TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Take three for Qantas

Qantas' foray into the online accommodation sector through Hooroo is a gutsy move but does the company have the social media skills to make it work?

Technology Spectator

Qantas may have plenty on its plate at the moment – including the threat of a looming price war in the domestic market and the influx of foreign airlines boosting capacity – but the flying kangaroo hasn't forgotten about social media and using it to diversify its interests.

Earlier this month the airline officially entered the domestic online accommodation bookings market through Hooroo, which combines booking services with the ability for members to share their experiences and conversations with each other.

Hooroo functions as a travel social media site, using stories and pictures from its members to inspire other's journeys and provide them with the facilities to book those holidays within the site’s ecosystem. It's also integrated Facebook and Twitter into its design to encourage users to not just share content within the site, but out in wider social networks as well.

This sharing is the backbone of Qantas' ambition to harness the "social-commerce" trend, which relies on getting customers to talk about, recommend and of course buy products, in this case hotel rooms. This is a gutsy move given that the airline has already been burnt twice on the social media front. One would hope that it has learnt a thing or two from the #QantasLuxury fiasco and the saga around its efforts to get a fake Qantas Twitter account banned.

One lesson apparent here is that Qantas isn't trying to tame Twitter anymore. Instead it is hoping that the combination of its existing accommodation booking engine with all the social media bells and whistles will deliver results.

Given Tourism Australia’s own social media ambitions, the group was keen to endorse Hooroo. Its research shows that around 20 per cent of Australians use social media to plan future trips around the country.

Yet there are a few hiccups in Hooroo’s strategy that potentially could see Qantas' bold endeavour come crashing back to earth.

Hooroo’s got competition

As many readers were quick to point out when Hooroo first launched, it’s not the first site to harness social media with travel bookings.

As one reader pointed out on marketing site Mumbrella:

"I’m pretty sure I already log onto TripAdvisor via Facebook and find/book great deals straight from there if the destination has been favourably reviewed…”

Yet the media coverage of the launch (including my own story on the topic) seemed to miss this point. Why?

Because Hooroo clearly states in its launch press release:

"Hooroo is the first travel site to integrate social discovery and sharing with the ability to directly book a huge range of accommodation Australia-wide.”

Turns out the key word in the above statement is "directly”. According to Hooroo executive director Simon Chamberlain, Hooroo users can directly book accommodation from within the site’s ecosystem. Whereas with rivals – like the aforementioned TripAdvisor website – users are funnelled onto third party sites to make a booking.

Whether this technicality is enough to make Hooroo stand out from its travel booking brethren is yet to be known. The odds are already against Hooroo, as it's a new competitor in what Queensland University of Technology’s senior lecturer in marketing, advertising and public relations Dr Edwina Luck says is a "saturated market”.

What does make Hooroo stand out?

According to Luck, Hooroo does have some points going for it.

She says that the way in which Hooroo has used celebrities and bloggers to endorse and recommend locations gives it a level of "authenticity” that is missing from other travel sites.

Luck adds that the way in which Hooroo also harnesses short videos is also promising, given that the site is bent towards social media.

Another clear point of difference is Hooroo’s decision to gear the site towards positive feedback.

When asking for feedback on a destination or hotel, Hooroo poses to users:

"We want to know why you loved it, why you might come back and why you'd recommend it to your friends,”

Chamberlain says that if a user's comments don’t meet the criteria of this question then Hooroo admin would review the response. He adds that if a user wants to "have a crack at a hotel” then they can use the TripAdvisor review service which is built into the system.

However, Luck contends that this system challenges the "authenticity” and "community” facets that the site needs to achieve success.

"They should let free speech rule, or its not a community,” Luck says.

She says that over time the community will set their own rules about feedback, and will more often than not side with what the brand wants.

That ‘data’ question

Any site that uses social media accounts as a form of login raises red flags around personal data usage – and Hooroo is no different.

When users attempt to login to Hooroo via Facebook it asks to gleam the following information:

– Your basic info
– Your email address
– Your profile info: description, activities, birthday, education history, home town, interests, likes, location, relationship status, relationship details, religious and political views, website and work history
– Your photos
– Your videos

By logging in via Twitter, users give Hooroo the rights to post tweets for them.

It's unsure what a travel website needs with all of this information or power.

When asked whether any of this data would be on-sold to third parties Chamberlain said:

"I can unequivocally confirm that we will not on-sell customer data to anyone. Our customers are 100 per cent in control of their information and can decide how much or how little they want to share.”

While there may not be any information sales taking place, Hooroo’s privacy policy reads:

"We may disclose your personal information to third parties, for example, to the hotels that provide the accommodation services we sell, our contractors to whom we contract out certain services, other travel and activity service providers, loyalty program providers, data processing companies (including inventory management service providers) for the purpose for which the information was collected or for related purposes, for example, to complete a transaction on your behalf or provide you with a service that you requested.”

To Hooroo’s credit, this information is all publicly available and clearly posted on its website.

While the majority of users will opt to use the Facebook and Twitter logins for ease of access, they can also choose to create their own login and avoid using Facebook on the site if they wish not to disclose this data.

Yet, despite all the precautions, it's still confounding as to why a travel website needs all of this information.

Third time lucky?

Despite Qantas’ obvious curse around social media, Hooroo is being quite ambitious with its usage targets.

Marketing manager Lija Wilson told The Australian Financial Review that the company is hoping for 100,000 user registrations in the first month.

With only one week since its launch, it’s way too early to call whether or not Hooroo will succeed. Luck sat on the fence when giving her assessment of the start-up.

"For Qantas, something like Hooroo is long overdue,” she says.

But she expressed concern over the research in which Qantas is basing this move on.

Luck questions whether it was worth Qantas spending $3 million to $5 million on Hooroo given that Tourism Australia's research that only 20 per cent of Australians use social media to make travel plans.

Time will tell whether this social media experiment will prove third time lucky for Qantas.

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