Bringing Virtual Benefits To Business Travel

Source: Virgin America

Source: Virgin America

Recently, I embarked an a now-uncommon routine (for me) of a business trip – flying round trip on Virgin America, one of my favorite airlines.  Since most of my business these days is conducted virtually, the logistics of checking in at the airport, waiting in the security line, boarding the plane, checking into the hotel, etc. – gave me plenty of time to reflect on the dynamics of business travel.  Here are some observations:

  1. By its nature, business travel means that you’re constantly in close proximity to other businesspeople – some of whom are in your industry – or, could benefit you as a business partner (or vice versa)
  2. Those who are less outgoing / personable may only meet 2% of the fellow businesspeople they travel with – and really get to know only 1% (or less!)
  3. On my return flight to SFO, I’d guess that 1 out of every 15 people was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.  If you were a start-up entrepreneur and on that flight, I’d guess that 1 out of every 25 on that plane was a Silicon Valley venture capitalist – or, someone who had funds to invest in your company

And while we’ve all heard stories about the sales deal or business partnership that was sourced by the “person next to me on the plane”, how many other business connections fall by the wayside because two or more individuals never connected?  Lots, I’m sure.  Technology helps flatten the world – but it can also be a further flattener to enable strangers in physical proximity to connect.

We do know that business travelers are quite active on social networks.  There are plenty of business travel blogs out there.  And, users of Facebook and Twitter are quite active while traveling.  They’re constantly chiming in from airports, conferences, hotels and restaurants.  They’ll also tell you whom they’re about to go in to meet with – and how it went.  So we know that busniesspeople are active on social networks during travel – but, how often are they engaging socially in person?

And there’s the irony – social media allows you to connect and socialize globally – but while you’re tweeting from your BlackBerry in the hotel lobby, might you be missing out on an introduction to a potential business partner who’s about to grab a cab to the same place you’re going?  Here’s where localized social media –  targeted at the local business traveler – could be a big win.

Some ideas:

  1. Virtual Flight Lounge, powered by Virgin America RED – when booking your Virgin America reservation online, Virgin asks you to opt in to their Linkedin connector – by opting in and supplying your Linkedin credentials, Virgin is able to capture key data from your Linkedin profile – and, obtain a list of your Linkedin connections.  Once on board, you pull up RED (Virgin’s in-flight entertainment system) and it displays Linkedin connections of your’s who are on the flight.  Additionally, it recommends business partners (with their seat numbers) based on a comparison of your profile against other profiles of passengers who also opted in.  If you’re interested, you can engage in RED’s seat-to-seat chat with your new-found friend.
  2. Marriott Virtual Lobby – when making your Marriott reservation online, you’re prompted to opt in to the hotel’s business networking feature.  You’re asked to provide information to populate a profile, such as what business you’re conducting, what business opportunities are you interested in, what are your food preferences, what are you in the market to purchase, etc.  Once you arrive at the hotel (and connect to the hotel’s paid wireless service, of course), you’re invited into a virtual lobby (similar to a virtual event), where you’re able to see all other guests who have opted in to the service.  You’re able to perform search, view guest profiles and participate in private and group chat (either via text or webcam).

In each scenario, the idea is that two or more potential business partners could discover one another (via their published profiles) – connect virutally and then arrange for the old-fashioned cocktail at the hotel bar or a steak dinner downtown.  That’s right, virtual begets physical.

Why would Virgin or Marriott do this?  The costs are fairly low (and fixed) – and can earn a high and recurring return – that being customer satisfaction and retention, which sure has a high ROI in this economic environment.  And what’s the value to the business traveler in opting in and using such a service?  Well, what’s the value of a new business partner or a new client?  I’m sure it’s much higher than the hard cost (zero) and worth the time and effort.

The concept here is similar to the popular “Who’s Close To Me” service provided by TripIt – but the difference is that here, you’re sourcing brand new business contacts, as opposed to discovering if your existing contacts are nearby.  So if I don’t bump into you in the security check at SFO, perhaps I’ll connect with you virtually and then grab a coffee with you in person.

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