Social Media, Travel, and Tourism: My Thoughts on the Belize Road Warriors Program

With Social Media Week well behind us, we’ve been spending a lot of time the past week exchanging thoughts and ideas from the various sessions we attended. On Friday, I went to a panel at the Tribeca Grand whose subject matter was a lifestyle vertical that I am very interested in exploring: Travel and Tourism. Travel has been a passion since exploring the American west for months on end with my family in our 30-foot Jayco RV as a kid and still ranks among the top culprits in the consumption of my discretionary income (I’d returned from Vancouver and Whistler the day before the panel). However, as passionate as I am about travel, I haven’t had many opportunities to work professionally in a social media capacity for clients and brands within this industry. What I learned at the panel was a great start.

Moderated by Julie Schwietert Collazo, Managing Editor of the travel webzine Matador Network and lead faculty of the travel writing course at new media university Matador U, the panel covered a social marketing activation for the Belize Tourism Board. While a press trip as a promotional tool for a destination is certainly nothing new and blogger outreach is a common staple in many social media programs, the Road Warrior program was designed to tackle the unique challenges and opportunities faced in tourism promotion for a small nation that has yet to be included in many bucket lists. The program seeded talented American travel writers (including Megan L. Wood, who also shared her experiences on the panel) in Belize for an extended period in order to create and share digital content inspired by their cultural experiences. Each writer had a ‘beat’ to cover, some of which included food, cultural diversity, architecture, photography, and family travel.

The program faced a number of logistical challenges from its outset last April. Internet access in Belize is scarce which caused the Road Warriors to rely heavily on pre-written blog posts as opposed to sharing real-time content. The consulting firm that had originally conceptualized the program had intended for the blog posts to be written by locals but quickly discovered that an infrastructure of digital influencers simply did not exist. Since the bloggers maintained editorial control, stakeholders in the Belize Tourism Board who sponsored their trip were at times confused and dissatisfied when the bloggers either neglected to cover certain attractions or wrote something that might be perceived as negative (like when the panelists were horrified to discover an uninvited guest in their Presidential suite: a live and very poisonous snake). Also, in contrast to market competitors such as Costa Rica, flights from the U.S. to Belize are limited in number and can be expensive. A quick search on Kayak.com shows an average flight cost of $700 round trip from NYC to Belize City.

One of the most interesting points made by Ms. Collazo was the criterion used in the selection of the Road Warriors. She stated that it was much more important for her to identify and select talented storytellers as opposed those deemed as more ‘social media savvy’. Many of the bloggers, for example, came from writing and journalism backgrounds but did not have active Twitter accounts. Interestingly, she also noted that many of the travel bloggers who could have brought a built-in online audience to the table are often more interested in receiving a free trip than in creating engaging content. For my own programs I’d normally never consider working with an influencer who didn’t have a strong social channel following, but I think that it made perfect sense in this particular scenario. Unlike many big brand activations, the client’s goal was not to spark a ‘quick hit’ of engagement and awareness around a particular topic, but to develop a rich and diverse library of evergreen content to serve Belize Tourism for the long-run. This also served the individual Road Warriors well, who like Megan L. Wood were able to establish themselves as experts in the field of Belize tourism and continue to reap the benefits professionally long after their participation in the program ended. The Road Warriors maintained ownership of their content and accommodated the client’s requests to repurpose their blogs and images following their commitment. All in all, I’d say that everyone got their money’s worth.

My only point of constructive criticism is that with the heavy emphasis on travel writing, the program was a bit blog-centric for my personal taste and may have missed opportunities to connect with consumers who are more comfortable exploring destinations and collecting information through other mediums. I can’t speak for everyone, and blogs are great, but quite honestly many consumers do not have the bandwidth to read extensive blog posts no matter how fascinating and beautifully written. I would like to have seen a greater emphasis on developing video and photo content which is easier to discover and digest than written blog posts. After all, Youtube is the #2 search engine in the world; at present, no blogs appear on the first page of Google search results for Belize Tourism.

The panel reported that the client was very pleased with the overall results, though in a program like this, Ms. Collazo admitted that the results were abstract and difficult to measure. Since social engagements were not a priority and blog posts don’t generally inspire large numbers of comments, I’d be interested in seeing how many views the blog posts received and if each was well-optimized for search engines and for social media sharing.

Overall I really liked the program concept, particularly with regard to the selection of the influencers as well as the strategy of developing a content library before embarking on other digital programs that would not have resonated as well without it. Belize Tourism could have pumped their budget into a digital ad buy or promotional videos, neither of which would have been as personal or impactful as the authentic memoirs of those embedded in the culture and experiencing it with fresh eyes. The program will no doubt cause other emerging travel destinations to sit up and take notice.

Photo by Allan Montaine for Lonely Planet

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  2. 02/28 2012

    Really thought it was the biggest waste of time and effort ever. Sillyness, if not worse. Only the biggest resorts got any kind of benefit, and since the road barriers didn’t write reviews on Trip Advisor, they surely lost in the long run.

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