browse for flyers with similar interests or jobs, then arrange to meet for a coffee, sit next to each other, or share a cab from the airport. After a trial period, it was made available on long-haul flights from Amsterdam to about 70 destinations.
User base: According to KLM, 4,000 profiles were shared in the first four months of operation.
When it launched: November 2010, with the first six months in beta testing
How it works: Write reviews, share photos, ask questions, and plan trips — Gogobot gathers your travel social graph in one place. Gogobot’s partnership with Facebook gives the site a critical mass of users that other new social travel sites can’t match. Encouraging users to share experiences and reviews as they travel is part of Gogobot’s strategy: the iPhone app received an overhaul in July and an Android app is ‘in the works’.
User base: Around two million members in total and 810,000 active users per month. According to Gogobot, 93% of them signed in via Facebook.
TripAdvisor ‘Friend of a Friend’
When it launched: April 2012
How it works: Connect TripAdvisor to your Facebook account to receive a personalised version of the massive travel review site. Reviews from friends, and friends of friends, are given prominence as are the most popular places visited by your social group, and you can message connected reviewers with specific questions.
User base: TripAdvisor is the world’s biggest user-generated travel site with over 60 million reviews and opinions posted. According to TripAdvisor,
Facebook-connected users write one of every four new reviews on the site.
Estonian Air: www.estonian-air.ee
Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us, by Andrew Keen (Constable). RRP: £12.99. A well-argued, contrarian take on society in an age of ‘hypervisibility’.
How to Thrive in the Digital Age, by Tom Chatfield (Pan Macmillan). RRP: £7.99. Practical philosophical advice for living online.
Published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)