By Joe Brancatelli
June 2, 2010 -- It probably shouldn't surprise you, but the travel industry's foray into social-media marketing has already turned antisocial.

After a year of givebacks, work-rules changes, pay freezes, lawsuits, and strikes, British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh and Unite union chief Derek Simpson sat down late last month in the London headquarters of the British government's mediation service. Despite a disruptive protest by Trotskyite demonstrators unaligned with either the airline or the union, a deal seemed close.

Then Willie Walsh was shocked—shocked!—to learn that Simpson was contemporaneously live-posting some rather innocuous comments about the progress of the negotiations to his Twitter account.

"I was shocked and angry," Walsh later told the BBC. "When I found out that he was actually sending his version of events to the wider audience, you know that really did undermine my confidence in their desire to resolve this issue."

The problem with Walsh's self-serving anger? He's the star attraction on BA's YouTube channel, and videos of Walsh spouting the company line are fixtures of the "Strike Update" pages on the British Airways website. Oh, and BA is at least as active as Unite on Twitter, where it maintains separate feeds for both the United States and United Kingdom markets.

The YouTube pot calling the Twitter kettle black notwithstanding, the social-media spat between Walsh and Simpson has had a very serious immediate effect: Negotiations faltered, the strikes mounted by the airline's flight attendants continue, and BA's almost obsessive attempt to save 62 million pounds annually is costing it at least as much in direct strike-related expenditures and upwards of 1.4 billion pounds of lost revenue.

There's also the long-term, think-deep-thoughts reality: How is the travel industry approaching social-media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube? Are they using it to foster legitimate and useful interaction between customers and suppliers, or is it quickly devolving into another marketing channel that bears a depressing similarity to the travel industry's cloying, heavy-handed, and usually ineffective advertising?

"I've 'unfollowed' almost all of the hotels and airlines I used to follow on Twitter," says Sue Brenley, a business traveler based in Atlanta. "I'm not sure what I expected, but they never tweet anything useful or anything interesting. It's always 'buy this, come to our bar and spend $20 on a fancy drink, or something silly.' "

If Brenley didn't know what to expect from the travel industry's nascent efforts at social-media outreach, most of the travel community doesn't fully understand what's expected of it. And least some of the problem is generational—if you believe the young guns trying to push their company into the brave new world of interactive, real-time communications.

"What do my bosses know about Facebook or Twitter?" one 20-something marketing executive at a hotel company recently told me. "They're Web 1.0 types. To them, this is stuff their teenagers play with. If they pay attention at all, they think it's a one-way marketing channel. They don't think beyond, 'How about a 20 percent off one-day sale.' "

At least one fortysomething senior airline executive I contacted—by the admittedly Web 1.0 method of email—admitted to the confusion. But he also raised a salient point: Big companies such as airlines and hotel chains need costly infrastructure to support a major push into social media, and they have squadrons of lawyers who want days to vet the potential impact and long-term implications of a 140-character tweet.

"I don't tweet, don't have a Facebook page," the executive says. "I admit I don't fully understand the dynamics. But what my [young] people don't get is that multibillion-dollar public corporations don't do guerilla. Rightly or wrongly, we want to control the message, and controlling the message takes money. Money we don't have in this environment."

I can personally attest to the sclerotic, almost paranoid nature of travel companies when it comes to almost any interactive medium. A number of years ago, several friends were involved in an airline startup, and they invited me to critique their efforts in the formative stage. I liked what I saw, at least as a potential customer, and was excited about the opportunity to talk to flyers in a new and different way. I urged them to post videos about their progress on YouTube, hit Facebook and MySpace (this was before Twitter), and create a blog where senior executives could post opinions and ideas and get instant feedback from flyers about product initiatives.

The videos never happened, of course. And when I asked why even the blog, now a toothless adjunct of the official website, was limp and colorless, the answer struck me as preordained: The lawyers were paranoid about aviation regulators and wouldn't allow anything interesting to be written or discussed. Even comments from customers had to be vetted before they could be posted.

Of course, social media is inevitable. Just as hotels have begun adjusting to the concept that every guest is a potential reviewer on sites such as TripAdvisor, the travel industry will adjust to Twitter and Facebook and whatever else comes down the digital pike. Some already have. JetBlue Airways has 1.59 million followers for its Twitter feed, which compares to the rather anemic attempts of the much-larger United Airlines (86,000) or Marriott Hotels (43,000).

Yet the question remains: What kind of "content" will the travel industry provide via the social-media outlets? Old-style advertising adapted to the digital age is probably best left to banner ads. Providing relevant, timely, and useful material—everything from flight delays to the daily specials at the hotel restaurant—while still controlling the message might be at odds with the essentially rebellious and personal nature of social media.

For now, though, perhaps baby steps are all we can hope for or expect. Last Sunday, for example, a few hours before I was due to check out of Hyatt's newest Andaz hotel on Wall Street in New York, my BlackBerry dinged. It was from the hotel, an email "invitation" to check out online. I clicked the link, looked over my folio, selected a radio button for my preferred checkout time, and hit enter. Moments later, an email receipt arrived.

That's the kind of social interaction with the travel industry I can stomach just now. And only the churls among you would suggest email checkout meant less social interaction because I bypassed a face-to-face transaction with a human being in the lobby.

The Fine Print…
It's not just the travel industry that has trouble creating compelling social-media content. The Muck Rack feed of travel-writer tweets is startling for its pedestrian, snooze-inducing material.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.