Many travel providers, writers, and journalists are asking themselves “how will social media affect how consumers plan travel?” And I thought I’d offer a case study of my own experience with online word-of-mouth through Twitter.
I just returned from my babymoon, a last chance for my wife and me to get away from the (first two) kids and spend time with each other before our third kid comes in May. It was a great trip–thanks to Twitter!
How did Twitter play a role in Travel Planning?
First, I used Orbitz to research and book flights. Second, to research hotels, I used UpTake and my favorite Hawaii guidebook, Big Island Revealed, including the fabulous companion Website with aerials of all the hotels and resorts. Finally I booked the hotel/car package on Orbitz. (Note: I highly recommend this tour book!)
I then turned almost exclusively to Twitter to get travel planning advice. The results were amazing. Skeptics might say that I have a much larger, more travel-oriented network on Twitter than most people. But this case study might provide some insight into how word-of-mouth can spread via Twitter.
Mike Taylor, who manages the @fairmonthotels Twitter account, contacted me after I shared that I had booked at the Fairmont Orchid on the Kohala Coast of the Island of Hawaii. I asked him some follow up questions, and he connected me to Jaisy Jardine, PR Manager at the Fairmont Orchid who suggested an oceanfront couples massage and a great dive for local:
We have 5 massage cabanas that are right on the water, and if you are lucky, our resident honu (turtles) might stop by to say hello!
[If you are headed over to see Hawaii Volcanoes National Park] be sure to stop by Tex Drive In which makes the most amazing malasadas or Portuguese donuts for you to taste!
The couples massage was a bit more money than we wanted to spend (typical resort prices) but we did stop by Tex Drive In in Honoka’a on our drive to Hilo, and the malasadas were truly a memorable experience we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Jaisy also recommended some cultural hikes that were available at the hotel.
Twitter enabled individuals at Fairmont Hotels to personally get in front of the brand, and make a connection. Critics might argue that there is no way a brand can serve customers on such a personal basis at scale. But in these challenging economic times, brands need to find ways to create those memorable experiences that will create positive word of mouth and recommendations to friends that will convince people to risk their scarce vacation dollars on a meaningful experience.
We had a great time at the Fairmont Orchid and would go their again for another romantic getaway. If you go, be sure to sign up (at no cost) for the Fairmont President’s Club that provides member benefits including free internet, free local phone calls, and discounts on spa services.
I also got some excellent advice from Nathan Kam aka @nathankam, who works for McNeil Wilson Communications, the PR firm serving Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau. As another person who grew up on the Big Island, Nathan provided an excellent recommendation to go to the upcountry town of Waimea, about 25 minutes northeast of the Kohala Coast resort area where our hotel was. Waimea is a quiet ranching and farming town that is surrounded by rolling hills, green pastures, and herds of cattle. It also is home to Merriman’s, a pioneer of Hawaii Regional gourmet cuisine. This was by far one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve had in my life. I ate sauteed moi, which was traditionally prepared only for the Hawaiian kings, which was served whole over filet mignon fried rice. My wife ordered sushi-quality farm-raised Kona kampachi, steamed over mashed sweet-potatoes.
Nathan offered other advice, including:
- kayaking in Kealakekua Bay, which we ended up doing (see below)
- Experiencing authentic local food and local ambience at the restaurant in the Manago Hotel.
- Visiting Kona Town along the main Ali’i Drive (which I thought was afflicted by an epidemic of gift and souvenir shops)
- Going to the Hawaiian Vanilla Company for a lunch or afternoon tea, and a tour of the farm. This sounded very romantic but we ran out of time.
- Stop at Honoka’a and have malasadas at Tex Drive In (which we did).
I also connected with Sheila Beal aka @govisithawaii of GoVisitHawaii.com, who is passionate about Hawaii and had incredible and detailed advice about creating a great romantic experience. In fact she has a great Big Island vacation guide that links to many of her most useful posts on the Big Island. Here’s what she wrote:
- Brown’s Beach House Restaurant (at the Fairmont) has one of the most romantic dinner settings on the Big Island. It’s basically just a few steps to the beach and has a great sunset view and tiki torches. Ah, so romantic! To have the best view, book dinner for 5:30 when the restaurant opens and pace your dinner through sunset and the sky colors after sunset. I just checked their website and it says they have entertainment Tuesday – Saturday.
- Plan a sunset picnic on the beach. You can get picnic supplies at the Foodland located at the Shops at Mauna Lani which is less than a mile from where you’ll be staying at the Fairmont. Spencer and Hapuna State Beach Parks are nearby. Surprisingly, you’ll find the beaches to be rather quiet and almost empty at sunset. There’s a pathway that goes along the shoreline between the Fairmont and Mauna Lani. I love this little stretch and I think you might also scope out a nice sunset picnic spot there, too. (Elliott: the paved path runs out between the hotels, so wear sturdy sandals to walk all the way)
- Take a sunset sail where you’re also very likely to see humpback whales as well. It’s almost like getting two tours for the price of one, plus dinner. Here’s the cruise we took in March on a catamaran run by Ocean Sports company.
