The specialist holidays division of Tui Travel is looking to ‘yammer’ home its advantage by pioneering the use of social media in business with its travel agent community in the UK.
The operator believes it has a potential audience of 3,000 ranging from shop floor sales assistants to bosses of the UK’s biggest travel agent consortia.
The move to tap into the potential power of Yammer came from the group’s successful integration of the private social network internally.
It has proved particularly popular in the ski sector – SHG owns Crystal – with overseas reps using it and was rolled out across the group with employees effectively using it as an intranet.
David Jarvis, online director for the Specialist Holidays Group who set up the Yammer network, said: “In ski we had a massive influx of people from overseas signing up.
“There’s probably a thousand people on it overseas versus a couple of hundred in the UK. Previous to that we would never have heard about all our customers overseas.
“It’s used to upload photos and to tell us about what our customers have been doing in-resort.”
SHG hopes Yammer will become so embedded in its agent partners’ businesses that it will take the place of communications via more traditional online methods like email.
Jarvis said: “We have our own internal network and all our staff have access to Yammer on their desktops, Blackberries and iPads.
“It’s become a critical part of our work. Yammer is constantly on everyone’s desktops throughout the day, it’s embedded in our normal day-to-day activity.
As well as encouraging feedback from agents, SHG will use Yammer to communicate deals to them and encourage a sense of community among its agents.
Jarvis added: “It lines up with our strategy of having better relations with our travel agents because they are such an important part of our business.
“There is an advantage to being able to communicate to such a wide audience in a simple way. There are a lot more travel agents that SHG staff, so having a forum for doing that is ideal.
“Often, communication with travel agents has to go through head offices so you lose some of that immediacy and some of that directness.”
Ian Dines, head of trade sales, said the advantage of using the closed network as opposed to more public alternatives like Facebook was that the content isn’t made publically available.
Agents can only sign up having been invited, meaning their identities are genuine and made known to everyone else in the network.
It is hoped the private nature of Yammer will mean members will feel more comfortable sharing things online with SHG and each other. Also, all data is owned by SHG and not the network provider.
“This is about our company and our agents,” Dines said. “We are not trying to create a network for all agents on the planet. We are trying to improve our business.
“We see this as improving how we engage with agents and getting good constructive feedback, it’s not all about doom and gloom. That’s the sort of culture it tries to create.
“When people post you know exactly who they are, it’s their real name they are posting under and their real photo.”
Although travel firms are constantly being told about the potential of social media as a sales or customer service tool use of the channel for business purposes is in its relative infancy.
Trade supplier On Holiday Group has signalled a move away from email to social media in September 2010 when it launched a new blog integrated with Twitter and Facebook.
And Facebook site Travel Gossip, set up last year by travel agent Sarah Mason-Parker, has 504 members and is developing into a pretty active network for fellow agent seeking advice.
Dines believes part of the reason for social media’s slow development as a business tool, apart from agent access to the web, was down to “social media experts” who struggle to define a purpose for it.
“I have been here for six years and I know when I started there was no internet access in stores, it was very protected.
“Productivity is really important but we believe this is a professional network it’s a chance to share information. As businesses we need to embrace social media in whatever form.
“This is a way of embracing a new form of communication – email is very much past it. Once we have more members and they start sharing that will be very powerful.
“Social media experts are struggling to find a useful application. There are very few cold, hard case studies about what you actually use it for.
“You can have a Twitter feed to tell people about your brand, that’s fine, but it doesn’t really have a purpose other than that. This is using social media beyond the brand marketing most use it for.”