Please note that the following post is the concluding section of our two-part article.

Undeterred by the bad publicity social media travel sites have been getting in the trade press – or perhaps emboldened by it – Virgin Atlantic airlines, arguably one of the savviest marketers in any industry, announced this week that they’ve launched their own social media website, Vtravelled.com.  Virgin Atlantic, which also happens to be a big supporter of the travel affiliate channel, envisions that the social site will be an online gathering place where travelers can showcase destinations through their personal insights and images. The site will feature guides for hundreds of cities, beaches, ski resorts and national parks, and offers a “trip pods” tool for travelers to organize travel ideas and create itineraries, as well as Google maps and photo-uploading capabilities.

At its official unveiling in New York City on Tuesday, Virgin’s CEO Steve Ridgeway said, “This is about building a travel community… We knew we could fill a large gap in the market by creating a community which shared and discussed travel positively and creatively.”  Ridgeway then added “Vtravelled celebrates travel and creates a world in which we can be motivated to choose our next holiday destination through other people’s eyes. It also shows that Virgin Atlantic, with the help of a knowledgeable community, is determined to take social media and travel to a new dimension.”

How successful does Virgin Atlantic expect Vtravelled.com to be?  Well, the Company noted that the site was developed based on consumer recommendations, and that some 2 million users have already tested it.

If the problem with TripAdvisor is the Company’s inability to substantiate the veracity of its user generated content, then a new online hotel review site, Oyster.com, thinks they have come up with the ‘silver bullet’.  What’s different about Oyster.com’s value proposition?  Well, for starters, they promise that the hotel reviews on its site will be written by professional journalists who visit the properties anonymously, thus assuring an objective, authentic and independent review.

If this model reminds you of more traditional authoritative hotel rating and review guides like the Star Hotel Guide, Mobil Hotel Guide, Michelin, etc., which followed a structured property evaluation process, you’re partly right.  While they will adhere to a set of clear and consistent criteria in their evaluation process (e.g., service, design, dining, cleanliness, nearby nightlife, etc.), unlike the traditional guides, Oyster.com will not personally rate the properties – they will instead use the property ratings that come from hotel switch Pegasus.

Oyster.com has a staff of experienced travel journalists that have spent the last 15 months traveling to hotels around the world. The site launched with about 500 hundred reviews of hotels principally in New York City, Miami, Aruba, Jamaica and the US Virgin Islands.  The reviews will typically range from 1,250 to 2,500 words, and have 100 to 500 photos of a hotel, all of which were taken by the travel journalists.

Although the model is reliant on the professional journalists for the majority of its content, they will allow travelers to post their own reviews, but this will be more from a ‘feedback’ perspective, according to Elie Seidman, Oyster.com founder and CEO in an article in this week’s Travel Weekly.  ”We view it as user feedback, user comments on whether they agree with us,” said Seidman, adding “If not, tell us why we are wrong. We’re not expecting customers to do a lot of legwork, but they can say, ‘Hey, it was a great place for me and the kids, and by the way, you forgot to mention these three things.”

Another major difference between Oyster.com’s and the traditional guidebooks is its business model.  Oyster.com, which also officially launched on Tuesday, June 22nd, will rely on revenue from advertising and commissions from hotel bookings made through links to online travel agencies and hotel aggregators and bedbanks.

If you are interested in learning more about the functionality of this new hotel review site, TravelDividends highly recommends reading Elisabeth Osmeloski’s in-depth review of the Oyster.com site published in Search Engine Land.

Apparently, Oyster.com has caught the fancy of venture capitalist, with VCs Bain Capital Ventures and Accelerator Ventures providing $6.4 million in Series A funding.  Bain Capital Ventures has made some pretty good investments in the past (e.g., TravelClick, LinkedIn, Ameritrade, DoubleClick and Vonage), as has Accelerator Ventures (e.g., Zappos, PowerSet), so we will be following Oyster.com development as it will be interesting to see if it’s in the same class as these other players.

So, what are TravelDividends’ takeaways from these mostly conflicting news stories?

Our sense is that social networks will continue to play an important role in the travel space, but that within that social site context, while some measure of a ‘halo effect’ is generated from user generated recommendations, a company’s brand is the most compelling influencer in terms of driving consumer purchasing decision…Virgin Atlantic is a great example of that.

TravelDividends also suggest that, given the prominence that travel received in Knowledge Networks’ study, the Company (and its survey) would have been well served by including a couple of travel social media sites in its survey sample size.  Lacking established players like TripAdvisor or Travelocity’s IgoUgo, or newer players like Uptake raises reasonable questions as to the validity of some of the survey’s travel related findings.

TripAdvisor’s reluctance to add new travel affiliates to its ranks would leave one to think that their action has left the door wide open for other players to ‘fill the gap’ in the travel affiliate channel.  However, of the 20 or so travel social networks we’ve reviewed, only fodors.com offers a travel affiliate program, and that program is focused exclusively on selling Fodor guidebooks.  Other social sites like bootsnall.com, WAYN.com, dopplr.com, uptake.com, virtualtourist.com, tripconnect.com, tripwolf.com, travbuddy.com, etc, have thus far chosen not to work through the travel affiliates.

In TravelDividends opinion, these travel social networks could enhance their business prospects and gain significant strategic advantage in the marketplace by rethinking their distribution strategy and begin using the travel affiliate channel.  Further, we think it is incumbent on those travel affiliate marketers who see a similar opportunity and value in working with travel social networks (as well as the program managers at the various affiliate networks responsible for the travel vertical) to approach the aforementioned and other travel social networks and start a dialogue as to how they can profitably work together.  Absent a concerted travel affiliate industry effort to convince travel related social networks of the value the affiliate distribution channel can deliver to these players, we fear that the future role for travel affiliates in this growing and promising travel niche may be permanently obviated.

Likewise, we think that Oyster.com and other content aggregators and social networks would increase their chances of commercial success if they can figure-out a way to work with travel affiliates.  For Oyster.com specifically, given the economic headwinds and market hurdles facing many online travel players today (even those that have been around since the Travel 1.0 era), our sense is relying on self-generated ad and click-through bookings revenue coming through OTA and hotel aggregator/bedbank links won’t be enough to cut it.

What are your views on these bylines – do you agree with Knowledge Networks findings, or with the criticism leveled at TripAdvisor?  What has been your experience with social networks, travel related or otherwise?  How successful do you think Virgin Atlantic’s Vtravelled.com or Oyster.com will be?  Drop us a note…we’re always interested in hearing from our readers.

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