Elliott here. I’m sure I would have missed the sunset night after night without Sheila’s tip. It takes planning to make a 5:30 dinner reservation and show up on time. We ended up eating at the Ocean Bar right next to Brown’s Beach House which provides a less formal dining experience than Brown’s, but still has exceptional Hawaiian fusion cuisine at a lower cost. The service was friendly and gracious, and we watched the sunset across a sandy lagoon. As a bonus, we even saw whales breaching. Highly recommended as a less costly, reservation free, tablecloth free alternative to Brown’s or CanoeHouse at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel (see below). Thank you Sheila! Here’s what we saw:
The last night on the Island, we also ate at the CanoeHouse at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, which also provides outdoor seating where you can watch the sunset. The food was good but not great. The sushi looked a bit amateurish, with serrated edges and served on a bread plate instead of a wooden block. The service was less knowledgeable than Merriman’s and less enthusiastic than the Ocean Bar. And the location was slightly less amazing than Brown’s and the Ocean Bar. We should have listened to Sheila and just went back to Brown’s or even ate at the Ocean Bar one more night.
Some Specific Babymoon Tips from @govisithawaii
We got some great advice on what NOT to do on a babymoon from @govisithawaii. Sheila wrote two great posts about What to Do in One Day on the Kona Side, and What to Do in One Day on the Hilo Side. The Hilo post outlines a trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park but Sheila recommended that we not go.
Here’s what she said:
Since your wife is expecting, there are some things you should avoid:
- To be on the safe side, you may want to avoid Volcanoes National Park and the lava flow viewing point because of the volcanic fumes. See the photo of this sign.
- Avoid going to Mauna Kea for sightseeing and stargazing. The oxygen levels are lower there and dangerous for those who are pregnant.
Elliott here. Great tips @govisithawaii!
I also spoke to Pam Mandel aka @nerdseyeview at Nerd’s Eye View. She made a number of suggestions, but her best advice was where NOT to go: the Volcanoes.
According to Pam, if we go to see the Volcanoes “Leave early, it will take you all damn day. Also, the weather can be a good 20 degrees colder on the mountain and it might rain. It does NOT wreck the experience, but you want to be prepared.”
Elliott here. Its clear that one of the biggest mistakes a first-time visitor can make is underestimating the size of the Big Island, especially if they have visited one of the smaller islands before. Not only is the island the size of the State of Connecticut, but the roads are often just two-lane highways with limited passing opportunities because of the constant traffic flow. Don’t overestimate how fast you can go. Slow traffic, large distances, and poor time planning (on my part, of course) resulted in some…er…marital discord on this otherwise harmonious babymoon.
Pam made some other suggestions:
- Go to the North Kohala coast town of Hawi. Pam: “Half an hour north (give or take) from where you’re staying. Cute cafes, shopping, galleries”
- Go Outrigger Canoe Paddling.
- See a Petroglyph Reserve
- Snorkel cruise – Pam: “You want Kealakekua Bay. Terrific service, even for non-swimmers. And a must do on my list of Hawaii activities.” Pam recommended the Fair Wind II: which also has a smaller, more expensive boat called Hula Kai which we ended up going on.
- Pu’uhonua a Honaunau Park aka Place of Refuge Park-http://www.nps.gov/puho
Pam: “Another do not miss. Bring a lunch and some drinks. There’s a soda machine at the park, but not much else. Go early in the day if you can.” We didn’t have time to walk through the City of Refuge, but our snorkel cruise passed by it and we snorkeled a spot just south of the Place of Refuge.
- Holualoa, above Kona. Pam: “also, cute galleries, food, cafes, and Sam Rosen’s Ukulele Gallery”
We ended up going on the Hula Kai:
It was well worth the extra money. We paid $155/adult vs. $119/adult. The Fair Wind departed with a full complement of 80+ people. The Hula Kai set off with only 18+ people on a boat with 40-50 capacity. It felt like a private charter! And we took advantage of a Web booking special that gave us 50% off on an additional Whale watching cruise (which I would only recommend if you love whales and/or nature photography and am adequately geared up with a 100-400mm telephoto lens like many of our fellow passengers).
Our blogging partner, @MudslideMama of the Traveling Mamas, has a number of relevant posts relating to both family and romantic travels:
All in all, it was an exceptional experience.
As I said, I have a large number of people that I follow and that follow me in return on Twitter. And a significant group of these people are in the travel industry in one way, shape or form. But I hope it provides some example of how powerful word of mouth can be when passionate people use social media to make their voice heard. And when this happens, more people will attain the memorable experiences they are seeking when going on leisure travel, which can only be a great thing for the travel industry!
All photos by elliottng, Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0